With exotic plants, spoils of war, looted cannons, little lagoons and the shrill squawks of tropical birds, it is conceivable that this sylvan botanical oasis planted seeds of imagination in the mind of the creator of “Peter Pan,” J M Barrie, who lived nearby.
Opened by the Sheriff in 1852, the Arboretum is Nottingham’s oldest public park. The planting and layout of its formal pathways and flowerbeds, designed by renowned botanist Samuel Curtis, are remarkable for having remained virtually unchanged for over a century and a half. As such, it is listed on England’s Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.
The Arboretum is so called owing to its 800 trees of 60 different species. The surprising centerpiece of the 17-acre green space is an ornate pagoda-like war memorial built to house a bell looted from a Cantonese temple. This geographical anomaly is made more mystifying by a pair of 19th-century Russian cannons that are arranged in a defensive ring around the pagoda with additional contemporary replicas.
The captured Russian weaponry was brought to the city park during the Crimean War of 1854-56. The bell arrived in Nottingham following the Second Opium War against the Qing Dynasty of China in 1857. The pagoda, aviaries, and a bandstand are among the nine listed historic buildings in the Arboretum.
JM Barrie may well have regularly traversed this urban refuge en route to work as a reporter for the Nottingham Daily Journal in the 1880s. In addition to the persistently popular local legend that Barrie based his fictional country of Neverland on the Arboretum, it is claimed that Peter himself was inspired by a poor boy the author encountered in nearby Clifton.
Rumor aside, there is no concrete proof that Barrie’s fictional heroes left London’s famous Kensington Gardens for a magical land inspired by Nottingham’s unassuming Arboretum. This lack of evidence does little to dent civic pride in this enchanting and historical park however, which remains a testament to the landscaping and botanical skill of its Victorian creators.