As a five year old, I preferred the swingset in my backyard to the television (unless the Power Rangers was on…but that is not important). As a seventeen/eighteen year old, I gained a whole new appreciation for the outdoors thanks to Valley Forge Park – the enormous, deer-ridden oasis in the middle of suburban Pennsylvania, home to hikers, bikers, picnics, and monuments (telling the park’s oft-told story when it was home to the Revolutionary Army). I have stayed in that park for hours on end – reading, laying, walking, and just being lazy. The ability to lay out on the grass surrounded by huge trees brought me closer to nature and the elements.
I should take a step back. I am not a hiker, nor do I spend every day longing for the outdoors. I am not about to mimic Christopher McCandless’ journey through Alaska and “Into the Wild”. Sure, I enjoy spending summer afternoons outdoors. Yes, I will absolutely take a trip to the park over a movie. That’s about as far as I go, though. That said, London’s parks immediately appealed to my sense of nature. They were beautiful and awe-inspiring. Only 48 hours prior to this post, I told a whole group of people that I could spend every day in these parks as long as I had a book in one hand and a warm drink in the other.
After closer investigation and reflection, I begin to wonder if these parks are not as idyllic as I had thought.
The parks in London have very different personalities. How can a park have a personality? Consider the sprawling grassy area of Regent’s Park. This area houses limited (if any) space for concert venues – the only area that sticks out is a playground for children. Rarely anyone takes a seat on the well-kept grassy areas (This was shown by the looks of confusion and sounds of incredulity as people passed by as we discussed Mrs. Dalloway and the Blitz.).
This directly contrasts with the immediate impressions of the even larger Hyde Park, which has areas that remain overgrown, raw, and certainly less manicured than other Royal Parks. Perhaps this is a reason this park is used more often for big venues and frequented by large crowds. Regardless, the park gives off a much more functional and natural, for lack of a better word, perspective of nature. Now Maddie will briefly discuss the importance of recreation in the three parks that I have just described.
“The Regent’s Park consists of two circles, which are intended to communicate with each other, but an experienced person is sometimes puzzled to discover how. The houses which nearly surround the outward ring are looked upon as wonders of architectural design and execution. The liberality of the genius employed is manifested in the generous conglomeration of style which is everywhere apparent. The Corinthian and Ionic are continually contrasted with the simple Doric and the street-doric.” -1842
These are the first few comments given by locals who visited Regents Park around the time it was first established in the early 19th century. The area was beautiful even then, filled with flowers and beautiful buildings encompassing the wide-open spaces. Yet, when I think of “parks” I imagine people running, playing frisbee, riding bikes, and enjoying the sunshine. I imagine laughter, games, and little kids. However, from my numerous visits to Regents Park (as well as St.James’s), I really haven’t noticed this kind of innocent, healthy fun like I have in Hyde Park. Therefore, in this part of our blog, I’ll discuss what is acceptable recreation in a these three London parks.
In Regents Park, as Brandon noted before, there was plenty of open space but few people laying the grass (such a crime). Even during our class discussions outside, I noticed many runners but few families taking little kids on picnics, playing tag or simply running around. The runners themselves ran through the beautiful park but seemed too focused on their exercise to really pay attention to the beautiful landscape. Or maybe that is just what Regents Park is to them: a beautiful landscape, a perfect and idyllic area to safely run through, but never stop to take in. Therefore, Brandon and I came to realize that although this park is majestic and lovely, it lacks a purpose. Parks are meant to be more than simply a gorgeous place to jog about, they are meant to be used to relax, catch time for oneself, and rejuvenate and quench the soul’s longing for peace and quiet amidst the busy city life.
St. James’s Park acted very similarly, though arguably more unfriendly than Regents Park. In my own personal experience at St. James’s, I found it to be “stuffy” so to speak. The grass was trimmed perfectly; the walkways clean, the pigeons even kept away. We had to pay to sit in the chairs. I visited the website that describes St. James’s Park and of course the web designers discuss the picnics in the park, the alcohol served in the restaurant in the middle of the park, the outdoor activities that take place, and the free concerts. Yet still no bikes are allowed, ball games are restricted to specific areas of the park, and people may only gather together in at very most groups of 20 to avoid “over-crowding”—this means our humanities group would not be allowed to sit and hold class there and enjoy the surroundings.
