Sunday, January 13, 2013

In praise of parks and their keepers

Opposite my house in Wiltshire is a large Edwardian park. Within its steel fenced boundary is an arboretum of mature trees which act as backdrop to my garden. There's also a large playing field,  three tennis courts, a jogging trail, bowling green, toddler's playground, snack-shack and even a bandstand which hosts Sunday concerts throughout the summer.

John Coles Park is then, a quintessential civic amenity: accessible, free to use and beyond what any individual could afford or would want to maintain. It's one of the chief delights of living where I do. And yet before I moved to this side of town I don't think I'd walked there more than twice in fifteen years.

The reason is I was sniffy about public spaces. They were second rate: not the same as 'proper landscape', cultivated and false - and frankly, full of lads in hoodies playing keepy-uppy with empty cider cans. Given the choice I'd head to the hills or, more locally, the woods at Castle Combe; I'd seek out true nature and preferably not to have to share it with others.

There is still some truth in that attitude - parks are not the same as the fells; they can't compare to Bamburgh beach on a crisp winter's morning; there isn't the view, the space, the sense of perspective that wild places offer. And many are spoiled by yobs and winos - there's one the other side of town that I'd not walk through at night.

But I've come to learn that at that their best they are worthy in their own terms.

Last Sunday the clouds parted for a couple of hours and our park had well over a hundred visitors.  There were folk walking their dogs, kids on bikes (and scooters - oh, so many scooters), some playing tennis, a chap on power-risers, another sprinting between the trees.  There were families and couples and groups of teenagers - I'd reckon the age range spanned eighty years. We had a coffee at the snack bar and Dylan defied the seasons by demanding a tub of ice cream.

And I've come to realise how important these facilities are to the community. Not everyone has access to those hills and woods I casually assume are available to all. And those who do, might justifiably not have the time or inclination (or cash) to travel and sort maps (let alone the gear) only to drag their kids through an unfamiliar landscape. Wilderness is an acquired taste; it requires knowledge and skills that aren't gained overnight, let alone a break in the clouds.

An irony perhaps is that our park is the best open space around here, precisely because it is closely managed. The gates close at dusk; there are uniformed keepers, the litter is picked; offensive youths are asked to leave. That's not to say it's policed, nor is it tended like a National Trust property - but there's sufficient control to 'keep it tidy' as they would say in Wales. I often think of it as an example of Liberalism in action -  we are free to do as we please - so far as it doesn't stop others doing the same.

The park from my garden

Of course, the presence of careful (if understated) management is essential to our so-called wilderness too. I might fantasise about an unspoiled landscape offering free and open access, but the reality is that without the management of bodies such as the national park authorities (and the aforementioned National Trust) there would be precious little of it. And it's not just yobs or selfish landowners who'd be the threat- take a look at, say, Keswick High Street or Bourton on the Water, to see how rampant commercialism can destroy the character of a place.

It's 11.00am and I need to finish this blog.  The sun has come out and the frost is finally melting. But it's too cold to cycle and the big boys are revising; Dylan is playing video games and needs some air; Jane has plans this afternoon.  I wonder where we can go for an hour or so?


  1. Lovely post. I'm lucky enough to live on the perimeter of a large town park, the entrance of which is about 100 yards from my house. It's ideal for walking the dog and cycling, and is well maintained but left to be fairly natural - it isn't a manicured park by any means.

    And yes, I went to Bourton on the Water recently when visiting a friend in the Cotswolds. It felt very much like a paint-by-numbers tourist village, very pretty but soulless.

  2. Hello Mark:
    Public open spaces are so very important we feel, but, as you point out here, they do need to be closely managed if all members of the community which they serve are to feel comfortable in making the most of them.

    In Budapest there are many of such open spaces and they are heavily used by a very wide age range of people. The parks always contain a playground area for small children as well as a place for football and/or table tennis for teenagers. There are plenty of seats and very often there is a bandstand for outdoor concerts in good weather. As people in Budapest generally live in very cramped accommodation these parks are a lifeline for getting children out of the house and having some personal space. Perhaps in England as people are increasingly living in smaller spaces, the parks will become even more precious to everyone's daily life.

