It doesn’t seem very long ago that I was researching for material to include in my book The Making of the British Landscape. I well remember walking through Birkenhead Park, the modern world’s first urban park (1847) intended for the use of townspeople. It was a bright sunny day , the park had recently been refurbished and was looking gorgeous. That particular walk in the park had a profound effect on me, because it set me thinking about the relationship of the past and the present. Those far-sighted individuals who established municipal parks like Birkenhead, and New York’s Central Park (which was heavily influenced by it) were not thinking about their own ‘legacy’, to use a horrible modern term, but were concerned about the future well-being of ordinary people. And of course they were spending public money, whether raised in local taxes or by subscription.
Until very recently it was usual to treat the land of Britain, both urban and modern, as something to be used, and then abandoned, without any thought for the future or for the general ‘look’ or appearance of the surrounding landscape. So gravel pits, to use a particularly glaring example, were quarried-out and then simply left to flood and rot, with rusting machines, followed by decades of fly-tipped rubbish. The same could be said for old factory sites, railway sidings, airfields and so forth. Nobody worried about the future.
But since the 1970s that has changed. Today, Planners make stringent demands on people like gravel quarry operators – and quite right too. Similarly, the expenditure of vast sums of public money on prestige projects, such as the 2012 London Olympics, cannot be justified in terms of the event alone: no, today we demand that there must be some benefit for the public at large. Of course, people are human and will always promise pie in the sky in order to attract hard cash. In the case of the 2012 Olympics we were assured that the Games would inspire the population to take more exercise and eat fewer calories. But of course that didn’t happen. Only politicians would have believed that sort of glib rubbish. So as a nation we still waddle proudly about showing the world our folds of fat through obscenely tight leggings or T-shirts. And will someone please tell me, why is it that overweight people in the UK always choose horizontal stripes? It’s so defiantly British. The other ‘legacy’ benefit we were promised was the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which opened last April, after over a year’s extensive restoration and refurbishment. More to the point from my landscape historian’s perspective, it was the first major municipal park to open in the capital city for over a century. So I had to see it.
Anyhow, Last Thursday I finished the first revision of Alan Cadbury’s second mystery and I felt absolutely knackered. I needed to do something to relax and turn my brain back to the here-and-now. So I arranged to go and visit my daughter in London and she suggested we visit the Olympic Park, which is quite near to where she lives. Saturday was a typical late November day: wet and overcast: not, you might suppose, the best day for strolling through a park.
We left the farm early and put the dogs to bed in their kennels, after a walk through the wood where we kicked-up the leaves all around us. Our new puppy, Pen, which I’ll introduce in a future blog post, ran around at white-hot speed, seeing-off Muntjac deer left and right. We caught the train at Kings Lynn and headed south. Eventually, and after a very pleasant, if crowded journey in the London Overground, where two young women very kindly gave me and Maisie their seats, we arrived at the Westfield Shopping Centre. There we ate noodles – and very cheap, too. The place was heaving with people, all intent on having a relaxing afternoon.
Then we walked in the park and I must confess, I was astounded. It was far, far more than just a converted set of sports facilities: it had been laid-out by people who appreciated views and vistas. And it wasn’t just a conversion. Having thought about and visited many parks I could see that this one, too, had been structured from the outset to make the most of its setting. Indeed, several times I was put in mind of ‘Capability’ Brown or Humphrey Repton. I’m aware that sounds pretentious, but what the hell: it was how I felt at the time. And that strange red metal tower, the Orbit, that looks from one angle as if it’s collapsing, then from somewhere else, as if it’s about to spring into space. I must admit, when I read about it in newspapers at the time of the Olympics I wasn’t very impressed: essentially it looked a gimmicky mess. All the journalists sneered and scoffed. And like everyone else I dismissed it as the sort of art that is so characteristic of our times: something that’ll grab sound-bites and is commissioned by a committee. But that is grossly unfair to the real thing, which is wholly different. For a start the scale is truly mind-boggling: it’s VAST! To be honest I could have stayed and looked at it for hours. So I owe a big apology and belated thank-yous to the two imaginations behind it: Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond.
I thought the treatment of water and the various streams, lakes ponds and boggy areas in the Park was very imaginative and the use of trees wonderful, with lots of oaks. You don’t often see the American River Birch, with its wonderful pale brown papery bark, but here there were dozens of them. Another big first for the park was all the attention they have paid to children and young people. Normally ‘playgrounds’ (which are anything but the sort) are horrible little tarmac’d and sometimes fenced-off areas tacked onto the edges of Victorian municipal parks, but not here. If I’d been thirty years younger I’d have been skateboarding in the Velopark, with the best of them. I also like the strange, spongy red asphalt surfaces in the playgrounds, and made a mental note never to drink wine before walking on them. Could be most upsetting.
Again, the setting of the London Aquatics Centre, a superb curvaceous, and vast, indoor swimming pool by Zaha Hadid made very imaginative use of different levels in the landscape: sometimes you were looking straight at it; other times it was down there. But it always appeared striking and unusual. And then of course there was the big Olympic Stadium. Not an easy monster to accommodate with any grace or elegance in a designed landscape. So they didn’t make any attempt to conceal it. It’s there, with a Mall-like processional approach. And the building itself was right in your face. Put me in mind of the huge red brick hotel at the front of St. Pancras Station. Both structures oozed confidence and exuded presence. And if you don’t like that – hard luck. But then I have always gone for the confident over the tasteful.
So congratulations to all concerned with Her Majesty’s Olympic Park. Even though the day was grey and damp, I could see that you have created a worthy successor to Hyde Park or Regent’s Park – and that’s saying something. I’ll certainly be back in the summer.