The Green Park

There is a certain day, in late March or early April, when the temperature tips into the high teens, a few days have gone by without rain, and it is possible, finally, to sit on the grass. My spot has little changed in over twelve years – coming down the slope from Piccadilly, turning right between the concessions cabin and E.J. Flack’s 1954 Diana fountain, then right again at the first opportunity onto the large wide lawn. I’ll walk through groups of lunching office workers, clumps of tourists and the candy-striped deckchairs which are seldom used, until the crowds thin a little, and I’m just out of the shade from the awning of the huge plane trees.

I drop my bag, put my coat onto the grass, lower myself down. By now it will be about 12.40. I’ll eat my sandwich, check the news on my phone, read a book, listen to a podcast, or do nothing. The ground is still a little cool. The grass is thick, green, glossy, soft to the touch. But days you can sit on green grass in Green Park are relatively few – by July most years it will be dried, savannah yellow; you have to smack your hands to clear the dust. Last year, 2018, it was already wisp thin by the end of May. The Royal Parks authority will fence off sections that are particularly threadbare to stop the crowds doing any more damage. But by autumn it is like a field of pasture again, and for a time in the late spring you can enjoy lying on its blanket of green.

Where I tend to sit is far enough from the busy gates coming off Piccadilly, but not far from the buzz and bustle of people.  There are more secluded spots further to the west, amongst the trees and wildflower meadows, where you could easily be hidden by the trunk of a plane tree or sit on a small hillock among long grasses, spot-lit by the sun. The park is forty acres, a rough scalene triangle with Piccadilly to the north, Constitution Hill to the south and the Queen’s Walk to the east.  If you imagine it as a cartoonish sperm whale, flapping its tail-fin at Hyde Park Corner, I would be sitting somewhere below the spout.

Green Park , 1870/71, by Claude Monet. Philadelphia Museum of Art

There is a painting of Green Park by Claude Monet, held in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, from 1870 or 1871. When I came across it online I was astounded by how closely it captured my regular lunchtime vista, the gently sloping green with dark borders of trees, thronged with people standing or walking or sitting in groups, all looking away, because they are looking south, towards the sun, and encouraged to face downhill by the natural inclination of the park. It’s strange to think so little has changed.

Today, hot mid-May, the park is packed. There’s a big blue sky with a few streaks of clouds and the ruled chalk lines of airplane jetstreams. Hundreds of people are sprawled out on the grass with picnic blankets, dropped bicycles, prams. Builders in tan boots sit on their hard hats, taking a break from renovating the grand stone apartments around Mayfair into modern offices. A young couple, done with their picnic, start climbing on each other’s backs, tumbling on the grass together, laughing. A man in a crisp white shirt pokes at a tub of sushi like a suspicious bird. Two children, each holding a half-eaten apple, stand with their backs pressed together, trying to force the other across an imaginary line.

To my right a bearded man lies spread out like Jesus on the cross, wearing navy blue trousers, a blue and white striped shirt and light blue flat cap, his bare feet hard and pink.  He could be a sea captain washed up on a beach, luxuriating in the solidity of dry land. I decide to come ashore with him, lying on my back, lunchbox beneath my head, enjoying the heat, listening to people chatting, the clang of construction and sirens on the road behind, the faint trill of birdsong. There is the low rumble of a helicopter and the panting of a dog. It’s incredibly peaceful.

The Green Park, as it is officially titled, is the smallest of the eight Royal Parks in London, and was said to have originally been a burial ground for lepers from the nearby St.James’s hospital. In 1668 Charles II enclosed the land with a brick wall, calling it ‘Upper St. James’s Park’.  It was an isolated area into the 18th Century, and even today can feel rural. There are no buildings, no bodies of water, no formal flowerbeds, no playground.  In winter, from where I sit you would see to the Victoria Memorial on the Mall and the white slab of Buckingham Palace jutting like a cliff face. But today the trees completely block it and the cars which can be seen between the trunks could be mistaken for motorists on a quiet forest drive. Lying down, and looking to the west, it still resembles very gently rolling fields.

