The glorious sun which succeeded a week of grim, grey, damp and dreary days had everyone out in Victoria Park on Sunday – the families, the dogs, the cyclists, the runners. In fact, most of the population of Tower Hamlets and Hackney which bound the park – and were jointly responsible for running it until 1994 when Tower Hamlets took over alone. And a very fine job Tower Hamlets makes of it too.
The park has won endless Green Flag awards, has been certified as a Green Heritage Site by English Heritage and Keep Britain Tidy and has been voted Britain’s most popular park in more than one year. A £12 million refurbishment programme starting in 2010 has certainly helped to re-establish the park’s popularity while also restoring a number of its original features. Many of these had either been flattened or damaged beyond repair during WWII when park was closed to the public and used as an anti aircraft [ack ack] site and to house prisoners of war. Restorations include the Chinese Pagoda originally brought from Hyde Park in 1842 after the closure of the Chinese exhibition.
(For those interested in such things, the Dictionary of Victorian London site has a selection of cuttings from contemporary newspapers and journals describing the Chinese Exhibition and ‘the countless objects with which this vast and valuable collection abounds and which surpass in extent and oriental grandeur any similar display in the known world’.)
When it arrived in Victoria Park the pagoda had been established on an island in the lake but the bridge intended to link it to the shore had never been built. But now, as you can see, it has been.
Most of London’s parks started their lives as hunting or pleasure grounds belonging to the crown or to wealthy landowners (Hyde Park and Regent’s Park) or as common land (Hampstead Heath). Victoria Park is unique in that it was created very specifically as a park for the people by Queen Victoria in 1842 on the advice of epidemiologist William Farr and in response to a mass petition. The Crown Estate bought 88 hectares of land which included a bishop’s palace and parkland and Sir James Pennethorne, a pupil of John Nash of Regent’s Park fame, was appointed to design it.
(Anyone who delved into the archives for the Chinese Exhibtion might also be intrigued by the National Archives entry for James Pennethorne linked above. It catalogues his other achievements and his fascinating plans for London which included the old Public Record Office in Chancery Lane.)
The original park was ornamented with ‘healthful and decorative features’, many of which were restored in the 2010 refurbishment – such as the bathing pond, the fantastical Angela Burdett Courts drinking fountain (she of the Holly Lodge and Holly Village developments in Highgate) and two pedestrian alcoves from London Bridge.
These had been bought from the old London bridge when it was demolished in 1831. The old bridge had been lined with 14 such alcoves built both to accommodate pedestrians trying to avoid being mowed down by the many carts, carriages and animals crossing the bridge, and to give extra lateral support to the bridge between the arches.
The park also hosts a wealth of sporting activities. The oldest model boat club in the world, founded in 1904, holds up to 17 of their regattas on the Victoria Park lakes. The park has three all weather cricket pitches and a three lane cricket net; the Victoria Park Harriers and Tower Hamlets Athletic club celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2006 and when I arrived yesterday, about six Sunday League childrens’ football matches had just finished.
But if you are not sporty – never fear. Victoria Park music concerts are legendary many of them also doubling as protest events. Check in here for the All Points East festival coming up next August.
And if all that is not enough to get you hopping on the train to Hackney Wick, then there is still the Victoria Park Sunday market where not only can you buy bone broth to restore you to perfect health…
…before heading back past the wonderfully decorative Lord Napier pub – to the equally colourful Hackney Wick station.