A walk in the park
Can late Elizabethans do without Victorian vistas?
A sun dappled afternoon on Merseyside, and I am transfixed by a standoff. A little girl is crouched down so that she can meet her adversary, a grey squirrel, at beady eye level. Her outstretched hand slowly reaches out into the neutral zone between our protagonists, on it a pile of peanuts (Lidl, salted, if the packet crumpled at her feet is to be believed).
I am not the only one who has stopped to watch this exchange and the immaculately tended pathway which is its mise-en-scène is now oxymoronically congested with socially distanced gawkers and cooers transfixed by the unfolding life lesson. For a life lesson is precisely what is going on here; not, perhaps, one from which the squirrel will benefit but as her parents stand behind her, counselling against the instinct to grab, one which will, I imagine, be recalled by the child when her hands itch with futile impatience in years to come.
Birkenhead Park must have seen thousands of such vignettes over the years. As if to prove my brain’s idle and somewhat romantic hypothesis, as I leave the child and rodent to their carefully danced minuet of manners and make my way to the Swiss Bridge, I am met by a toddler being instructed in how best to navigate the feeding of a swan and by groups of boys fishing, learning as much about the dynamics of friendship as they are of angling. Only the puffa jackets (for, in spite of the sun, there is a wind whipping the Wirral that is most unseasonal for June) differentiate them from their Victorian forebears, to whom, I am sure, it would be a source of delight to know that the mudbanks and pathways where they learned the ways of the world were in use for the same purpose still.
Whilst the purpose of the park as a canvas onto which the small dramas of life might be painted remains the same as in Victorian times, the frames in which they are set — those towns and cities across the country that sought to gift their denizens a slice of green amidst all the brick — have changed irrevocably.
Birkenhead Park was the first of the great Victorian parks to be publicly funded, designed by Joseph Paxton — he of Crystal Palace fame — and imitated by the landscapers tasked with providing New York with a Central Park, no less. Its scale and ornamentation — from the delightful painted wood tweeness of the Swiss Bridge described above to the park’s grand entrance arch, an edifice which might easily pass as a monument to Bolivarian military prowess in a far off South American capital — are testament to the wealth and prestige of the town, and a show of defiance in the face of the all-consuming commercial dominance of her younger sister across the Mersey. Now, lacerated by roads for lorries that are always just passing through and ignored not only by a newly vibrant Liverpool but by a London callously uninterested in her pains as well, Birkenhead sits solitary, the grandeur of her park a reminder of what was and what might have been.
These monumental spaces that speak of an era where ‘brain drain’ was a medical procedure, not an economic and cultural death sentence
She is not alone of course, Chinese gardens, ornamental bridges and great glasshouses are found across the regions — markers of once wealthy but still proud boroughs which suffer from the cruel fate of not being within striking distance of the behemoth of our capital. The Italianate terraces of the People’s Park in Halifax, the picturesque (in the true Victorian understanding of that much abused Georgian word) bridge and lake in Huddersfield’s Greenhead Park, the leafy walkways of Derby’s grandly named and conceived Arboretum; all monumental spaces that speak of an era where ‘brain drain’ was a medical procedure, not an economic and cultural death sentence. This is all the more cruel when one compares them to London’s parks: either royal playgrounds shared with the public or those patches of grubby and dangerous heathland on the outer edges of the Georgian metropolis now crudely pressganged into being public spaces by the introduction of some ill-kempt urinals and a swing set.
Yet, for all the problems facing our towns, their parks continue to be — as the Act which enabled Paxton to design Birkenhead Park made clear was a primary purpose of such an enterprise — beneficial to public health. Indeed, during lockdown they have been nothing short of lifeline. Most people who live in Birkenhead or Halifax or Huddersfield lack the manicured lawns of Cheshire or the Home Counties, or the fairy-lit Aperol courtyards of the gentrified chunks of London or Manchester or Bristol. The lockdown has highlighted quite how petit-bourgeois our concepts of space have become — all too many, from advertising agencies to the Church of England, have fallen into the trap of painting the private sphere of the home as safe, clean, and comfortable — as preferable, even, to the public spaces of market or church or park. Those great Victorian parks still speak of an ambition, a vision, and a care for the denizens of places like Birkenhead and, in providing clean, safe, comfortable, and, crucially, free public spaces, they embody a much healthier vision of the public good than a cityscape made up of Wagamamas and WeWorks ever could.
If the economists are correct, then the last decade — when austerity has wreaked a particular havoc in those once great and grand regional conurbations — will look like a Victorian boomtime compared to the post-virus slump that is to come. Resources will doubtless be scarce and public spaces, especially those described above, will be hard pressed. It will not, I imagine, be easy to run a High Victorian park on a Late Elizabethan budget. Yet, the twenty-first century seems to be constantly finding new ways to remind us that spaces and places matter to people. It would, I think, be a very great shame if that little girl could not take her children to the same corner of that great park in Birkenhead and there teach them the lessons of patience and care she learned from the standoff with a squirrel all these years before.
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