Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Regent's Park

When I arrived in London last month, I had a few days before starting my housesitting gig, and I took advantage of those days to wander around and play tourist. I was staying at a hostel in Camden Town, so it was a fairly short walk to get over to Regents Park, something I ended up doing every morning once I realized that the only coffee at the free breakfast buffet at the hostel was (shudder) instant, and after I found the Cow and Coffee Bean Café at the beginning of the Broad Walk, the long straight paved path that leads from the Avenue Gardens, full of benches and flowers and topiary, to the London Zoo. Unpaved paths curve away across the fields on either side, and the morning coffee drinkers and newspaper readers give way to afternoon frisbee-players and picnickers - if the weather's good. The second morning I sat on a bench underneath the trees, just out of reach of the misty drizzle, sipping my soy latté and watching damp joggers huff past.

Sunny mornings brought out the herds of little yappy dogs, Yorkshire terriers and chihuahuas and papillons, running around the ankles of their well-dressed chatting owners or darting into the walkway, causing bicyclists to swerve abruptly. Older men with older dogs watched silently from the benches, then ambled off under the trees. The park grounds were once owned by Barking Abbey, but when Henry VIII decided that he was going to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England, that abbey was shut down in 1539 and all of its lands taken over as Crown property, which they remain today. The Crown does a very nice job of keeping the park toilet facilities clean, by the way.

The park was designed by John Nash at the beginning of the 19th century; he also designed the Regency-era "terraces" around the edges of the park, the long curves of pillar-fronted joined row houses where the well-dressed dog owners live. Apparently there was supposed to be a summer house for the royal family built inside the park, but the project ran out of money before it could be started. The zoo was built at about the same time, though at first it was only open to scientists. The $40 entry fee to the zoo was a bit steep for me, even though I could have gone to visit Harry Potter's snaky friends (apparently that enclosure houses a black mamba, not a Burmese python, so future glass-dissolving spells should be avoided).

In the Middle Ages, all of this area was part of the Forest of Middlesex, and Henry VIII hunted the boar and deer found there. However, after the English Civil Wars - which I was going to try to summarize but sheesh, the Wikipedia entries go on forever, much like the wars themselves, so you'll have to read it for yourself if you're not already up to date on the events of 1642-1651 - the woodlands were parceled out and sold for timber, and only a few small forested areas are left in North London now. While the forest was cut into pieces, the end of the Civil War also created the Commonwealth uniting England and Scotland; in two days we'll find out if the people of Scotland have decided that it's time to cut the ties again. Hadrian's Wall might once again mark the border between Caledonia and Britannia.

Remnants of a later Empire dot the park, including the Sir Cowasjee Jehangir Fountain (no longer with running water) that was built by a man whose family became wealthy under British occupation; he helped establish the opium trade in China and got the nickname "Readymoney" which became even more appropriate when he was put in charge of the Empire's income tax department in Bombay. On the plus side, he did spend a lot of his own money on charitable works, including this fountain, which was used both as a drinking fountain and a watering trough for cattle being led to the slaughterhouses, and horses that pulled the carts and trams which formed London's main public transit system up until the first World War.

The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association was in charge of this and other public fountains between 1859 and the 1930s, more or less. Though they're no longer building livestock troughs, you can still see them everywhere in London, now generally planted with flowers. The Association also focused on clean drinking water and worked with temperance organizations to build fountains to give people an alternative to drinking beer, which was generally safer than the water normally available. The early fountains weren't quite as hygienic as the Benson Bubblers, but the association later abandoned the tin-cup-on-a-chain format for the more sanitary jet fountain.

Although it's only a replica, the floating restaurant Feng Shang Princess is a popular place for Chinese food that recalls the Hong Kong harbor. If you pretend that the algae-covered pond of the Cumberland Basin is a wide stretch of salt water, that is. Theoretically this restaurant could float all the way back down Regent's Canal to the Thames, if the waterway below Camden Locks were opened up again. For now, only the ducks can paddle down that way, but as in Paris the canal paths are popular for walking and cycling. When I go back to London in December, I'll be on the south side of the Thames, and I plan to walk along the river when the weather's good. And I'll be near Kyd Brook, the upper (or lower, depending on how you look at it) section of what becomes the River Quaggy, which flows into the River Ravensbourne, which flows into Deptford Creek, which flows into the Thames. As you can see by the fact that the penultimate destination is called a "creek," the word "river" is used rather loosely. I would have to cross several major roads or scuttle through culverts to follow the route exactly, but in theory I could float from Sutcliffe Park to the Isle of Dogs, barking all the way.

I would be barking, to try such a thing, but it's fun to think about.

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