The word ‘park’ had a very different meaning prior to the enterprising Victorians. The Industrial Revolution notoriously transformed the British landscape, resulting in vast tracts of the country’s greenbelt land being colonised by factories and hastily-erected accommodation required to house its workers. A need to retain some semblance of the countryside that urbanisation had eradicated was seen as vital in giving the expanding populace of the growing metropolises a welcome break from the grind of machinery, and the end result was a new egalitarian oasis of greenery especially set aside for recreation and relaxation. These public spaces were different from the somewhat salacious pleasure gardens such as the infamously seedy Vauxhall in London, which were almost the eighteenth century’s equivalent of nightclubs, albeit outdoor ones. They also offered an alternative to the cruel pursuits that had preoccupied the poor when not at work, most of which involved animals.
Parks had been the province of the wealthy before the nineteenth century, usually referring to the land surrounding country estates that had originally been established as aristocratic hunting grounds. By the era of the Regency the likes of Hyde Park was not private property, but was primarily used by dashing beaux to impress eligible belles with their horsemanship, driving flash carriages round the circuit in a daily courting ritual reserved for the rich – or at least those that could fake it. When the provinces began to plan their own municipal parks, it was maritime Northern Powerhouse Liverpool that led the way, first with Princes Park in Toxteth (opened 1843) and then Birkenhead Park (opened 1847); the latter acted as a direct inspiration for New York’s Central Park, which opened a decade later.
Both of Liverpool’s groundbreaking parks were masterminded by gardener, architect and designer of the Great Exhibition’s Crystal Palace, Joseph Paxton. Whereas Princes Park had been a private development, Birkenhead’s more adventurous layout was publicly funded, one of the first such times a civic space was created in this way. Birkenhead had deliberate echoes of the old parks on the country estates of the nobility, particularly the fad for follies and natural-looking features that had arisen during the Romantic passion for ancient ruins viewed on the Grand Tour. Its very informality gave it the feel of a much older location, as though a genuine piece of the country had been transplanted into the middle of the city, and Birkenhead Park formed the blueprint for the best municipal parks that sprang up across the country in the second half of the century. All the features we associate with public parks today can be traced back to Paxton’s revolutionary design.
It’s hard to imagine our towns and cities without parks. They act as the backdrop to numerous different phases of our lives – the toddler being shown how to feed the ducks, the child playing on the swings, slides and roundabouts, the truanting teenager indulging in substances that provoke vandalism and antisocial sensibilities, the young sweethearts capitalising on the refuge from parental supervision, the adult exercising the dog overflowing with gratitude, the gentleman of the highway making a bed of a bench, the pensioner ensuring their legs keep in working order. Then there are the amateur footballers and rugby players training, the joggers, the cyclists, the physical fitness fanatics and…well…the flashers. All of human life can be found in our parks on a daily basis.
An anecdote from artist David Hockney highlighted the contrasting purpose of the park for different individuals. He spoke of once sitting on a London park bench, admiring the scenery and generally putting his feet up in pleasant surroundings. As he lit a cigarette to complement his relaxing demeanour, one of the passing worshippers at the temples of their own bodies noticed him and she wagged a disapproving finger in his direction. Hockney’s summary of the incident – once he had expressed his reaction to being judged with a curt ‘Up yours and f**k you’ – was to observe how the jogger had failed to absorb the cleansing ambience of the park and all she could see beyond the narcissistic obsession with her own physique was a man ‘polluting’ the ruins of his personal temple by inhaling a cigarette.
I mention this amusing story simply because of the slow and gradual claiming of these sacred urban oases by the gymnasium brigade, who aren’t content to practice their neurotic masturbation indoors and feel the need to impose their body fascism on outdoor spaces, regarding those who don’t find them as important as they find themselves with barely-concealed contempt. An organisation called Parkrun has recently attracted attention, being held up by the usual suspects as a paragon of healthy virtuousness in the battle against the contemporary cancer of obesity. Parkrun exploits the availability of Britain’s municipal greenery by using public parks as locations for their organised runs aimed at amateur athletes, but the caretakers of some parks are unhappy with their arrogant assumption that every other visitor to the parks must stand aside when they carry out their worthy exercise.
South Gloucestershire Council have announced plans to charge each participant in Parkrun events a fee of £1, though other councils have resorted to charging several groups for using parks as training fields as part of the upkeep of the park in the face of endless government cuts. As more school playing fields are sold off to private developers, it’s perhaps inevitable that public parks should be regarded as an alternative, but the predictable protest from professional athletes at councils imposing financial restrictions on those who presumably don’t employ performance-enhancing drugs when they pop on a pair of shorts shouldn’t detract from the fact that parks are there for everybody; and that includes people who want to smoke a fag on a bench and simply enjoy a rare glimpse of nature amidst the constant encroachment of concrete.
© The Editor