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Three cheers for the public park

Features | | June 2016

They offer the delights of nature with fewer of the downsides. You won't catch Lyme disease, but you can get a cup of coffee. Travis Elborough on the making of an unjustly neglected British Institution

'Spring in Hyde Park', c1910, by Alice Maud Fanner

As Fanny Price puts it in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park,‘to sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure’ is ‘the most perfect refreshment’. The verdure Price admires and the park that supplies that book with its title belong to that most distinguished of categories, the private English country estate. In Austen’s lifetime these were to reach their aesthetic peak thanks to the landscape architecture of Capability Brown and Humphry Repton; the expense of improving estates and the vagaries of gardening fashion are recurrent themes of the novel. But the roots of such parks date back to the hunting ranges of the Middle Ages with the word itself deriving from the Norman-French for an enclosure for ‘beasts of the chase’. The parks I grew up with were public ones and of a humbler stock, though still curiously dominated by sports. 

My father’s commitment to amateur league competitions, in particular his teams Worthing Boy’s Club (Old Boys) Football Club and the Sompting Casuals Cricket Club, was to ensure that until adolescence, I spent most Saturday afternoons in winter and entire Sundays in summer on a variety of municipal recreation grounds. These were modest landscapes where the bulk of the vegetation was grass and treated by its spiked and studded boot-wearing users in a manner not dissimilar to lampposts by dogs. While some boasted ornamental flower beds, immaculate bowling greens, trimmed hedges and majestic trees, the scent of sweat, deep heat spray and Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum often overpowered the aroma of any flora. But here, beyond the churned-turf pitches and discarded peel from half-time oranges, were nevertheless somewhat magical-looking pavilions with wood beams, front porches and crooked tiled roofs. Structures, in short, that could easily have been fashioned in gingerbread and appeared in a picture book. If rustic to a fault, these buildings always seemed to spring more from the world of Alice in Wonderland than, say, The Archers. As such they only underscored, to my childish imagination, the anomalousness of parks. Though green they evidently owed as much, if not more, to the town than the countryside. It is probably also why I have always liked them, and quite possibly, if I am honest, I often prefer parks to the actual countryside. The natural world is a wondrous thing, and must be preserved at all costs. The rural with its cows, woods, adders, insects and agrochemicals and outbreaks of foot and mouth, I cherish as a retreat from the urban, without ever wishing to relinquish the latter entirely. The best public parks, as artfully contrived areas of greenery in the midst of concrete and brick, offer the delights of nature with fewer of its downsides (Lyme disease, muck spreaders, etc) and usually, these days, a café with a nice cup of coffee into the bargain. 

Parks, though, are more than just pleasant spots for metropolitan dilettantes like myself and dossers (and doggers) to while the time away in. On a practical level they lower the ambient temperature of cities, aid water retention and so reduce the risk of flooding and provide habitats for wildlife. Even setting aside these environmental pluses, parks largely continue to be one of those rare institutions that are open to all and free at the point of entry. They embody an ideal of civic life that is increasingly imperilled by the present government’s cuts and more generally by the commercialisation of public space. Parks, like sewers, democratic government, trade unions and public libraries, emerged in the 19th century, in response to rapid urbanisation and population growth in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Then, areas of open space were being enclosed for agriculture or built upon, with       smoking chimneys rising as leafy bowers were fenced off or buried under brick. 

The matter was already an acute enough concern for the government to convene a Parliamentary Committee into Public Walks in 1833, though its recommendations – a unanimous yes to more parks – took several years to be acted upon. 

