Some routes become so familiar it’s hard to see them as they really are each time I walk them – every visit is overlaid by all the visits before. When I was a boy, a teenager, the idea that I would know three parks as well as I knew the Westlands ones would have been crazy. But for a time in London, a walk into “town” would include Hyde, Green and St James’ Parks – the stuff of TV pageantry to my younger self.
When I say “know”, I mean know the routes. In the Westlands, Newcastle-under-Lyme, where I spent my first 18 years, the way through the parks couldn’t be clearer. It’s broad, almost as wide as a road. Plants only encroach in cracks in the big concrete aggregate slabs – and through the trees are old they stand well back.
Generally it’s the same in the London parks, but sometimes feet have worn a way through the grass, or it’s just quicker to cut across. Why wouldn’t you? The main paths sweat with reflected heat, and joggers are always timing themselves along them, grim-eyed.
But off these routes it can get tricky. Take too many short cuts in Hyde Park and you’ll find yourself at the base of the Physical Energy sculpture yet again. In the Westlands, brambles and nettles fill the last few metres up to back garden fences. In places the ground gets marshy.
If you get off the bus from Oxford at Notting Hill Gate, the parks stretch out ahead. It’s no rural retreat, but it’s quite different from the London that runs along Bayswater to Marble Arch.
This is a place where dust settles, is not kicked up by wheels. A walk through in early summer is full of the rustle of leaf on leaf. For every stretch of short, scorched grass there’s a stand of longer stems, riffling. The white seed heads sway like decorations. There are squirrels, not as tame – or opportunistic – as those encountered later in St James’ Park, but still sleek and fed, their tails draped airily across the branches.
I return to this piece after a long interval. I have not returned to either set of parks. My memories of them are jumbled – birds, dandelions, my daughter “making friends” with a ladybird between the beech hedges at the end of one Westlands park. In London, the leaves will be in summer’s last gasp, still green despite the cold winds and sputtering rainbursts crossing the city to strike them. In the Westlands the leafmould smell will hover over damp grass, and small pale fungi will be appearing in little crowds in broad tree stumps.
My memories of those parks go back to very early in my life. I remember that here I tried sucking the sap out from a dandelion stem – don’t ever do that, it tastes revolting. In a field of the main path we sledged, in the years of heavy snow. I remember frozen hands and the jolt of falling through ice into rabbit holes. When I was older, my Scout troop played “wide games” out there. The squirrels were notable wildlife, only one step down from the deer sometimes glimpsed in Hanchurch Woods.
Though my memories are diffuse, the history of the parks as parks is quite compressed. When Newcastle expanded in the early 20th century they were marked off as green space, a softening thread through the newly laid foundations. But this line followed an earlier route, taken by strips of woodland between the fields that became houses.
These woods are shown on the Ordnance Survey map of 1898, now available online. I compare the old and new maps. My memories are somewhere between. Settings on the website enable one of the maps to lie like a ghost over the other – a bird’s eye time machine. In the same way every walk though overlays its own immediacy of experience, and so seems to escape out of time, or becomes part of a continuum of times I wander through, unable consciously to keep up.
The London parks are less laden with personal memories. I enjoy the wind in the trees, but experience feels entangled with a more public history – the River Westbourne, now culverted, being turned into the Serpentine, Charles II reviewing his army in the 1660s (pretending not to remember that the troops’ red coats were also worn by those who established the republican Commonwealth), the old tale that no flowers are grown in Green Park.
In a way, these parks are the epicentre of the Britishness – monarchic, processional, patronisingly generous – I associated as a child with gold braid and horses on TV, and so in a far-off land. But they also contain histories of anarchy, as thieves’ refuges after dark, open ground for duels and places of sexual opportunity. On a hot afternoon, there will be people looking for both sides of these places. There’ll also be people who have just come for a walk in the park, and perhaps me, overthinking, trying to concentrate on the wild parakeets and the tracks through the grass.
Last time I walked the London parks, great crested grebe, one of the most beautiful water birds, was sitting on the bank of the Serpentine. It was half asleep, its finely gradated caramel crest resting on its barred wing feathers. Its face and chest were white, its beak blue-black and gleaming. Normally, grebes are out in the middle of lakes, diving and looping in the water. This one barely troubled to open its eyes as I approached. All its sleek detail came into focus. I could have touched it, picked it up.
But this intimacy wasn’t thrilling. This bird had been partly tamed, not be a dedicated trainer, but by a string of passers by, who had fed it, controlled their dogs around it, taken photographs, as I did. Its wildness was a park’s wildness, with the city drawn around it.