Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

London’s Lungs

September 15, 2010 · 6 Comments

When I first heard that the parks in this city were referred to as “London’s lungs,” I simply wrote it off (with no basis) to an inflated sense of self-importance.  But now that I’ve visited five of the Royal Parks (Regent’s, Hyde, St. James’s, Green, and Kensington Gardens) I truly appreciate that these parks are giant green oases.  Out of the five, I only stopped to walk around in St. James’s and Green; the rest I ran in, albeit many times.  So there is a caveat that comes with my writings about Regent’s, Hyde, and Kensington Gardens.  For a runner, how the workout went is inextricably tied to the perception of where the workout took place.  I could be running in the most beautiful place in the world, but if I’m struggling to keep pace and then my knee starts to bother me, my memories of that place are going to be negative.  With that in mind, here’s a quick breakdown, plus a note about the running culture I’ve experienced.

Regent’s Park: The park I have spent by far the most time in, and a place that I have fallen in love with.  It seems like Regent’s is specifically intended for recreation, as there are massive open grass fields, some of which have rugby goal posts and soccer goals.  Also, I have definitely seen more runners here than the four other parks.  There is an element of the high society sense that is a bit more present at the other parks in the Inner Circle, which contains the Regent’s Park Boating Lake, some restaurants, and private land.  If this blog entry were not already far too long, I would talk about how this is a classic metaphor for a center-periphery dispute.

St. James’s Park: Perhaps the polar opposite of Regent’s, but along with Regent’s, one of my two favorite parks, for its stunning combination of history and natural beauty.  St. James’s faces Parliament on one side, and Buckingham Palace on the other.  Additionally, St. James gained notoriety during the Restoration period as a center of debauchery, as immortalized in this spectacular poem. What makes it Regent’s polar opposite is the fact that there is minimal recreation there.  Mikey, Luke and I picked up on this fact when we came to throw a rugby ball around and slowly noticed that we were the only people exercising other than people running on the asphalt path.  Well, it turns out that we were committing something of a faux pas, as ball sports are banned in the park.

Green Park: Beautiful, small, directly connected to St. James’s on the Buckingham Palace side.  Not much else to say here, but I did get some great pictures.

Green Park

Hyde Park: I did one 11 mile run that was split between here and Kensington Gardens.  While I was not blown away by Hyde, I wish I had gone there more often (and will try to in our last week here) because of the sheer  history: Crystal Palace, Speakers’ Corner, and countless concerts and sporting events.  The impression I got in my time there was that for a park, there sure was a lot of cement.  I did enjoy the lake, which I later learned was called The Serpentine and is the formal separation between Hyde and Kensington Gardens.

Kensington Gardens: While I found Kensington largely unremarkable, one thing that I enjoyed that it was very green.  Unlike Regent’s, it isn’t chock full with playing fields and running trails, but it’s a place where you can run around in the grass as you like.  Or at least I think it was allowed.


Long distance running is convenient as your chosen sport when you’re in a new city for the first time, as running through a city is a great way to explore it.  Trying to run through and around the massive crowds on the sidewalks on the way to Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, and Regent’s Park has given me a true appreciation for just how crowded London is.  The runner also cannot resist comparing running culture in a new place to that of his home.  Many things are different: as usual, you always, always, always keep left.  Driving on the roads, walking in the stairwells at Tube stations, and especially when running or cycling on the trails, you keep left.  Back in the States, runners crossing paths will sometimes wave or nod at each other, acknowledging their comradeship in pain, boredom, and abs.  I have adopted the habit here of waving to every single runner I cross paths with here, simply because none will ever wave back.  In fact, many will actually avert their gaze in embarrassment.  This fits in pretty well with Kate Fox’s “social dis-ease.”  Another striking difference is that on any given run in London, you are likely to see dozens of burly men running with backpacks on.  There’s really no other way to explain that one.  Finally, one of my favorite routes thus far in the city involves a part run alongside Regent’s Canal.  The Canal is frequented by party boats full of drunken Spanish and Dutch people.  While I don’t speak a word of Dutch, and my five years of Spanish classes tend to fail me in real life, the taunts screamed at me from the boats sound distinctly like “Run, Forrest, run” and “Nice shorts, loser.”