The final park that we decided to discuss was Hyde Park which both Brandon and I found to be the most “park-ish” if I may. This means that we both felt it to bring in a wider variety of people, allowing and encouraging more recreational activity. We also noticed more people strolling around the extensive 350 acre landscape instead of just running through. Another plus is that everything about this park is free; you don’t need to pay to sit in chairs or benches and you don’t need to pay to enter. Hyde Park also contains the Serpentine Lake, a spot for swimming, boating, picnicking and fishing and it is open to the public to use often. Also, Hyde Park is host to a variety of free concerts during the summer and encourages people to visit, both locals and tourists.
Overall, recreation is an important part of any park. However some parks are more successful at creating an atmosphere in which a diverse group of people are welcome to sit outside and enjoy nature. Instead most of these parks boarding on feeling rather synthetic and fake (excluding Hyde) and therefore we were interested to see how each of these three parks incorporated and valued recreational activity.
I love being outdoors. There aren’t many experiences in this life that beat lying out in the grass with friends eating, drinking, snogging (sorry, it had to be said). The abundance of green space in London is one of the city’s best features. About 25% of London’s geography is comprised of parks, meaning wherever I happen to find myself wandering aimlessly through the city, I always run into a park, large or small, without fail.
The reason why this makes me so happy is because I am from suburban Harrisburg, PA, where parks are in short supply. The few that we do have are in poor condition, as park upkeep is quite low on the municipal spending bill; there are bigger fish to fry, like violent crime and sub par education. The one park I do frequent, Veterans Park, is always crowded, lacking in shade, and overall not particularly pleasant. My friends and I arrive, play some volleyball or ultimate frisbee, and get the heck out because no one has any desire to stick around.
Then I come to London and see spaces like St. James Park, where me and four others spent a few hours doing my favorite thing, lounging. Comically, we were approached by a man wearing coin box demanding payment for the use of the public chairs. In an act of civil disobedience that Dr. King or Mr. Gandhi would be proud of, we elected to sit on the grass. Regent’s Park is enormous, reminiscent of Central Park back in the states. Its open green pastures and winding pathways make it the perfect locale for a romantic walk or a morning run. The smaller parks are nice as well, secluded little getaways from the hustle and bustle.
St. James's Park from http://www.freefoto.com/images/31/06/31_06_6---St-James-s-Park--London_web.jpg
Regent's Park from http://www.londonphoto.me.uk/image/regents%20park.jpg
Now that our time in London is waning, I regret that I haven’t spent more time in parks. I was, of course, too busy blogging.
Family. I’m not part of a particularly close one. This summer I was fortunate enough to stumble into Issi’s Place where I was adopted into an incredibly quirky and close-knit family of Hasidic Jews in Beechwood, Ohio. At Issi’s- a pizza parlor that keeps kosher- we got into each other’s way in the tiny kitchen, sweated through humid summer days next to the oven, stressed out over wrong orders, yelled at each other for taking too long to close the store, and then sat around for hours afterwards chatting the night away about Israel, Judaism, my life story, their life stories, life in general…It was truly fantastic. I’ve never before really had a home that I yearned for when traveling but the lack of Issi and my co-workers in my everyday life has definitely shown me just how difficult the feeling of homesickness can be to handle. With every kippah-wearing gentleman that passes here in England, I am reminded of the family I have back in a small pizza parlor in Ohio.
Enter the happy part of this story. Yesterday, a friend and I stumbled upon a concert of Klezmer Music that was happening in a beautiful area of Regent’s Park. Upwards of a hundred Hasidic Jews were gathered around a gazebo listening and dancing together. Instantly, a sense of nostalgia that I’ve never experienced before just hit me. In a corner of a park in London, England, a community much like the one I so love in Beechwood, Ohio collected in a preciously familiar fun-loving, care-giving way.
Now, the sentimental part of me can only go on so long before the liberal arts college student in me starts to analyze situations. Many of our readings on London’s history have addressed how immigrant communities are viewed in the city. A few of those readings have compared today’s “outcast” immigrant culture to yesterday’s “outcast” Jewish community. While this may not be the most politically correct of comparisons, it supports an optimism that London will accept the cultures that it seems to be ‘outcasting’ currently. If the same Jewish community that once was separated from the majority of the city can now celebrate a music form that has close ties to its culture in one of the most heavily visited parks in the city then clearly the city can accept what it once rejected so fully. Assuming this progression remains in place, today’s immigrant cultures that seem to be outcasts in London’s society would seem to have light at the end of the tunnel to look forward to. That being said, the hope is that London doesn’t actually continue on in the same vein as it has been. While we should celebrate the fact that the city can and eventually usually does recognize and attempt to better its mistakes, we should actively push for a change to take place to make sure that such segregation never happens in the first place. Yes, it’s great that the city can apologize but wouldn’t it be better if it didn’t have to apologize at all? Wouldn’t it be best if the mistake wasn’t made in the first place?
