On a crisp winter's afternoon, what better than a walk round a park? So yesterday I went to three parks and walked round each of them. Specifically I went to threeLondonparks whose names begin with 'Gre', and walked clockwise around the perimeter. What better?
GREEN PARK Borough: Westminster, zone 1 Number of people in park: hundreds Time for one circumnavigation: 25 minutes
The sky is a sharp blue. Outside the exit from the tube station a violinist is playing an excerpt from The Four Seasons. Inexplicably he has chosen Spring. Three hotel staff have popped out of the back of the Ritz for a smoke. Only the bravest daffodils have burst into full flower, perhaps one in a thousand. Maybe by next weekend they'll be a-dazzle. Two small children kick a football through the nodding stalks. Cameras look down from the back of Spencer House. Milkmaids Passage is firmly locked. Many of those passing through are in their winter finest, designer scarves neatly tied. Some carry branded cups, others dangle bags from Fortnums, Peggy Porschen or M&Ms World.
Signs remind visitors that this is "The" Green Park. Feeding pigeons is not permitted. The flying of drones or model aircraft is prohibited. Deckchairs will return in April. A police car is parked up at the foot of The Mall keeping an eye on the absence of Sunday traffic. The golden gates facing Buckingham Palace glint in the sun. Hordes are swanning down Constitution Hill, giving Green Park a miss after overdosing on Hyde instead. Listen carefully and French, Russian and English can be heard, amongst other tongues. Stood outside the lower kiosk are clusters of cycle hire riders clutching hot drinks. Avenues of London plane and lime stretch up to Piccadilly.
On the slopes of the central wooded mound a photographer has found an open trumpet and is crouched down in front of it. The view towards the line of benches is better than the view from them. An empty bottle of M&S Merlot has been abandoned against the trunk of a tree. The Queen's Meadow is roped off, seeded with wild flowers from Horsenden Hill. A smart young man is inside the Bomber Command Memorial, keeping out of the wind while making a very long phone call. A less smart young man thrusts by on a red scooter. The perimeter path wiggles and dips just enough to be interesting. The violinist has moved on to album-era easy listening, and now has a few more coins in his case.
GREENWICH PARK Borough: Greenwich, zone 2/3 Number of people in park: thousands Time for one circumnavigation: 40 minutes
The sky is a sharp blue. The gates to the park are narrow, and a crocodile of prams, pushchairs and tricycles trickles through. Some bloke has turned up with a bucket of detergent and a bubble-blowing wand, to the delight of a small girl in a pink anorak. The National Maritime Museum urges passers-by to consider its royal exhibition and its scrumptious cakes. On an adjacent bench an ear-muffed lady is picking over an avocado in a plastic tray. This is the best time of the year to cycle aimlessly around the drained boating lake. Two teenagers have been practising tricks by the Millennium Sundial, and stop to review their video footage before uploading.
Fewer people walk up the edge of the park than across the middle. Joggers tackle the hill climb with panting resignation. Some visitors have brought their families, others their dogs, several both. Wolfhounds lead their owners towards the Observatory, labradors explore tree trunks, and terriers waddle by in thermal coats. Just one tree has burst out into glorious pink blossom. Squirrels pose for photos in the Flower Garden beside roped-off pansies. A retired couple pause to listen to birdsong, before two nattering friends frighten the performers away. Where viewing permits, two stags can be seen in the enclosure shoving logs around with their antlers.
Although the park is buzzing, the southwest corner is almost silent. Next summer's cricket screens have been stashed away against the far wall. Every bush in the Rose Garden has been decisively pruned back to a uniform height. Each of the benches around the circumference is occupied by well-wrapped souls soaking in the sun. Only one person is on the tennis courts, playing against themselves with the aid of a sloping wall. The burgeoning towers of Docklands dominate the view from the top of the escarpment. Woolly hats with jaunty stripes and fluffy bobbles are very much the fashion atop promenading couples. The bloke with the bucket is still blowing bubbles, but now to a smaller audience.
GREATFIELDS PARK Borough: Barking & Dagenham, zone 4 Number of people in park: less than twenty Time for one circumnavigation: 10 minutes
The sky is a sharp blue. The sign at the gate opposite Londis welcomes visitors with a map and the byelaws in pictorial form. Alongside is an angled bed of stunted shrubbery with a geometric ring of pebbles in the centre. As expected, the public toilets are firmly padlocked. A Victorian-style carriage road runs around the perimeter, and has done since 1926. A local dad arrives with two daughters and a newly-bought kite, which they unwrap and then tug aloft, tiger tails flapping in the Siberian easterlies. Two youths in market-bought anoraks, hoods up, wander in and cut across the grass. A sparrow pokes around in the borders. Dozens of empty peanut kernels litter the periphery of a bench.
At the next bench an old man in a plaid coat is sat flicking through the Sunday Express, a can of Special Brew in his hand, and a pack of twelve unopened at his side. He's here for the long haul. Five kids come running through the ornamental gardens, Mum following on behind, swarming towards the play equipment corralled on the far side. A dogwalking lady smiles by, talking East European into her phone. The tennis courts are vacant. There are already daisies in the lawn. All the trees down the central avenue, dividing the pretty half of the park from the running-around half, have wispier droopier branches than the plane trees around the edge.
The A13 dual carriageway speeds past behind the railings, between the fire station and the Movers Lane flyover. A pollution monitor stands sentinel beside the southern gate. None of the daffodils are open yet, but one purple crocus is showing the way. Resting on a felled trunk, a young lady entertains her micro-dog with the aid of chucked twigs and hurled branches. On the eastern edge the main path meanders around a platform of crazy-paved beds, where a bench is dedicated to a Very Special Citizen of Barking, Annie Clara Huggett, 1892-1995. The roses may be splendid later. All is well-maintained and attractive, tended by unseen hands. Even in winter, parks are the mainstay of the suburbs.