When it opened in the 1840s, Victoria Park was a social innovation. West London may have had Royal parks aplenty, but this 200 acre site by the Regent's Canal was home to the first proper municipal park in the East End. Many argued that the working classes wouldn't use or respect such elegant open air utilities as a bathing pond, a carriage drive and a bandstand, but they were proved wrong. Even today, for many residents of Bethnal Green, Bow and Hackney, the idea of living without this much-loved green lung on their doorstep is unthinkable.
On a mild sunny weekend in February 2008, the park is still a hive of recreational activity. Several lively football matches are afoot, played out between official goalposts or unofficial jumpers. Families take lunch at the pavilion by the western lake, their Sunday papers spread open while littl'un rides her pink tricycle not too far away. Divorced dads take their occasional offspring to let off steam in the central playground, skidding down the long metal slides with shrieks of delight. Gangs of foul-mouthed kids play hide and seek in the ornamental garden, while leashed dogs strain and yap on the other side of a scrubby hedge. Every face bears a smile.
But, you know, Victoria Park could be nicer. A bit more like the 19th century original and a bit less like a cobbled-together collection of disjoint 20th century updates. So Tower Hamlets council is devising a Victoria Park masterplan in the hope of gaining lottery funding, and they've been running a roadshow over the last week to see what local people think. It's one of those old fashioned consultations consisting of two noticeboards and a stapled questionnaire, moved round from library to library to see what a handful of random residents think. None of this modern online interactive dissemination, oh no, just some laminated boards and a big space to stick some scribbled-on post-its. I managed to bump into the mini-exhibition in Bethnal Green over the weekend, and got to talk to one of the landscape-y architect-y designers responsible for the new plans. She was appropriately excited - especially when the leader of the council popped by, unexpectedly, for a brief look round. Afternoon ma'am.
There are two potential masterplans for the park, labelled (excitingly) A and B. Both are based on the original 1840s design, restoring original features such as the dog statues by the main gate and the water features round the de-fenced Burdett-Coutts fountain. Plan A restores the full-sized central lake to the eastern half of the park, while Plan B creates a new playground-based nucleus around the old boating pond. Both plans try to open up the park by removing fences and adding access points, and attempt to brighten up the two eastern entrances adjacent to the Olympic Park in time for 2012. Expect wild flower borders, and realigned sports pitches, and extra tea-selling facilities - all to make Victoria Park an even more special place to visit.
I'd love to give you a link to the two schemes but, despite promises in print, the masterplan details appear nowhere on the TowerHamletswebsite. So it looks like the future of Victoria Park is down to the 100 or so of us who bothered to fill in a questionnaire (I hope future generations like Plan A, because that was my vote). And then the final decision, by the autumn, will be down to the Heritage Lottery Fund and their board of trustees. Let's hope that they haven't donated so much of their funding to the Olympics that there's nothing left for the Victorian jewel nextdoor.