The lungs of London. That’s what they called the city’s parks in Victorian times, when the streets were filled with smog so dense they gave it proper nouns: The Pea-Souper, The London Particular. The sulphur dioxide it contained could prove lethal to the young, elderly or sick. People were being poisoned by their own city. Parks were an antidote, and campaigners of the era fought hard to establish and protect green areas as London swelled with industry. Every park has its story to tell and each seems to have an atmosphere all of its own: from the unkempt, wild feeling of Tooting Common, to the ordered beauty of Holland Park. The Victorians’ perspicacity ensured that London is the greenest major city in Europe. 40% of the city is public green space.
In recent weeks I’ve thought of that purpose. London is, once again, a toxic environment. Lockdown means fewer planes and cars on the road: the air has seemed cleaner than ever. But London is surely one of the most dangerous places to live during the coronavirus crisis. In our borough 104 people have died of corona virus in every 100,000, over four times the national average – in the worst hit country on earth. In April, more people in London died of coronavirus than were killed during the worst period of the Blitz. My impulse is to flee the city, return to the wide-open spaces of Exmoor where my parents live. But unlike smog, this virus clings to us, follows us where we go. So I stay put. For now, the parks are what I have.
The closest to me is Brockwell Park. A big part of my life since moving to Brixton, it takes approximately 4 minutes 27 seconds to run there (on a good day), and two circuits is about 7.5km, which makes for a decent 7.30am workout. I see the same faces each morning, a reassuring constellation. My route is so familiar now it barely registers. I keep my eyes on the path, only slowing and glancing up when I reach the top of the hill: the park sloping away in gentle undulations that at the right time seem ablaze with morning light. You could forget it was London if it wasn’t for that gap between trees that reveals the outlines of the City’s highrises in the distance. Sometimes I sit on the bench for a few moments. The Walkie-Talkie, the Cheese Grater, the Shard.
Last summer we’d walk up there after dinner, or sometimes picnic in the long warm evenings as the sun went down. Then there were the times we went to the lido with friends; dipped in and out of the water, pretending we were there to swim rather than just hang out on the decks and swig beers we’d snuck in in our bags. The day we decided to move to Brixton – into a Victorian terraced house with a sunny courtyard - we discovered a walled rose garden in the centre of the park. I held my boyfriend’s hand as it started to rain and felt certain.
Early in the pandemic Brockwell Park made the news headlines. That first weekend when the sun shone and it filled up with picnickers and sunbathers. What the reports didn’t show was the Tulse Hill council estate I pass through to reach the park each morning: small flats with no balconies, children’s toys piled high in pollution-clouded windows. The newspapers and commentators on local networks called those in the park selfish. I don’t say they were wrong. I just wonder whose place it is to decide.
Brockwell Park closed for a day, then it reopened, benches garlanded with red and white tape, large yellow banners declaiming government regulations. In the deepest part of the lockdown I’d still go there for my morning jogs, all joy sapped as I weave about in awkward two metre loops, aware that as a jogger I was, a priori, an annoyance. I’ve made this park my own while I’ve lived here, but I know I’m a guest. My lifestyle means I’ll move when it suits, change my circumstance when mood or convenience impel me.
One morning I reached the top of the park, panting heavily. I saw the bench that stands at the crest of the hill, ripped tapes fluttering loose. Whoever sat there had left traces behind them. A silvery shoal of laughing gas canisters.
What a great place to take a breath.