A Tale Of Two Parks

Film, Observatory


Parks are places where, in theory, you can go to think and be calm. Some, like London’s Victoria Park, were designed to provide a barrier from the ill-humours of the poor and sick, to protect the rich and well. Others were planned as ‘lungs’ for a polluted city.

The park in Harrogate is one of the most spectacular I know, running smack through the centre of town and virtually forcing you to walk in greenery instead of sticking to the pavements and window-shopping. But parks mean different things in different countries. Griffiths Park in Los Angeles carries a class issue, as many Mexican families go there. One (Anglo) Los Angelino told me, ‘I never see blacks unless I go to a park or Disneyland.’ Paris lacks parkland but the Tuileries offer a formal respite from the city, while Vienna is the place to head for spectacular city parks.

But this is a story of just two city parks.

Regent’s Park is my local London park. In some ways it’s atypical of the UK’s parkland. It has an outer road called the Outer Circle and a smaller road called the Inner Circle, surrounding the most manicured section of the park, Queen Mary’s Gardens. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry VIII appropriated the land, and it has mostly been Crown property since then. It was set aside as a hunting park, known as Marylebone Park, until 1649. It was then let out in smallholdings for hay and dairy produce, but it has always been a royal park.

On 15 January 1867, 40 people died when the ice on the lake collapsed and over 200 people fell in. It’s not so deep now (just 4 feet). In 1982, the IRA blew up the bandstand, killing seven soldiers. But it’s not generally a park for protest.

It has a beautiful rose garden, gold gates, a theatre (with an awful programme that usually includes A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Sound of Music), a nice fountain and the London Zoo, but it really operates on Victorian principles; this is a place where you go to reflect and promenade, and sit on a bench.

Like a lot of English parks, the atmosphere is also slightly stifling and overly precious. It’s not a place for playing ball games or walking dogs, or doing anything boisterous. It feels policed, though not as noticeably as it used to be. As there’s a mosque nearby, it’s heavily used by Muslims, and there is a very genteel atmosphere.

There’s a double standard at work in many UK parks, which sneak in private event tents and fee-charging activities without public consultation. One reason for this is that London lacks open event spaces (large areas of brick or concrete with a multi-use facility).

By contrast, the Parc de la Ciutadella is my local park in Barcelona. After its establishment during the mid-19th century, it was for decades the only green area in the city, and is still the most popular. It has an immense fountain, a boating lake, a bandstand and a hivernacle, but unlike its London equivalent it has unusual path layouts, one half being made up of natural-seeming trails, the other half formal and elegant.

The big difference, though, is that this is a recreational park, and by that I mean dogs, kids, ball games, tightrope-walking between trees, yoga classes, tango and tap dancing, opera singers, dancers, bongo drums, the lot. Today I saw a cello quartet practicing in a wooded section. The mere fact that someone would carry a cello to a park says something about its perception. Half a dozen teenagers were also practising Mozart arias, and some dudes nearby were jamming along on bongos.

Parents routinely stage their children’s birthday parties here, tying balloons in the trees and setting up picnics, and tend to visit until midnight. The cops let homeless people sleep in one area, so long as they go by 9:00am. It’s utterly safe at night, and sometimes on hot days it looks a bit knackered. But it’s not as if everything fails to grow back – my personal belief is that one should use the parks fully and stop fretting about patches in the emerald-green grass.

This weekend sees the park’s biggest event – La Merce, the  fire festival that heralds the arrival of autumn, and there are sherry tents, dragons, parades, and dancers in the lake, which they set alight. Everyone fires rockets. The cleaners swing in the next morning and clear it all up. This happens for four nights. But this is also a culture not unduly bothered by noise. You don’t get the same level of complaints that you get in hushed English suburbs.

Clearly, parks culturally reflect their countries of origin, and it’s true that for most of the year you wouldn’t want to spend too long in a London park as it’s cold and wet. But Regent’s Park can be stunningly beautiful – witness the end of ‘Withnail & I’, while the Parc de la Ciutadella is more about celebration, community and exhilaration. Personally, as someone who does not enjoy the sensation of feeling alone, I prefer the latter.


4 comments on “A Tale Of Two Parks”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    A very nice piece.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Ah, a hivernacle – we all have one of those, right? Well, my Spanish is pretty bad, but it is some sort of structure, sometimes permanent, which can be adjusted to support a desired micro climate and is usually placed in a garden. Anyone tell me better, please do.

  3. Janet Wilson says:

    Far’s I can tell, it’s Spanish for greenhouse or glasshouse, and would cover anything from a polytunnel to the original Crystal Palace.

  4. C. Rancio says:

    One of the best things at la Ciutadella was the old zoology museum, now closed. It was something lovecratian, like a exhibition hall in Miskatonic University. The building is a weird and wonderful brick castle.

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