By birth, I’m not a part of a Jewish community whether it be a secular or incredibly orthodox branch of the religion. This summer showed me that one does not need to be born into a family in order to be a part of it though. Like a family, a city cannot hose whom its members are. Maybe at one point in time this could have happened, ut- thankfully- we are past those days. We now live in an age in which cultures of all different roots are living in the same area. We need to do more than that though. We need to bump into each other, tell a few jokes with one another, and invite each other over for dinner. This may sound a little naïve or wishy-washy but I think the parallel is there. Issi accepted me into a community this summer that I could not have differed more from. He didn’t make me sit in a corner by myself and only speak when be spoken to. I went to the pizza parlor to do more than just work. An outsider both culturally and religiously, I was accepted despite our differences into their conversations and they into mine. London would do well to start doing the same.
When I picture my summer at home, I see myself with Starbucks in hand, sitting on the dirt and grass of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. I’m with friends, or my brother, or even alone. My ipod speakers are turned up next to me so I can hear over the music that other small groups around me play from various speakers. I smell hot dogs and other food being barbequed in the shade of the trees where the grass has been worn away. Every once in a while I look up from my book, or my friends, to dodge a rouge Frisbee, soccer ball, or running child. For the most part it’s a sort of low city hum surrounding me as I watch the various families eating and talking, the young women sun tanning, or the men playing various sports.
slideshow of photos from parks
But here in London, I’ve found my park experiences to be quite different. My first experience at a London park was with a friend outside of the Dickinson program. We were on a mission to find Harrods so that I could see the famous English department store. We did in fact find it. It was a window into the English equivalent of 5th Avenue, New York. I was surrounded by upscale, architecturally beautiful, storefronts and benches. This illustrated the main difference between the parks at home and the two parks I’ve visited in London: usage. Although both the major parks that I am familiar with in New York, Central Park and Prospect Park, are both on the edges of upscale neighborhoods, they also border more middle class neighborhoods as well. At home, the people who use the parks are primarily people who don’t have their own outdoor spaces. They use the park for family barbeques and get-togethers as well as the more traditional uses of sports activities, exercise, or even sun tanning.
While Hyde Park bordered a very upper class (which the English call middle class) neighborhood, just as most parks do, it seemed much more up kept. There we lots of small gardens, fountains, and monuments that were still in very good condition. Also, there were no people lying out on the grass—that I could see, at Hyde park. The people that were there, although they seemed to be of different ethnicities, all seemed to be of the same class. And not only was there no music playing from loud speakers, or people barbequing, there was very little shouting or noise at all. Now I must admit that Hyde Park is very very large, and I only explored one corner of it. But even in that corner what struck me the most was the quite. No music, loud children playing or laughing, or even the sound of large groups gathered. The people there either had outdoor space of their own for these uses or didn’t want to barbeque or ever do these outdoor things that I see at home. And this was not just limited to Hyde Park.
When we met for a class on Mrs. Dalloway in Regent’s Park, I was left with similar feelings. This park was also filled with fountains, monuments, and cleanliness. In fact, I got the feeling that our class of 27 students were the only 27 people talking in the whole park. Now don’t get me wrong, in both these parks people were present sitting on benches reading, walking their dogs, strolling holding hands, but never talking loudly, shouting, and absolutely not playing music. And although both Prospect Park and Central Park are also very large, I never seem to be able to find a completely private spot. Yet at Regent’s Park and Hyde Park there were a few times where no one besides our group was visible.
As I walked through these various parks, and made these comparisions in my mind, I began to ask myself why? Why were the parks I knew marked by noise, children, laughter, and the sense that people LIVED there? Why were these London parks most notably quiet with the beauty of something that is untouched and tiddy?
So far in my time here I have begun to notice that we Americans are often the loudest people around when we walk down the street, ride the tube, or sit in a restaurant. Perhaps this contributes to the idea of quiet London parks. It seems as though it is part of English culture, British nature, to be reserved and contained. No one screams or runs wild through the open grass. Instead, people read their books and seem to be sitting in nature, rather than monopolizing it with noise and music. Of course I’ll always feel more comfortable in a loud park where patches of grass have been sat on so much that it has worn away to dirt. A park where the tunnels smell of urine because of the homeless people who find shelter in them. A park where families who may not be able to afford a back yard can give their children a place to run free. But at the same time, there is something to be said of a place where people can simply exist with nature—not to say that London parks are an untamed forest, they are clearly man-made—unnoticed because they are so quiet there.