  3. Parks are precisely what their communities make them... and I often wish that more families would reclaim from the beer yobs and the hoodies.

  4. How splendid, to have a park almost in your back yard, so to speak. There is the added bonus, no one is ever going to build a house there. You can borrow the landscape visually and enjoy it at leisure. In Canada we have a strong heritage of parkland and in Nova Scotia, large areas are being bequested and/or purchased to keep in perpetuity for the citizens. "It's a Good thing".

    Enjoyed your post very much Mark.

  5. John Coles Park is one of the reasons why I feel so strongly about public planting - it serves everyone, not just those who can escape to the country. As a child growing up in Brum, my local park and local areas of wasteland were the only places I could escape to - I had no access to the countryside and it was in these places where I found my love of open spaces. Therefore, we need the best open spaces we can get.

    It's ironic you've chosen to steal that particular picture. The Gazette and Herald did the very same last year. I'm extremely dischuffed with them about it, but don't mind that you did!

  6. PS I've been pondering the term wilderness - do we actually have any in Britain? Hasn't every inch been affected by man in some way? I've been reading 'Fire Season' which is written by a guy who spent a summer as a fire warden up a watch tower in New Mexico. In it he considers his guardianship of the wilderness and concludes there's very little to speak of in the States!

  7. I used to walk in Scotland with my father...those were the wide open spaces days...but as work took over I found real pleasure in parks.
    Here there are two large parks in San Jose, big enough to be patrolled by mounted police, with sports areas, playgrounds, little caffs and plenty of grass and trees, while the centre has more formal parks...miniature arboretae with seats in the shade and in one case a bandstand in stone.
    But control is the key....

  8. My only memory and experience of parks is the one where my class went to play tennis every Thursday afternoon in summer. It was too far from where I lived for me to use it for any recreational purposes, and in any case, as I lived across the road from the beach and sand dunes, who needed a park? Now I live on the edge of the Royal Estate of Sandringham with woods at the end of the road, so again, who needs a park? But it's lovely that you live so near one which is looked after, too often I have heard dark tales of local parks being used as drug dens and all sorts.

  9. They are a lifeline when you live somewhere like london and have a garden the size of a postage stamp! We used to live near Victoria Park in the East End and the majority of our summers were spent there...picnics, going to hear a band play and, in the evening, they often held open air theatre or cinema. It was wonderful and always did me good to see so much green when normally we were surrounded by grey concrete!

    Happy New Year to you and yours. I have finally got over the lurgy and am only just getting round everyone so sorry it's late but better late than never!

    C x

  10. I am a fan of parks, as I am of gardens, and in some cases I find it hard to explain the differences between the two, at least in terms of their content if not perhaps their accessibility.

    Is Kew Gardens a park with paid access? How about Wisley? Both are described as gardens, but I think that if access was free, they'd be called parks.

  11. Though I have almost always lived surrounded by open countryside I still love and value the parks I've experienced. In the Lancashire cotton town where I was born there was a super park called Bold Venture Park, which was created in the 1880s by a forward-thinking borough council from a derelict quarry:

    We had many happy days out there when I was a child and it is still very well used and much cherished.

  12. The important thing about parks is to use them, or those less desirable elements will take them.

    I walk my dog in our local park most mornings before work, at that time I see maybe a dozen other dog walkers and a few people crossing through in a short cut, the dog and I enjoy it whatever the weather, its that moment before the day gets crazy, its fresh air, its once or maybe even twice around the cricket pitch and then home, coffee, and work.

    But on a summer saturday morning I've often seen hundreds using the facility and to the credit of our council (its a local town council so they actually care) they put on events, they use the bandstand for proper brass band concerts, there's a fair two or three times a year and when they're done its always litter free.

    A properly managed park is a delight.