Not far off one of the arterial roads that connects Nottingham to the motorway system, a dual carriageway where traffic churns pretty much 24/7, there’s a drive-in McDonalds. Opposite, there’s a turning that branches with two routes into Old Basford. One takes you over a stone bridge by a church, and towards industrial units where you can buy sheet glass or get your car fixed. The other, along a wall behind which trains rattle, past a boarded-off site that’s never been repurposed in any of the ways local rumour has suggested, to a place of terraced houses.
Locally, rather than take unwanted items to a tip people tend to leave them outside their homes for passers-by to choose whether they want a wooden CD holder with a missing shelf, a wonky spice rack, a stray toaster. Before now I’ve come home with things that I can use, or that I know a neighbour might appreciate for the kids she looks after in our back gardens.
A couple of minutes away Vernon Park welcomes Sunday league footballers, dogwalkers, families tossing a frisbee. Half an hour ago a guy in his 20s leaning back on a bike watched his 3 kids play, agreeing with their mother that they’ll have McMuffins for breakfast in a while.
I’ve been enjoying the park on a daily basis for a few weeks now. Sometimes I’ll use the exercise equipment that’s been there since 2012 courtesy of the Queen. The roads were packed when she came, on a blazing hot day. I still don’t understand what she had to do with putting gym gear there, planted in concrete to deter anyone who might want to uproot a rowing machine for their garden, but I’m appreciative of the fact.
Getting to know Vernon Park better has helped me understand the concept of parks more generally. They’re interesting spaces. If I’m not making use of the exercise machines, then I’ll take a wander around the whole area. I could use any route across the grass, through the trees, by the pond - but what I actually do, more or less, is follow a tarmac path. The whole space has been designed with that in mind, allowing you to take in a variety of scenes as you do.
Coming through gates painted municipal green there’s a low building with a 1980s feel. There are changing rooms for footballers and those who use the tennis court, toilets for anyone, and rooms available for hire. I’ve been to a Slimmer’s World class there, and voted in the exact same space on several occasions.
Just after that building is the first of the 20-odd bins dotted around the park. Dog owners are requested to deposit bagged droppings there. I use them to put in the litter I sometimes collect, which I started to do when after a few days of visiting I started to feel like one of the custodians of this shared space.
That notion of communal territory is interesting. I don’t feel obliged to pick up litter on streets, so how come I do when there’s grass around me? Partly it’s about the visibility of that litter against the green, but there’s more to it. A park feels different in all kinds of ways, and the space shapes our behaviour. You’re more likely to engage with people in a park. In an open space, where there are trees, and animals run more or less free, we change in ways that are good for us. The greetings we exchange, the little conversations that crop up, are a reflection of that. Something social is happening for which we are grateful.
The outdoorness of it all is critical. And connected to that, a park is somewhere for everyone. Unlike so many other places we spend time, a park is not branded except in the most basic ways. It has a name, and that’s pretty much it. Compare to the urban experience, where logos shriek at you from every building, insisting on the right of the corporations they denote to impinge on your consciousness. Instead, give me birdsong, lime trees, and a chance of spotting the heron who’s become an occasional resident.
There are more subtle aspects I’m still pondering. Walking by the pond, approaching a path that leads to one of the entrances, you go under a stone arch. It changes the way I feel as I do, and that’s about more than stepping through brickwork. Something about the surface above flickers constraint along with shadow as I step beneath. For an instant, the feeling of being inside strobes within, like a switch has been flicked.
We need spaces like this, and I am blessed to have one on my doorstep. And I have some sense of how others experience it. The retired chap with a dodgy hip who circumnavigates the park five times before going home, where he will have lunch with his grandkids a couple of times a week, and in the evening sit in the garden with a bottle of wine as he does his crossword. The veiled women who laugh as they picnic on a huge blanket. The geezer with swept-back hair and a cigarette who takes his aged mum for a walk. The Turkish man with three rods lined up hoping for fish he can catch to eat and sell. The middle-aged guy perched on a rock at the back of the library using its wi-fi so he can send job applications from his laptop.
I think about other places I’ve known. The woods in Disley where I spent my 50th birthday, bathing my feet in a chill stream under a canopy of trees. A beach in Anglesey, the sea lapping against a pebbled beach as it has for millennia. A mountain in Bavaria I climbed with my father, looking at the tapestry of landscape unable to discern signs of human presence. A walk around Uluru, radiating something primal and mythic with a visceral intensity that punches through the frenetic surface of the branded world’s greedy hold on mind. Companies pay millions to create brands hoping they will establish a foothold in the consciousness of consumers, but the presence of something so powerful demanding nothing while offering so much makes it clear how pale, how needy, how empty that clamour for attention is.