Parks were once something that I passed by. London has literally hundreds of open spaces and parks, some sprawling many acres, other just scrubby little corners hemmed in by buildings, but they felt superfluous to a country-born person in thrall to city living. If I had to walk through one, I did, but I rarely—if ever—used a park for recreation. Having a child has changed all that. “Park” is now a key word in a fast-expanding vocabulary, a place that’s almost guaranteed to provide entertainment, weather permitting. But it’s also a window onto a whole new social network, along with the subtle, almost unreadable, power dynamics between work and play, leisure and activity, that characterizes modern childcare.
A hundred years ago, this was a terrace of worker’s housing, slotted in behind a much grander street of villas and a railway line. Thanks to German bombs and planners, it’s now a wedge-shaped public park, a popular cut-through for bike riders, with a children’s playground tucked away at the upper end. It’s our closest park, and we go there a lot, to watch the trains and the planes or to tumble down the slide. I also watch the cliques of local mothers sprawled on the grass discussing fashion, tan lines, and holidays and, most of all, their children, who go to the expensive primary school just around the corner.
The long sliver of Burgess Park was formed from a Blitzed-out stretch of South London’s grimy industrial landscape, once teeming with wharves, warehouses, and a canal. The park was assembled over many decades, from the bomb sites and post-war demolition, yet it is still incomplete in places, with stubby bits of road leading nowhere. Massed blocks of public housing loom over the northern edge. We’ve been there once, to the annual South American festival, when the scorched grass was thick with picnicking families, competing blasts of music filled the air and everyone glowed in the golden dusty light of late afternoon.
The land that forms Dulwich’s park once belonged to the local private school and was given to the public in 1855. Ringed by large Victorian houses in one of London’s leafiest and most expensive suburbs, it continues to attract a better kind of person, or at least that person’s nanny. The pleasant café at its heart echoes with the sound of middle-class voices gently admonishing children or taking important-sounding calls on cell phones, their conversations just loud enough for me to eavesdrop without really trying.
Telegraph Hill is actually two parks, an upper and a lower. The streets in this part of South London skitter precariously across the hill’s slopes, each junction revealing a majestic spread of city in the distance. This park is a quiet, empty place that feels detached and calm from the capital, with a large wooden fort and a giant slide that seems to go on forever. Part of me wishes I were still a child, while my rational, adult self instead broils with jealousy at these large houses with their wonderful views.
Not strictly speaking a park, but a metropolis of death established as part of the Victorians’ cemetery-expansion program: it was the only way to keep up with spiraling deaths from a succession of cholera epidemics. The result is an elaborate collection of ornate mausoleums and statuary, much of which is embedded in the grounds’ 30 acres of thick undergrowth, all set on a hill overlooking the city. Today there are several paths around the cemetery, leading you down broad avenues lined with tombs, or through curtains of ivy that cascades from trees and over gravestones. At the very top of the hill, the vegetation has been cleared back to allow a view of St. Paul’s Cathedral, six miles away across the Thames valley.
The edges of Kennington Park are choked by traffic fumes, for the park abuts the edges of London’s dreaded congestion-charge zone. Its volleyball courts are the site of weekly meetings of the area’s South American community, and huge family picnics gather at weekends on the adjoining lawns. The small cottages along the northern edge of the park were designed as model housing for the 1851 Great Exhibition; they were built at Prince Albert’s command, a typically patrician gesture that ultimately did little to alleviate the chronic sprawl of slums across South London. Today, as then, the park is the only escape from cramped, sweaty housing.
Peckham Rye Park
Bulldozed, carved up, and re-planted over the last 18 months, Peckham Rye Park adjoins the sprawling Common where the poet William Blake once claimed to see an angel up a tree. The new continental-style walks, trellises, and arcades feel alien and unreal, at odds with the rather down-at-heel surroundings, but we’re very grateful for them all the same. A children’s play area has been placed close to a new skate park, and through the trees I can see small boys undertaking daring feats of balance and bravery as they barrel down the ramps. Soon I will be standing there, I think, and looking back wistfully at the swinging infants.