It’s a fallacy when people go to a park, sit amongst trees, grass and water, and decide that they like Nature and that Nature=good, the built environment=bad. Far likelier than not, the green space you’re enjoying is every bit as man-made as The Shard. The rolling Tuscan hills where you had your last holiday were covered in forest and thick undergrowth before man intervened. The last time I was taken for a walk in proper wilderness, in the Scottish Glens, getting from A to B was a fight and we all ended up covered in cuts, scratches, aches and pains.
Regents Park is a big draw in London and rightly so, but its formal layout lends a mildly forbidding feel. These are more gardens than parks, in the famous bits to the south at least. I have enjoyed many a sunny day here, but it’s not the kind of place where I would feel able to turn up with a dozen tins and some music, and start partying. To let one’s hair down would be to lower the tone. You can’t feel entirely at your ease in the rose garden, lest the Queen of Hearts should turn up and notice the red paint.
Strike out to the northern extremities and this no longer applies. The nearest person will be minutes, rather than seconds, away, and you don’t feel the requirement to be well-behaved.
Nairn calls the park “a great animal stretched out on the northern edge of Central London… it is this rather than Nash’s wonderful stage scenery that keeps the park alive and well-loved”.
In at Great Portland Street, “getting you into the park off centre, hence more ready to explore it”. It takes a bit of exploring before you see a panorama and it’s easy to fall off at the wayside. To begin with, we are presented with a series of salons, very artfully sculpted.
Each “room” is a novelty proffered for your delectation. I began to have the feeling that the whole place was an outdoor palace; the flowerbeds and bushes might have been coffee tables and sideboards, and the wider spaces these anterooms open onto were banquet halls, their scattering of trees and bushes every bit as planned as the set pieces.
Empty salons. Corridors. Salons. Doors. Doors. Salons. Empty chairs, deep armchairs, thick carpets. Heavy hangings. Stairs, steps. Steps, one after the other. Glass objects, objects still intact, empty glasses. A glass that falls, three, two, one, zero. Glass partition, letters.
What is successful about this approach is that the park doesn’t deny its urbanity. It’s not one of these green spaces telling you you’re in the Australian outback whilst there’s a traffic jam in earshot. The terraces watch over us like benign playground monitors. “Neither leafy nor urban,” for Nairn, “but the kind of living tissue that we sigh for in medieval villages and fumble at with such crassness… in modern architecture”.
Follow the terraces described in the previous post, then re-enter the park and the crowds have vanished. Anyone intrepid enough to press on this far will have gone from Versailles to Hampstead Heath.
This fountain looks naff, but on a hot day it beats £2 for a bottle of water at one of the cafés. The plaque and its talk of “protection” is revealing; and we shall know them by the company they keep…
Keep heading north and you’ll pass the London Zoo, for which Nairn is quite the evangelist and whose Swiftian usefulness he envisages thusly; “Regarded as a place to bring the kids and not much more. In fact it would be a good place to get to know someone, to talk over all but the most hard-headed business, or simply drown one’s indignation at human imbecility in the antics of the rest of Nature’s jokers”.
There’s Bunuel’s ostrich, and there have been so many magic realism novels/films about exotic animals escaping a zoo during the WWII bombardment of a Mitteleuropa city that it’s become a cliche. Nairn is still able to savour the surrealism of the zoo; “At night, a terrifying set of squeals and snuffles to liven up a walk home to Swiss Cottage.”
This will be a recurring grumble of mine; rather a lot of Nairn’s must-sees, which in the book “cost no more than the price of a scotch and soda”, now charge £20 in. Walk around the perimeter and you can get a whiff of the action, seeing your own fauna if you’re lucky.
You can’t see many of the animals, of course, but peeking from the fringe turns it all on its head by making the punters your exhibits.
And there’s the odd treat.
