Celebrating 125 years of city landmark

GOOD OLD DAYS Canoe Lake in the early 1900s.
GOOD OLD DAYS Canoe Lake in the early 1900s.
Portsmouth & Southsea railway station by Andy Cooper

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It’s been a landmark on Southsea seafront for as long as anyone can remember.

Generations of families have taken their children and grandchildren to play and fish at Canoe Lake.

And to this day, it’s as popular as ever.

Yet many people probably don’t realise that earlier this year, it celebrated its 125th birthday.

By rights, there should be a telegram tucked away somewhere, or at least a handful of candles to blow out.

But while the lake may not have had a birthday party, there are at least plans in place to make sure this milestone won’t go by unnoticed.

Portsmouth City Council is planning to submit a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund in a bid to win money that could be spent on Canoe Lake in the future. Using funds from the Parks For People programme, the council would be able to make a number of improvements to this popular attraction.

Seamus Meyer, the council’s parks and recreation manager, says: ‘Up to £1m could be available from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

‘If successful, we would look to make improvements to the Canoe Lake site which could include a new entrance to the Rose Gardens, landscaping areas to provide a better link between the natural history museum, Cumberland House, to the Canoe Lake site and renewing the side wall of the lake, amongst other ideas.

‘Canoe Lake is a popular location for both residents and visitors and the money would be an opportunity to make improvements for future years.’

The deadline for submissions is next February and if successful, work would start by 2014.

City councillor Lee Hunt, who is in charge of culture, leisure and sport, visits Canoe Lake regularly and says it’s as popular as ever.

‘People young and old love it,’ he adds. ‘They really adore it, especially with the swan pedaloes and the open space. It’s a wonderful place.

‘I moved to the area about 25 years ago and use it for fitness. I jog around it regularly and it’s got a lot cleaner over the years.’

Although it’s known as Canoe Lake today, that wasn’t always the case. The boating lake was built on Minnow Pond and an area of marshland in 1886.

Southsea had grown into a suburb by the mid 1800s after the majority of the marshland had been drained at the start of the century.

But it was decided to keep a small part of the land as a pond and turn it into an area for people to visit.

Due to the large amount of unemployment in the mid-19th century, the construction work gave men the chance to earn two shillings a day if they helped build it.

Opened by the mayor on June 17, 1886, Canoe Lake cost £3,000 to construct and it was filled with 1.5m gallons of water.

But as John Sadden, an historian and archivist at Portsmouth Grammar School explains, not everyone was pleased.

‘The local Victorians in fashionable Southsea weren’t very happy because it replaced Minnow Pond, which was fresh water, so it would freeze over and they could skate on it,’ he says.

‘When Canoe Lake was built it was filled with sea water, so it was a lot more difficult to freeze and they wouldn’t be able to skate.’

Like many, John has fond memories of visiting the lake when he was younger.

He explains: ‘I used to go crabbing with fish heads a lot and the boyhood rite of passage was to jump in it, which I did. It’s a lovely area. I hope it has another 125 years to go.’

After being used for model boats, canoes, and as a promenade for decades, Canoe Lake took a different turn during the Second World War.

After the city was bombed during the blitz in 1941, tourist attractions suffered. But there was one particularly famous group who were only too happy to use the area – the Cockleshell Heroes.

Originally called the Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment (RMCPD) the 34 men were based at Lumps Fort, which is now the Rose Gardens.

Ten men in two-men canoes held a raid at the Nazi occupied French port of Bordeaux in 1942, damaging six ships.

Thanks to their bravery in the mission, Winston Churchill said they shortened the war effort by six months.

Over the last 70 years, Canoe Lake has been expanded with the addition of a cafe, the Rose Gardens and Southsea Model Village.

Canoe Lake itself may be maintained by the council but the cafe is run independently and its owners also control the swan boats.

Natalie Edwards, 34, is manager of the cafe. She says: ‘You get a really good variety of people who come down here, especially families.

‘I remember falling in the lake twice and going crabbing a lot when I was younger.

‘My aunt and uncle even used to run the cafe 25 years ago.

‘I had my seventh, eighth and ninth birthday party here. It’s just such a great place.’

With such a colourful past and hopeful prospects, it seems Canoe Lake is celebrating a big birthday with big plans for the future.