A postcard of the Derby Arboretum, opened in 1840 and one of the first public parks

At that point one of the most tireless advocates of public parks in this country was John Claudius Loudon. The son of a Lanarkshire farmer, Loudon made (and lost) at least one fortune as a pioneering landscape architect, educationalist, editor and publisher. He used the pages of his hugely popular and profitable Gardener’s Magazine to advance such causes as the planting of plane trees in the capital, the creation of sanitary burial grounds and the laying out of public parks where the populace could avail themselves of what he himself termed ‘humanising amusements’. In 1839 Loudon was given the chance to put the last of these ideas into practice when he was commissioned to design one of the earliest purpose-built public parks in Britain: the Derby Arboretum. This public garden was set out on eleven acres of land generously donated to this East Midlands city by Joseph Strutt. An enlightened nonconformist local cotton magnate, Strutt had, however, been concerned that ‘a mere composition of trees and shrubs with turf … would become insipid after being seen two or three times’. To prevent this, Loudon devised a scheme for Derby that revolved around an extensive collection of trees or ‘an arboretum’. Each of the different varieties (and more than 1,000 were planted though not all flourished in the coal-laden local climate) was to be clearly labelled. In this way, the park-goer was nourished physically and mentally, the literate able to learn something as they ambled round taking in the names of the plants with the air and scenery. This almost Reithian formula of public parks as places where an education, as much as exercise or entertainment, might be acquired, persists in various nature trails and heritage tree walks on offer in Derby and elsewhere today. 

But it is fair to say that parks of the Victorian and Edwardian era came more heavily weighted with do-gooding intentions and pedagogical ambitions. Social reformers, temperance campaigners and well-heeled philanthropists set great store by pockets of verdant beauty having a civilising effect on the masses. In place of drunken pugilistic contests in tavern gardens and dog fights and other rough and ready entertainments on patches of common land, carefully landscaped parks and public walks were promoted as health-giving means of supplying morally improving ‘rational recreation’ – to use the jargon of the day. 

'Civic pride pushed floral displays to gaudy heights sledom seen elsewhere;

In Battersea, for example, the parish vicar, the Hon and Rev Robert Eden, was instrumental in seeing the district’s eponymous fields, recalled by one London antiquarian as a ‘flat and unbroken wildness of some 300 acres’ and ‘the resort of costermongers and roughs’, transformed into an elegant park designed by James Pennethorne. Chief among Eden’s arguments was that ‘a lung’ for the district offering ‘healthful recreation’ would make such people ‘orderly’ by implanting ‘feelings’ of self-worth and responsibility that he maintained were currently being ‘deadened by dirt, by drink and discomfort’. Paternalistic arguably, a tad patronising perhaps; oblivious (obviously) to the popularity of Special Brew among park visitors in the times yet to come. Still there is little doubt that such city parks, with their trimmed lawns, sports fields, bandstands and vivid flower beds, did genuinely help brighten the lives of the urban poor. Civic pride and the horticultural ingenuity of park groundsmen certainly pushed floral displays to gaudy heights seldom seen elsewhere before. 

Sir Joseph Paxton, head gardener at Chatsworth and the creator of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition in 1851 (subsequently removed to Sydenham where it formed the centrepiece, effectively, of a new commercial theme park), was among the pioneers of the highly decorative form of planting known as ‘carpet bedding’. This is the practice of mass-planting greenhouse-reared coloured flowering plants such as nasturtiums with other shrubs to produce mosaic-like ornamental beds. It was enthusiastically adopted by municipal parks, partly to save money. These ‘feast of colour’ arrangements looked better and lasted longer than ordinary seasonal flowers and therefore represented better value for rate-payers. But they were also prized in an age of imperial pomp and circumstance for the scope they gave for devising commemorative or patriotic displays. Beds in Brockwell Park during the twilight years of Victoria’s reign, for instance, spelt out the opening bars of ‘God Save the Queen’. A Tudor-style crown was planted in Cannonhill Park in Birmingham to celebrate the coronation of George V. And botanical borough crests and coats of arms were a common feature of hundreds of provincial parks. In Middlesbrough in 1898, municipal self-aggrandising extended to honouring the serving mayor, with the name of this public official rendered in blooms in Albert Park. 

