Every morning since Lockdown 1 I have walked the same morning route: from Olympia, through the back streets of Kensington High Street, into Kensington Gardens, around the pond, and back again. Every now and again, to throw off any hypothetical hitmen, I reverse the route (I'm gambling that my would-be assassins are not TAT subscribers, but perhaps they have a more enlightened ‘job vs interests’ Venn diagram than I imagine)
This drill is being played across London as COVID has once again forced the population back into well-worn routines, the majority of which involve hours of trapesing around the closest local park. In better years (remember those?) these parks were often an inconvenient Uber roadblock between you and your social destination, however, COVID restrictions have meant that these parks have become the social destination. They have become an all-encompassing outlet to fulfil the variety of our individual needs: exercise, fresh air, nature (or London’s take on nature), space for children, a place to meet friends (or specifically one friend), a place to people-watch, a place to drink coffee, a place that is fresh and extraordinary by virtue of not being your flat or house…
For the majority of us, the opportunities offered by our local parks have been taken for granted in times where London’s full social offering has been available, or simply not as relevant when 5 days a week were spent working not locally. However the opportunities themselves have been a constant since designated parkland began being marked out in London from the 17th Century onwards, and since this time our parks have provided a dizzying and vital role in city-life, often morphing in line with what the city demands of them.
London is a very green city when compared to many global counterparts - indeed 33% of the capital is supposedly dedicated to parks and gardens, compared, for example, to Paris which offers a diminutive 9.5%. London’s public parkland includes the Royal Parks (owned by the monarchy and made accessible to the public eg Hyde Park, Regent’s Park and Richmond Park), Public Parks (purpose created for the public that is typically gated and enclosed eg Victoria Park, Battersea Park and Finsbury Park), Heaths and Commons (typically unenclosed and relatively wild eg Hampstead Heath, Wimbledon Common and Clapham Common), and ex-grounds of stately homes (Holland Park and Chiswick House).
In an interesting circularity with our current COVID situation, many of these parks were specifically opened/established in order to provide a growing and industrialising London with green space in which to promote healthy living in response to rising pollution and outbreaks of infectious disease. Victoria Park, the first park purpose-created for the public, was done so in part due to an official report of 1839 that argued that “a Park in the East End of London would probably diminish the annual deaths by several thousand.... and add several years to the lives of the entire population”. Victorian London was troubled by a number of infectious outbreaks including typhoid, cholera and tuberculosis, and parks were a way in which to break up geographical areas of infection and provide clean air to an unaccustomed public.
As well as this purely functional role, however, London’s parks from the beginning played a central part in the social aspects of the city. Prior to the creation of the purpose-established public parks such as Victoria park, it was the now-defunct Tea Gardens and Pleasure Gardens that were central to the London social scene. With a particular hey-day of the mid-18th to mid-19th century these were private enterprises that offered a range of attractions; tea gardens were generally a more genteel affair of tea and refreshments, whereas Pleasure Gardens often involved an array of entertainment that could include music, dancing, skittles and rides (and after dark some less PG activities). Unlike the taverns and coffee shops of the time that were predominantly the refuse of men, these gardens were equally aimed at both sexes, and were a melting pot of all classes. Not surprisingly they had a huge social impact on London, particularly the Vauxhall and Ranleigh Pleasure Gardens, popping up frequently in the literature of the time (for the more ‘TV literate’ like myself, a recent representation of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens can be seen in Episode 1 of the 2018 ‘Vanity Fair’ TV adaptation).
Hyde Park was the most socially important of the Royal Parks during this Regency period, located in the burgeoning and wealthy West end of the capital, and often referred to simply as ‘the Park’. It was the place to be seen, most importantly on Sundays in spring and summer where the wealthy, fashionable and noble would parade down the East side of the park in their sartorial finest. As with the Pleasure Gardens, however, even these Royal Parks were different things to different people: if you turned up a few hours later you would not have to search long for an illicit encounter with an ‘adventuress’, or a few hours earlier and you may come across gentlemen fighting duels at dawn. Almost unbelievably there were two duels around this time that involved acting Prime Ministers: William Pitt in 1798 (on Putney Common) and the Duke of Wellington in 1829 (at Battersea Fields). It seems a brave man that would challenge the Iron Duke (or ‘big nose’ Wellington to Blackadder fans) to a duel, but in any case, the Earl of Winchilsea managed to survive the ordeal.
It is this idea of London parks being a blank canvas that persists throughout their history. They are to London as the ‘room of requirement’ is to Hogwarts; they are an adaptable space to become whatever the population needs them to be, and in many ways, they can be seen as a microcosm of what London is experiencing at any given time. If you were to choose a single spot in which to periodically re-appear in historical London (admittedly quite a specific hypothetical situation), you could do worse than to choose the centre of Hyde Park. From here you should be able to catch a glimpse of a stream of signifying events including the Great Exhibition of 1851, Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1877, soldiers digging practice trenches during World War I and air raid shelters in World War 2, Pink Floyd performing in 1968, the first Iraq War protest in 2003, the screening of the Olympics in 2012 etc.
Which brings us neatly back round to COVID (lest we forget). In 2020/21, you, the immobile historical time-traveller, would be confronted with the large majority of London, clad in athleisure wear and with dogs in toe, exercising, socialising and ‘making the best of it’. Although a less exciting and immediately arresting spectacle than some of those previously witnessed, this role being played by parks in the COVID city is both metaphorically and literally life-saving. It was supposedly William Pitt who first labelled parks as ‘the lungs of London’: is it overly poetic to highlight that these metaphorical lungs are helping to keep our literal human lungs healthy during a pandemic that specifically attacks our…lungs? Probably, but at the very least we can appreciate our industrious and adaptable parks that are once again providing the space for us to live in ways that we previously couldn’t envisage. We couldn’t envisage that we would be out in search of a localised venue for a picnic in the dead of winter, and here’s to hoping we never will again.