On second thought, maybe the running culture isn’t so different here.

Categories: 2010 Dennis
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6 responses so far ↓

  •   guya // Sep 15th 2010 at 16:06

    I find it interesting that St. James Park bans ball sports. In my experience walking through parks thus far, I have found a surprising lack of physical activity going on. Very few people are running around, and almost no games are being played. Has anyone else noticed this trend?

  •   maryc // Sep 15th 2010 at 16:38

    Haha, I love your last comment, Dennis. I’ve run around a little bit while here, but definitely MUCH less than you. However, I’m very impressed with the point-of-you provide as a long-distance runner, viewing all of London’s green space through this perspective. I struggled with the keeping left rule while running and definitely almost crashed into a man jogging around the corner. I’m quite sure the English people hanging out in the parks (I stuck to the smaller parks around Bloomsbury) still recognized me as an American unsure of which side the jogger must run on.

  •   bowmanc // Sep 15th 2010 at 17:19

    This post is awesome. I too think its quite interesting that many parks are sports-free; however, this may explain why the English are not the greatest at sports. I’ve also noticed two phenomenon you may be able to help explain: 1. runners with back packs and 2. rather… larger runners. Though you are a lean-mean-running-machine and at least distort the view of American runners a bit, it seems that many… stockier builds of people run over here. And they’re not running to catch a train, or a bus, as they are wearing running shorts, running shoes, running shirts, the whole shabang. Too much bangers and mash with pints? Have you witnessed a similar sensation?

  •   Young Dennis // Sep 15th 2010 at 19:06

    Andy: I’ve seen a lot of physical activity at Regent’s. I’m struggling to map out my most common route (a 7 mile out and back to the last lock on Regent’s Canal) on gmap-pedometer, but I will try to get that link up so I can show where I’ve seen sports being played. Every run I’ve done, I’ve seen many ball games (soccer, rugby, and cricket, mainly) and a TON of runners. And then on the canal, there are a solid amount of cyclists.

    Mary: I’ve had problems with that too. The running rule seems to be “stay left, except for when you shouldn’t.” This has been especially fun on the single-track trails at Regent’s, where sometimes you have to duck under low hanging tree branches and there are a lot of runners that are clearly foreigners and don’t know which side to go on.

    Chris: Mentioned the backpack thing in my blog entry. I think it’s people running to and from work, but it’s still strange. I’ve also noticed the high number of fat (not massive, but still, for runners, very big) runners, and I’ll add something else: the big fellas are usually hauling ass! I’ve definitely never seen the backpack thing in the States, although I have also not run in cities than many times. The big runners… I’m not 100% that their number is higher here, but they definitely run way, way faster than their counterparts back home. I was running at a fairly decent clip today and a guy who was maybe 6-2, 240 was in front of me on the trail and pulling away. I would guess that he couldn’t possibly hold it for more than a mile or two, but still, I found it noteworthy.

  •   Karl // Sep 20th 2010 at 12:14

    Backpack runners are common in US cities, too. It is a way for us to commute and exercise at the same time. I usually on run home because I don’t want to have to pay to shower at the UEA Sportspark. I love that larger people are running. I think in the US there is too much stigma on those who do not have the “ideal” body type for running. If you are getting fit, then it is better than the thin slop eating crisps on the couch.

  •   Young Dennis // Sep 20th 2010 at 12:32

    I agree that there’s a bit of a stigma in the states. I can think of some places at home (the Haverford College nature trail in particular) that are almost places to be seen and the runners look ridiculously, uncomfortably good. Definitely no element of that here.

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