Perhaps the pinnacle of this sort of park planting, however, was reached with the arrival of the floral clock in the opening decade of the 20th century. J McHattie, the chief superintendent of parks in Edinburgh, is credited with first introducing them in 1903. McHattie is believed to have felt compelled to bring floral clocks to the Scottish capital      after seeing examples at a gardening exhibition in Paris. But these extraordinary confections of the organic and the mechanical – working timepieces embedded in living, growing flower beds – would by the inter-war period become a mainstay of Britain’s public gardens, especially in the major northern municipalities and in popular seaside resorts, such as Bridlington and Torquay. Long decried as gimcracks by many gardening commentators, they were to prove a perhaps unlikely inspiration for The Beatles during their psychedelic phase. Recalling their ubiquity in the Liverpool of his youth, Paul McCartney confessed to his biographer Barry Miles that the original concept for the cover of the group’s Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP was to have the Fab Four posing as corporation bandsmen standing in front of a ‘huge floral clock’ in ‘a park somewhere up north … very council’. 

By then, of course, time was running out on floral clocks, which were seen by park professionals as decidedly old hat when squared up to the likes of ‘happening’ adventure playgrounds and that other new kid on the block, AstroTurf. After all, at Benwell in Newcastle, and mirroring the rebuilding overseen across the city as a whole by its political kingpin T Dan Smith, a near Brutalist park with a brick maze and a concrete children’s climbing frame in the shape of a train, had been laid out in 1964. A less deferential world followed the war, and it was probably no coincidence that when Dennis the Menace made his debut in the Beano (May 1951) his first act of rebellion was to infuriate the park keeper by flouting the signs that read ‘Keep Off the Grass’.  

But for all that, and the numerous highs and deep lows in the intervening half-century or more, when public parks were vandalised by some of their users and government policies alike, even the most traditional proved surprisingly adept at responding to the changing demands and shape of British society. Rock concerts, community festivals, outdoor gyms and tai chi classes have slotted in beside cricket pitches and in the shadows of high Victorian drinking fountains and rock gardens – the latter often realised in Pulhamite, an ingenious and malleable fake stone devised by the Broxbourne-based family firm of James Pulham and Co. 

The Centenary Floral Clock in Princess Street Gardens, Edinburgh. Commissioned in 1903 it was one of the first floral clocks

Parks continue to be places where the lonely can go for company. Perversely, they also offer space, peace and privacy for those seeking to escape prying eyes and nagging voices at work or at home. If abounding with things to see and do, the lack of any real financial compulsion to do, or perhaps more importantly to buy, anything very much, continues to be one of their best features. Typically this is an asset (and I use the word advisedly) that at present is most under threat. With budgets squeezed by austerity measures, many local authorities have been forced to trim funds for non-mandatory services. To make up the shortfall many councils have chosen to raise revenue for basic maintenance by increasing the commercial activities in their parks. 

'Parks continue to be places where the lonely can go for company'

In Battersea Park last year, and indicative of this trend, a well used if down-at-heel free adventure playground was handed over to the private company Go Ape to refurbish and then run at a profit with entrance fees. Over in west London, a lease signed by Hammersmith and Fulham council with the sports company Play Football to turn over a third of Hammersmith Park into pay-to-play football pitches was only scaled back this spring following a campaign led by the local resident (and Oldie columnist) Virginia Ironside. More worryingly still, in Liverpool part of Sefton Park is in the process of being parcelled off to a private developer, while the council in the London Borough of Bexley has already approved the sale of three of its open spaces in Erith. The loss of any public space is distressing and the more general commercialisation of facilities invidious, and we risk seeing parks, once again, become the preserves of the wealthy rather than open to the community as a whole. 

A Walk in the Park: the Life and Times of a People’s Institution by Travis Elborough is published by Jonathan Cape, price £18.99.


