I have loved Hotham Park in Bognor Regis for as long as I can remember. As little girls, my sister and I played here, running through the park, riding on the little train and visiting the long since gone zoo. I also remember fondly two green chairs, one with Mickey Mouse sitting in it and one empty chair — a much-loved photo opportunity. Sadly, the chairs also vanished long ago but a fitting replacement has recently arrived.
But before I tell you more, let me take you further back in time to the late 18th century when a wealthy London hatter, Sir Richard Hotham, dreamed of transforming a little Sussex village into an elegant seaside resort to rival nearby Brighton. At that time it was the height of fashion to holiday by the coast where the sea air was so beneficial to one’s health and bathing in seawater was said to cure no end of ills.
above: Hotham House, originally The Lodge
In 1787, Sir Hotham started building his new resort. He built a hotel on the site where the Royal Norfolk Hotel now stands as well as a number of other houses, including one for himself. His home, The Lodge, was surrounded by a landscaped park just minutes from the sea. Sadly, Sir Hotham only lived here for seven years before passing away in 1799. While the rich did not flock to Bognor as Sir Hotham had hoped, a trickle of wealthy genteel folk did visit, as well as some Royals. Queen Victoria spent a number of summer holidays here in the 1820s. But by 1831 the population of Bognor was still only 1,900. It was not until 1864 when the railway reached Bognor that its development really took off.
And if you are wondering why the town is called Bognor Regis, in 1929 the suffix Regis was added to Bognor’s name by King George V, who had spent thirteen weeks convalescing in the town after a lung operation and was said to have made make a remarkable recovery while staying here. He is also reputedly to have exclaimed ‘Bugger Bognor’ on his deathbed, but a more accurate story seems to be that this was actually his initial reaction to the request to add the Regis suffix to the town’s name.
Today, Bognor Regis is home to over 60,000 people and while royalty may no longer visit, Sir Hotham’s early impact on the town is still evident. His home is now known as Hotham House, in the grounds of Hotham Park, a much loved public park with a boating pool, rose garden, duck pond, lawns and a bandstand as well as a very good restaurant, the Hotham Park Cafe. The little train that I remember from my childhood still runs regularly around the park (and I still ride on it occasionally).
Mickey Mouse may only remain as a vague memory in my mind but I was delighted to hear of a new fictional character appearing in the park, namely the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. A particularly apt choice considering the park and indeed Bognor’s heritage.
The wooden sculpture, by South Downs chainsaw carver Simon Groves, was commissioned by the Park Heritage Trust. The theme of Alice in Wonderland was chosen by local school children. And the result, a large picnic table with playing cards tumbling along the centre surrounded by mushroom-shaped stools with the mad hatter himself seated at the head of the table.
The phrase ‘Mad as a hatter’ may well have arisen from the shaking and mood swings that some hatters displayed, having been poisoned by the mercury used while making hats. Not that many of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland residents could be described as entirely sane.
The funds for the sculpture were raised from the annual Hotham Park Heritage Trust Country Fair which is held each August. It is hoped that further sculptures from the novel will appear in the park over the coming years but they are reliant on the continued success of the fair.
The country fair will be held on Saturday 5th and Sunday 6th August this year from 11am to 5pm and it’s free to attend, so it’s well worth a visit.
above: The Mad Hatter Copse by Neil Cooper
The Mad Hatter carving is proving a very welcome addition to the park, with the table in regular use as a picnic bench. You can find it in the ‘Mad Hatter’s Copse’ to the east of the Mary Macfie pavilion.
below: Another Hotham Park resident looks on.