What Makes British Parks So Different?
British parks aren’t like ones in most other countries. They’re for reflection and thinking, not action and recreation. It’s a measure of Holland Park’s affluence that while other neighbourhood parks have bandstands, Holland Park has an opera company. The neighbourhood’s elegant centrepiece has landscaped gardens with statues and peacocks, an orangery and an ice house.
In this sense they’re cerebral, like the parks in Japan, part of the art of tranquility. In 1968, despite London swinging, its top recreation was still gardening. This changed when many subdivided their houses and lost the sole use of their gardens, but London’s parks remain the city’s hidden glory. I say ‘hidden’ because we take them so for granted that we barely see them. London has more parks than any other city in the world, but you’d never know it to visit many because they’re often deserted.
There are over 250 officially designated parks alone, many hundreds of years old. These are counted as major green spaces, after which you have woodlands, forests, secret gardens, squares, informal community parks, tended meadows, play areas, crescents, allotments, polygons, circuses, heaths and commons, each with a different character. Which is why they form the background for the next Bryant & May novel, ‘Wild Chamber’…
In an exclusive London park a woman walks her dog – but she’s being watched. When she’s found dead the Peculiar Crimes Unit is called in to investigate. Why? Because the method of death is odd, the gardens are locked, the killer had no way in or out and the dog has disappeared.
I researched this last summer, walking around a great many London parks and learning their history. London is too big and messy to walk right across so we form routines, taking short cuts and staying in our neighbourhoods, which means that while we’re busy complaining about how crowded and dirty and rainy it is, we miss out on a lot of the city’s hidden parkland beauty. My favourite park is and has always been Regent’s Park, with its zoo, its theatre, its rose garden, lake and Inner Circle. Despite being in the centre of the city it’s also slightly awkward to reach, which keeps its numbers to a civilised total.
On Sunday morning, despite the park being moderately busy it felt like being in the countryside with hardly anyone about (above). London parks are rarely overlooked. I was shocked when I first visited Central Park in my twenties. Here was a lovely park entirely overlooked by buildings, a park that never let you forget that it was situated in a tall city. But Regent’s Park doesn’t do that, and when you do see buildings they belong to the low, magnificent Nash terraces.
After two months of virtually non-stop rain the parks are also incredibly fecund and richly green. So why don’t we use them more? Recently I walked across the Green Park (the definite article is meant to be there) and found it virtually deserted. It’s because in many cases the city was formed around the parks, not vice versa, so they don’t operate as connecting routes – you have to go out of your way to walk there and often end up where you don’t want to be.
The opposite kind of space – say, Soho Square, which I and thousands of others used to cross every morning to get to work, means that particular space is one of the most heavily trafficked in London. It’s a trick developers understand. A new park (below) which recently appeared near me is not a connection to different locations but a space you have to seek out, which makes it feel set aside for relaxing in rather than hurrying through. This year’s trend is a welcome one – hillocks and mounds to form hollows and dips – many parks and green spaces were only flattened after WWII, when they were filled with the rubble from bombed buildings.
Given the endless conversations about ‘Overcrowded Britain’ it always amazes me that the Green Belt, the ring of protected land that cross the country, still survives. Actually you could quite reasonably argue that the UK still has too much green space, and while no-one would want to see it filled with cities, some balanced, managed development could solve a lot of overcrowding problems. This is a topic of great controversy, though, and broached at perils so please don’t troll me about it!
There a charming site about parks here.