Top Five Public Parks

Victoria Park, London

Laid out in 1845 in an outlying area of waste and market gardens nicknamed Botany Bay as it was where criminals evading transportation were said to hide out, Victoria Park in Bow was London’s first purpose-built public park. Intended to serve the dockland Communities of the East End and raise property prices in the area, it was designed by Nash’s protégé James Pennethorne, who also gave the capital New Oxford Street and Battersea Park. Boasting two alcoves from Old London Bridge and a gargantuan Moorish Gothic fountain purchased for £6,000 in 1862 by banking heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts, Victoria Park was once famed for it radicalism, with William Morris, George Lansbury, Sylvia Pankhurst and Oswald Mosley all addressing political rallies there. Arguably its last major contribution to British politics was hosting the first Rock Against Racism concert in 1978. The park is also home to the oldest continuous model steam boating club in the world, which was founded in 1904 with the aid of a £1 donation from Horatio Bottomley, the MP for Hackney South and a founder of the Financial Times, later jailed for fraud. 

Old London Bridge alcove in Victoria Park

Birkenhead Park

Birkenhead Park was Sir Joseph Paxton’s first solo foray into public park making. Head gardener to the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, Paxton was hired by the wealthy railway promoter and Birkenhead town-improvements commissioner Sir William Jackson, ‘to make something handsome’ of a water-logged and gorse-infested common prone to ‘unhealthy mists’. The future creator of the Crystal Palace told his wife that if he were able to create a park out of such dire land as this, it could only add to his ‘credit and honour’. The result, finished in 1847 after three years’ labour that saw eight acres of lake dug out, marshes drained and tons of earth heaped to produce a landscape of undulating hillocks and serpentine paths topped off with clumps of trees, nine lodges, a pagoda and a bandstand styled after a Roman temple, did far more than add to his credit. In 1850 Frederick Law Olmsted, a young American farmer and journalist on a tour of England, visited Birkenhead Park. Astonished by the ‘perfection of its gardening’, Olmsted was equally impressed that the park was freely open to the public. Eight years later he co-designed Central Park and always cited Birkenhead as his model for New York’s own great public park. 

Main entrance to Birkenhead Park

East Park, Hull 

There are few sights in England that can quite equal the absurd charm of the imitation Khyber Pass in Hull’s East Park. This slice of South Asia in the East Riding sits just a short stroll away from an animal house that is home to alpacas from Peru and a lake where oversized swan pedalo boats bob about. The park was planned and opened to honour Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 and the pass was dreamed up by its supervisor Edward Peak and fashioned in artificial rock and material foraged from the Hull Citadel, an old fort that had once defended the town’s port.

The Khyber Pass, East Park, Hull

Eaton Park, Norwich 

Eaton Park is the most majestic of four parks masterminded, with suitably military precision, between 1921 and 1933 by Captain Sandys-Winsch, a First World War hero who was to serve with equal distinction as Norwich’s Parks and Gardens Superintendent for 34 years. Funded as part of a government works programme to ease the lot of unemployed men in the city, many of whom were veterans like Sandys-Winsch himself, the park is epic in scale and execution. With spacious radiating avenues, a circular formal fountain, a domed bandstand and monumental quadrant pavilions in cream stone, it’s not far off something mustered in Imperial Rome. Even the model boating lake, with a grand balustraded clubhouse fit for an Indian rajah, seems intended to make the small craft it’s intended for appear smaller than they already are. It was officially opened in 1928 by the Prince of Wales, the soon-to-be King Edward VIII. 

Lily pond and bandstand in Eaton Park

Manor Fields Park, Sheffield 

Described as ‘a wildscape’, Manor Fields Park may not conform to everyone’s idea of a classic park: its boundaries and borders are deliberately vague and there are none of the ornate fences and gates beloved of Pennethorne and Paxton but it is as assiduously cultivated as any public garden. Developed over several years, the park snakes through a stretch of former waste ground in the inner city. Much of this was once cultivated as the Deep Pitts allotments but abandoned in the 1980s, when the whole area rapidly degenerated into a dumping ground for burned-out cars and became known locally as the ‘bandit-lands’. The park, therefore, is a winning example of what can be done to green up the neglected corners of our towns and cities. 

Manor Fields Park, Sheffield