A London tradition: a walk in the park
A city is its people. And its buildings. It is traffic and shops and museums. But it is also parks.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
And since they are not exactly wild places, yet not precisely, or only, gardens, they are an urban phenomenon of rather a special kind, somewhere between rural and horticultural, between city and country.
Traditionally, they are places where visitors and inhabitants relax and mix, places of entertainment and recreation.
So here's a novel - and inexpensive - way to spend a vacation: Get to know a city by "doing" its parks.
And what city could be better to try out this notion than London? It's a veritable hive of public parks, many of them dating back centuries, some with royal associations, most with stories to tell. Their names summon up the English capital strikingly - Hyde Park, the Regent's Park, Green Park, Holland Park, St. James's, Battersea, Richmond, Greenwich.
I had a Londoner friend who walked an hour to work every day, from Hampstead to Notting Hill Gate, and he never set foot outside a park en route. I went along one morning. It was like kick-starting the day with a stimulating intake of leaf and lawn, of pond (with all sorts of water birds) and sky, of wide green spaces, and roses, roses all the way. A holiday before work.
Some of the parks - Kew and Richmond, for instance - are a distance from the heart of London, but there are plenty of others right in the center. Kensington Gardens, for one, which I decided to visit and explore. A 19th-century French tourist described this splendid park as "a good mile of the forest of St. Germain in the heart of town."
I also visited the magnificent Regent's Park - farther to the north but still within easy striking distance by underground, taxi, or bus. Either of these parks is a perfect introduction to the art of park exploration.
I had a very useful book to help me: Geoffrey Young's "Walking London's Parks and Gardens" (New Holland Publishers, $14.95).
Mr. Young presents 24 "original walks around London's parks and gardens," and he does so with charm and maps and plenty of personal research.
He can be relied on. If he says you are about to arrive at the orangery, or walk 'round the Round Pond (which isn't actually round at all) or encounter the statue of Peter Pan - all in Kensington Gardens - you will.
The author tells you how long each of his proposed walks will take, at a slowish pace, unless you stop for a chat or a picnic or photography or for a little wander away from his scrupulously prescribed paths.
For his Kensington Gardens Walk he says to allow 1-1/2 hours. Well, yes. I did my best. But, of course, I was almost instantly distracted. I spent too long, I'm sure, gazing at the magical bedding schemes of the Sunken Garden (set out originally in 1906-09), its perspectives and formal beds planted with a mixture of bright and soft flower colors and textures.
Peeping through the hedges at this garden makes you fall in love with annuals all over again. It is not flashy or vulgar. Nor is it regimented in ways that have given "parks department" planting a bad name in the past. It is just summer-bright and refreshing.
Then, on a bench among the surrounding lime hedges, how could I not stop for a while and watch the old chap, dressed in slightly shabby suit and tie, feeding the squirrels climbing all over him.
One of the park gardeners I spoke to a little later (another of my disobedient escapes from the necessary rigors of Young's keep-going itinerary) said the squirrel man was so frequently there that he was "part of the furniture."