London parks are perfect places, though there is no one perfect park. I love them all. I walk at their edges, and sit in the middle. Perfectly green, and muddy, and studded with empty tins. Perfect in cherry blossom, and in rain and in cricket season.
I would not like to rank the parks. The best park, as a rule, is the one nearest to your front door. The one in which people you like are most likely to meet you for a picnic. The best parks are the ones with the paths you know best. I do not want to visit a park I can get lost in. I visit parks for familiarity, both for themselves, and for the part of me that is most familiar with green spaces, and grass, and water. That part of me is sometimes lost in London.
Regent’s Park is almost perfect. The lake is small, but full of birds. There are 10 different types of ducks, and big white swans. Regent’s Park is covered in shit, for all the right reasons. A park is not a park in London if it does not contain a small lake covered in small blue boats peddled by families. The threat of tipping over is part of the joy. A small blue boat is an excuse to push off.
In spring, Regent’s Park has the best blossom. It has manicured gardens, and spreading cricket fields. That strange man-made hump in the centre, under which there are public toilets, and on top of which, a cafe. I don’t know who makes the design decisions in parks; who validates the allocation of water, of field, of tree, of garden. Regent’s Park is perfectly proportionate, like the camels in the zoo which you can see for free. They keep the more exciting animals – your tigers, your lions – in the middle, past the gates. But you can hear them. And I will take a free camel (and on a good day, a warthog). I’m glad I had already moved away when the aardvark burned alive.
Off to the side, near where you exit to Camden for fish and chips and fake leather jackets, there is an enormous water fountain with four basins, the kind of fountain that is more landmark than place to quench your thirst. Dogs drink there, and children. Adults are more likely to default to the cafe, selling £3 water bottles. You do not know who has had their mouth on the spout, or what happens to the water fountain after dark. I read a book once that spoke of the kind of animals that would fall out of a city, should you tip it upside down and shake it. A python ingests a pigeon on the streets of Lewisham, and that’s in broad daylight. Imagine the water fountain after dark, crawling with creatures. There might be alligators. Bears. Tigers, and their family members yowling behind bars in the zoo just down the path. I have run a lot of kilometres in Regent’s Park, and interrupted a lot of photographs. I am red-faced and scowling in the background of many albums. If anyone makes albums anymore.
Brockwell Park is tipped on its side, and people spread themselves out, scattered closer to the gates at the foot of the hill. Further up, there are views, and logs to sit on, but for that you have to climb, and it is easier to spread your blanket at the bottom. Closer to the pub, for when the rain comes. There is the lido, where I saw a woman slip and crack her head, and where I swam 20 lengths without stopping for the first time in years. Brockwell Park is a good example of a park that I think I know well, but I tread one path. There are whole loops and slopes that I’ve never been near. Blindfolded in Brockwell Park, I wouldn’t emerge for years.
Swimming is best done on Hampstead Heath, where you don’t count lengths, but circuits. The Hampstead Ladies Pond is one of the best places in London, and not just for seeing breasts. There is a heron who perches on a float in the roped-off part of the pond. You cannot swim there, because it belongs to him. The meadow is a perfect place. I would build my house there, nesting like a duck, out of pieces of reed. I am afraid of the bottom of the pond, but buoyant enough not to worry about it yet. I am slow in the Hampstead Ponds, and placid. I move gently, at a minimum. I do not break the water. I am not afraid of growing old when I am in the pond. There are many reasons to leave London, but the pond is a reason to stay. Parliament Hill in evening light is a reason. Four different size dogs running down the hill together is a reason. The houses that border the Heath, small cottages covered in flowers and thrumming with bees, are a reason. It is hot and quiet on Hampstead Heath, and there are whole stretches where you could be the only person in the world. You’re not, there are probably teenagers fucking over the next rise, and someone could be dying ten seconds away.
Finsbury Park is my backyard now. A 5 minute walk down a road where we nearly saw a child die while we were house-hunting one Saturday morning, swinging out into the centre of the road on her bright pink bike, directly into the path of an oncoming car, while her father (with his other, small child in a trailer on the back of his own, bigger bike) shouted. Finsbury Park is a utilitarian park. It is not beautiful in the way of Regent’s Park. It is smaller, and yellower, has both fewer trees and fewer open spaces. There are wider grassless patches. But it is useful – tennis courts, and basketball courts, and a skate park. It serves more people. It is not meant only to be beautiful.
At the back, where fewer people go, where Mansion House is closest, it is quieter and greener. It is a part I am only just getting to know. It is the part where girls go alone and spread out their towels and lie in swimsuits, preparing their tans for warmer holidays, or shutting their eyes and pretending they are there already. 5 years ago I would have scoffed at the idea of swimsuits in a park, where there is no hope of swimming, unless you care to share a shallow muddy stretch with ducks and dirt, but I know better now. You do not have to go swimming to put on a swimsuit. A holiday does not have to involve a plane. Going to a park in London is part of celebrating the fact that you are here, in a place that has most things (all things? Nearly all things) you could possibly want from a big grey city on a big grey river.
When Londoners go to parks, they slow down. They are ponderous and thoughtful, and they hold hands unironically. I do not want to push people out of my way when I am in a park. I am not in a rush, and I am not late. I want to wander, or lie, or sit. I want to eat greasy olives out of plastic tub, and hold a cold can between my warm knees. I want to brush dead grass from the backs of my calves and pinch my skirt between my thighs and squint against the sun. I want to shut my eyes, I want to slow down, I want to stop.