After a busy few days nothing could be more relaxing than a day spent in a park…well two actually. In the morning we started out the day with a class in beautiful Regent’s Park located just a few minutes away from the Arran House. Our classroom discussion centered on two very different topics; Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and “the Blitz”. Despite the difference in subject material both conversations brought up some interesting points and I found myself seeing new perspectives on a lot of things both from my peers and from Professor Qualls.
Maybe it was just the time of day (early on a Saturday morning) but Regent’s Park had a very quiet, quaint feel to it. I realize there is still much of the park that I need to explore but from what I saw with the beautiful flower gardens and shrubbery and wide pathways it seems like it would be a great place to go for a run or relax with a book.
After a great lunch at an affordable mediterranean sandwich place with the three Andrew’s I headed out with Alli, Sarah, Mara and Kim to continue the preliminary work for our group project. We headed to Hyde Park, a place we knew would occupy most of our afternoon. Hyde Park immediately reminded me of Central Park more than any other green space I had visited in London thus far. We decided to wander towards the long expanse of water known as “the serpentine” running through the middle of the park. Along the way we passed a large group of people playing steel drums and moving to the music. The park felt alive and it was the first green space that I felt like was being utilized for large group purposes.
The water was filled with waterfowl of all shapes and sizes. There were ducks, swans and geese just to name a few. We saw that there were opportunities to rent boats for seven quid and we thought it would be a great idea to come back and do that another time. After crossing a bridge we came upon a Peter Pan statue. This was a perfect group photo op. After sitting down and taking in the scenery for a bit we headed back to the park exit content with our decision to choose Hyde as the basis for our group’s walking tour.
Sunday was another busy day. Aidan, Brandon and I headed to the British Museum where we attempted to get through the whole thing. This did not happen. We did end up getting through the Middle East, Greek, Roman, African and North American exhibits however. All in all not bad for one day. We also viewed a special exhibit the museum was featuring about living and dying. This certainly defied the plain yet effective pattern the British Museum has going for it. In one section of this exhibit there was a woman and a man featured. There was a long tapestry made out of all of the pills these two people took throughout their lifetime. Everything from vitamins to birth control to painkillers for arthritis were featured in this amazing display. There was also a display done on how different cultures around the world react to life and death and even how they bury their dead. Not only was this a fascinating exhibit but it added a whole new wrinkle to the British Museum.
After a quick break Brandon, Aidan and I decided it would be interesting to head over to Notting Hill where the annual Notting Hill Carnival was taking place. We had been warned multiple times to bring only the bare minimum and be extremely careful with our belongings. We had also been warned about the huge crowds and lack of personal space we would encounter. Unfortunately for us nothing could have prepared us for what we saw once we got off of the Notting Hill tube stop. Endless masses of humanity were walking. We had no idea where their final destination was so we simply followed. Eventually the street opened up and even more people appeared. There were floats making their way down the streets, loud music blasting and people dancing and singing. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. People that lived in the area were charging others money to use their bathroom. There were no trash cans so litter was piling up in the streets. Other folks were walking around with coolers of beer and soda in an attempt to make a little money. Although large crowds are not my thing and I do enjoy my personal space going to the carnival was an eye opening experience. As Americans sometimes we are so driven to achieve a certain goal, meet a certain deadline, fulfill a certain quota. There has to be some sort of end reward for everything. The nice thing about the Carnival and the thing that I struggled to understand the most is that there was really no point to it. Each and every person made their experience what they wanted it to be. Some used it to express their cultural heritage, some used it as an excuse to hang out with friends or family and some simply used it to get drunk. The bottom line was that everyone was there and having a good time in their own right.
After navigating our way through masses of people we veered off the main path a little bit and found a street with some places that looked like they would be good to eat at. After completing our meals we decided we should start finding a way out of the carnival knowing that it would take us a very long time to navigate out of the crowd. For a while it seemed that no matter where we walked there were people in every direction with no apparent end in sight. Finally we approached a street corner and across the street there was traffic, the first sign that the festival had an end. We attempted to navigate our way to Paddington Station but after a decent walk opted to take the bus to Great Portland Street instead and walked back from there. The entire journey took less time than I thought it would and we were back at the Arran House by a little after 6.
As I continue to explore here I feel like I am getting a better sense of all the different expressions London has to offer. I’ve seen it’s artsy side, it’s serious side, it’s fun side and it’s theatrical side. What will I find next?