Meadow provides green oasis amid Norwich stores, homes
Norwich - Tucked between the drab asphalt and boxy commercial architecture of Town Street and the historic houses of Norwichtown, Lowthorpe Meadow is an enclave where the human domain retreats into the background, to the smaller, quieter world of tiger swallowtail butterflies and goldfinches flitting through the purple blooms of Joe Pye weed.
"It was surprising to me to see such such a large, undeveloped chunk of property right in the middle of town, across from Stop & Shop," said Glenn Dreyer, director of Goodwin-Niering Center for Conservation Biology/Environmental Studies at Connecticut College in New London and also of the college's arboretum. "It's a cool, hidden place."
He discovered the 18-acre meadow about a year and a half ago with a Conn colleague, biology professor Robert Askins, at the invitation of the neighborhood group that cares for the property. The 15-member Lowthorpe Association had been seeking their advice on how to best care for and maintain the property, a mix of increasingly rare wet meadow habitat and dry grasslands, interspersed with a few maples and willow trees. It supports bird, plant, insect and animal species that, state officials contend, have too few places to live these days to keep populations stable.
Dreyer and Chad Jones, assistant professor of botany at Conn, are scheduled to lead fellow members of the Connecticut Botanical Society into the meadow today to catalog its plant life and collect samples.
"We'll put a list together and give it to the association so they have documentation of the plant diversity of the site," Dreyer said this week.
Dreyer said he greatly admires the foresight and generosity of the two sisters who donated the land as public open space in 1907, making it one of the earliest conservation properties in the state. Connecticut's first state forest, Meshomasic in Portland, East Hampton and Glastonbury, was established in 1903, and the first state park, Sherwood Island in Westport, opened in 1914.
Ann Lathrop, a Lowthorpe Association member and former officer, noted that the bequest came during a period when wealthy families were establishing Norwich's most treasured institutions - Mohegan Park, Norwich Free Academy, the Slater Memorial Museum, Otis Library and the William W. Backus Hospital - out of the same impulse to enhance the public good. Across the country, the City Beautiful movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s had sparked the creation of many parks in urban mill communities like Norwich.
"It was a counter to industrialization, nature as a remedy to people beset by industry," said Lathrop, who lives across the street from the meadows. "It was part of the Victorian mentality, to be benefactors to their community."
Today, Lathrop said, mowing the paths, picking up trash and uprooting any invasive plants is a labor of love for her and other volunteers. They also have the meadow cut twice a year - necessary for maintaining it as meadow and not letting it turn into forest - and brush cleared from a hillside so children can use it for sledding in the winter.
"People are always out here walking in the meadows," she said, stopping during a morning stroll to point out the dozen or so bluebird boxes, built by schoolchildren, on poles planted throughout the property, and the golden tansy flowers and milkweed that grow wild along the paths. "It's just part of the neighborhood."
She had entered through a stone archway off Washington Street, where a plaque describes the meadow's history first as a foreboding swamp for Colonial settlers. Over the years, human taming of Bobbin Mill Brook and other waterways that flowed through the property transformed it into a beloved semi-natural public park, hosting picnics, Boy Scout campouts and today, dozens of daily walkers.
The name Lowthorpe is a reference to the town in England that the former owners, the Lathrop family, believed was the family's ancestral home. Ann Lathrop, wife of former Mayor Arthur Lathrop, said her husband's family is one of the many descendants of that family. The donors, Emily Serena Gilman and Louisa Gilman Lane, were also descendants.
Farther along in her walk, she stopped at a stone bench placed there by the owners before it was donated as "free open space for the public good." Carved into the back of the bench at a time when the meadow was used to grow hay and graze cows is this verse: "They ne'er grow old who gather gold where spring awakes and flowers unfold."