Sheep roamed here until the 1930s, and indeed, a few summers ago a small flock was kept on the central meadow in a specially built pen. They were rare breeds – Oxford Downs, Whitefaced Woodlands, Southdowns – and were tended by their very own shepherd. They were fun to visit that August, always gathering a crowd for selfies. Introduced as part of the Royal Parks Mission Invertebrate Project, the grazing sheep would munch on the tougher grasses and trample in the seed that had dropped from the wildflowers, helping them thrive. There is a story that the reason there are no flowerbeds in Green Park is that when Charles II was caught picking flowers for another woman, the Queen demanded that no more flowers should be allowed there. So, like St. Patrick casting the snakes from Ireland, Charles banished all the flowers, and formal planting was never to return. But the informal flowers live on, including Meadow Foxtail, Common Vetch, Groundsel, Sweet Vernal Grass, Mignonette. And in spring hundreds of daffodils burst out of their hibernation and flow between the trees like a river of sunshine. The park is, according to an information board, a Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation, with winter bird visitors including redwing and fieldfare, and species including the peacock butterfly. I don’t know what more is planned for the invertebrates, or if the sheep will be returning. The fenced area is still there. I’ll sometimes lean on its wooden five barred gate, eating my sandwich, looking into its long grass, allowed to grow high and toiled like a choppy sea.

A shadow passes over so I open my eyes and sit up. A group of five French teenage boys in black baseball caps, hoodies and jeans sit cross-legged in a circle to my left. Two stand up and start to play baseball with an empty bottle of Gatorade and a bottle-cap, but quickly grow bored of that and collapse onto the grass again.  I hear laughter behind me and realise there are six French girls – presumably the boys’ classmates – in another circle, lying on their stomachs, propped up by their elbows, staring into their phones. Suddenly, as if they’ve been summoned by a semaphore, they leap to their feet and set off down the park, joking and jostling with one another.  I decide to head that way too, to do a loop down the Broadwalk to the Canada Gates before heading back to the office.

The groups of primarily Italian, French and Spanish school kids seem to be getting bigger, and, where once expected in summer, now seem to be in London all year round.  Often there are groups fifty strong, moving in packs along the paths like herds in The Walking Dead, though livelier certainly. Sometimes when they cut across the grass it’s like waiting for a freight train to pass. Just now a class of about thirty, a high-vizzed teacher at either end, strode across the park in pairs like they were about to board the ark, before stopping by a tree, unfluttering their bags and coats and settling down into its shade. It’s hard to remember knowing that many people, and being so convivial, or even walking in such a huge group, trying not to lose sight of the beleaguered teacher and generally getting in the way of everyone, especially the joggers.

For, of course, there are the joggers. I’ve been coming here for so many years but I didn’t notice whether the takeover of the park as an arena of fitness was incremental, or just splurged.  All year round the paths that circle and criss-cross the park are running tracks for the office workers, alone or in groups, in competing levels of lycra, leggings, short-shorts and vests, in variously coloured trainers (orange neon seems to be big for 2019), checking watches and fitbits, fists wrapped round bottles, sweating their way through lunch. Which always begs the question, when do they eat their lunch, if they do at all? 

But it’s not just joggers.  There are now full gym workouts with personal trainers, boxing lessons, bootcamps. Solo sprinters using Queen’s Walk as their 100m track. I come along the bottom of the park to find a group of ten men and women, keeled over on the grass amongst little peaks of orange cones, clambering to their feet, stretching down to touch their toes, bending their legs behind them at the knee. A man pulls back and forth on a long black plastic strap which has been looped around the trunk of a tree. Another man, in bare feet, Bermuda shorts and a blue compression vest lifts a kettle weight and swings it like a pendulum between his legs. I find a group of women doing press ups against the railings while a big bald guy in wraparound shades barks his encouragement – “Come on girls, you’re doing good! 20 seconds to go. Ruin your body, Ruin your mind! Ha, Ha, Ha!” He puts them into pairs, facing each other in two lines, before they lock arms on each other’s shoulders and run sideways, up and down, in unison, like a Scottish reel.

Sometimes when I see guys playing frisbee or throwing a rugby ball around I do think it would be good to get stuck in, and I know I’d feel better for it. But the walk is enough for me, along the bottom of Constitution Hill (where Charles II took his daily ‘constitutional’) and left for the final stretch up Queen’s Walk and onto Piccadilly. The sign at the top of Queen’s Walk tells me it was created in 1730 for Queen Caroline, the wife of George II, and was a popular path to the Queen’s Basin, a reservoir at the north of the park, I suppose where Green Park tube station is now.  Queen Caroline also built a Library nearby where she would relax after her walks.  She sounds like my kind of person.

Taking into account weekends, bank holidays and annual leave, I calculate that I have 222 lunch hours in a year. I reckon I spend at least a third of them in Green Park. I love both its peace and its mayhem. I love how suddenly different the landscape becomes by just taking that turn off the busy road.

But I also go to galleries and shops and other parks, or I just wander the streets in a rough square mile around Piccadilly. In these essays I’ll take you to all those places I visit on my lunch break (the only rule is I need to get back to work by 1.30, and I need to eat my sandwich). Often though we’ll just go to Green Park, to walk around its paths and watch it changing with the seasons.

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