Zoo architecture is no doubt a niche subject, but this perhaps allows for greater freedom in the design. Nairn finds the buildings as diverse as their occupants, the zoo “a film-projector gone crazy”. I think the one time I’ve been to a zoo in my adult life was the first of the zoos, the Hapsburgs’ Tiergarten in Vienna; we had the privilege of seeing a white peacock display. In London, the attempts at sobriety and their context come across as Imperial style as parodied by Lego.
After the zoo, one can make a detour over our old pal the Regents Canal. Cross Prince Albert Rd, where you can really sense the fury of the drivers having to slow for you at the zebra crossing, and you’re at the foot of Primrose Hill.
There’s not much to the hill itself but as soon as one passes through the fence there’s a sense of being embraced, which is exactly what you want from a park. The regular Victorian lampposts give it an air of civility. It’s not the wilderness, you feel like your house is round the corner and you’re out for a quick constitutional.
On a warm day, there’s quite a gathering on top of the hill.
Gawping tourists and girls with flowers in their hair make it feel like a festival; some Japanese kids are playing Bowie and The Eagles.
And the view itself? It’s far and wide alright. You can see the gamut of recent gimmicky skyscrapers, and important landmarks like Parliament; just about. Of course, the perspective is quite confusing; Canary Wharf looks to be one with the City, the Crystal Palace mast seems just behind Westminster. Nearby Kings X and Camden appear bigger than they are, so I notice this Victorian pastiche of Palazzo Vecchio for the first time.
Reading Nairn on the damage done by 1966 is one of those moments when you feel grateful he is no longer here to have his heart broken. “Ten years ago, all of the interruptions in the view meant something; now, half are gauche packing-cases… the view is still exciting but there is now nothing especially London about it. It could be Birmingham or Manchester”. St Paul’s hasn’t quite vanished but is starting to look as out of place as Cicero striding into a disco in Ibiza.
Enough of that. I walk back into Regents Park, cutting through the golden gates and diverse gardens of the Inner Circle.
At my next destination, Nairn promises “a definition of western civilization in a single view”. This is the view of The Holme villa across the boating lake.
Worth the walk on compositional grounds alone, I’d say. I love how the trees seem to part and reveal the villa as you walk along the lake. In summer, quoth Nairn, “it sways and melts into a green masterpiece: Nature used and controlled, but not disciplined, allowed to be itself. Here is man really justifying his existence.” See what you think:
There are more Nash houses on the Western perimeter, a great many of which have these odd domes on top; a suggestion of the Brighton Pavilion, the East redone on our own terms.
And, reluctant as I am to infringe on prime Comment Is Free argument fodder, if you’re at this end you can’t miss the London Central Mosque claiming its pound of skyline. It looks like it’s walked in from Medina and if I were in Medina I’d be all unreserved appreciation for the crescents, the burnished golden dome and the twinkling flames at the top of the minaret. Though I don’t suppose we asked the Indian subcontinent’s approval before filling it up with our type of building; people tend not to because in their eyes, it goes without saying that they’re doing the host a huge service.
Aesthetically, I think I would really like a stucco Palladian mosque that talks to the buildings around it instead of asking them out for a fight, but I’ll concede that this may well say more about my perception than the building. I saw Rod Liddle & Yasmin Alibhai Brown on TV the other day; the latter told the former he had no idea how hurtful it is when he rubbishes all black muslims on the basis of one or two racists, and the former told the latter much the same re: the white working class, and each appeared to come away more offended than ever.
Then you look around this end of the park. Nobody’s beheading or stoning anyone, no nuclear missiles, they’re having picnics and renting pedal boats, and it’s clear that only a nutcase would find this objectionable, would pick a fight with someone not looking for one. In any ethnic group, for each Jihadist warrior there are doubtless another 1,000 who just want a quiet life.
Home via Baker St station -a road I almost never walk down- where hundreds are queuing for Sherlock Holmes, but it’s this beauty which catches my eye.
And when you think the sights are over, the tube station itself has a few surprises left over.