We live in an area where hardly anyone has much of a garden. Ours is typical for the area – a concrete rectangle of about eight foot by twelve. The fronts of the houses have no gardens at all – the doorstep is right on the street. About ten years ago, as soon as we realised that we had a child who needed to run, lots, every day, we started to factor our local park into our day to day lives.
I can remember jogging around the play area in steady rain, tailing Pearlie, in her all-in-one waterproofs and welly boots. She was about two and I was probably fitter than I ever was before, or since! Later on, I spent most of a whole summer in the park, with little baby Leo feeding and sleeping under the big tree by the sandpit and three year old Pearlie learning to swing herself and climb to scary heights on the climbing frames. She watched her friend D chalking his name around the place and was doing it herself by the autumn. We took toys of all kinds – balls, scooters, little trucks to fill with sand, skipping ropes – and books. As Leo grew older we usually took paper and pens too. Leo has often sat beside me, drawing for an hour or more, while P plays with friends.
This park is really a communal garden for the people of this area. There have been days when I guess there must have been fifty people I knew, to a greater or lesser extent, in the park. There are plenty of people who I never really see in the winter months but nod to in the park - people I was at breastfeed drop-in with eight years ago, people I see in the shop, people whose kids are at school with my nephews and niece. And, in the last four years that we’ve been home edding, I have realised that the park has always been a key feature in that part of the local community too. At least once a week, in the summer, we can usually be found with other home edders in the park. There are often children from babies to teens playing, chatting and hanging out.
It’s a bit sad that you don’t see more schooled older children in the park, but you don’t. Most of them get bussed across town to secondary schools and by the time they’re back it’s quite late and they have homework to do, I guess.
It isn’t an idyll, by any means. Sometimes things kick off a bit and last weekend somebody set fire to the lovely, wooden train during the night - and pretty much destroyed it. Our kids were sad to see it go and so was I. Many is the hour I spent in the back - being driven to London, the sea, the shops. I’ve also sat crammed in there in a downpour, handing out biscuits and waiting for the rain to stop.
But the park will be fine. It’ll survive because it is loved. It’s a circular thing – people use the park because people use the park. I have known plenty of other parks in my life that weren’t used much at all – so there was no-one to hassle the council when the stuff got broken, no-one to dissuade vandalism and violence and they weren’t nice places to be. I’m not sure how you change that. Round here, there is a combination of lots of families with children, without large gardens of their own, but with a thriving park nearby. It must have evolved that way. Possibly, one of the other strengths is that people have enough money to support the wonderful park cafe. It is just a kiosk but it serves home-made cakes and scones, sandwiches, hot drinks and crisps. This means that adults are generally quite relaxed – not itching to get home for a cup of tea!
Over the years, people campaigned (off and on) for toilets in the park - instead of the one, dodgy, dirty automatic cubicle. Now we have them. They aren’t the most beautiful toilets you could ever use – as lots of small people use them unaccompanied – but they’re fine. You can change your baby in there when the weather’s rubbish. They have solved the problem of wee and poo in all the bushes!
For me, the park has been little short of a sanity saver, at times. We can shut the door of our house, leave all the stuff for later and just escape to somewhere with a bit more space. In the summer when Leo was a baby I sometimes spent the entire day there. I think it was serving as a sort of alternative village square or something. There was usually someone who could hold the baby for a minute or who would come to fetch me if P fell over. I’m not someone who could function living in a commune – I need my personal space – but I love the hub that is our local park. It is one of the many reasons why I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the world.