I live in London, which I love, but I also enjoy being outdoors. 'Maturity' and a degenerating disc in my lower back compel me to be active and maintain reasonable muscle tone, to support my spine; and while Pilates classes are marvellous, I want fresh air. But how can anyone enjoy the 'outdoors' in London, you may ask?
In an 'Aha!' moment, I discovered that in Lewisham - where I live - there are at least 80 parks and nature reserves. By walking in one of these green spaces each week I could be occupied for nearly 18 months, and my garden photography would surely improve. Country friends, who think of the capital city as skyscrapers and dirty pavements, simply don't believe me about the greenness of London. Four months later and even I have been surprised.
There is a thrill of anticipation and excitement as I set off for a new site - ever optimistic, I am sure it will be interesting and I will learn something new and enjoy myself. Even on days when my spirits are low, or it hurts me to walk, it never seems a chore to pack my camera and set off for the bus stop on a garden hunt.
Travelling along the A20 into London, near Goldsmiths College you can't miss the imposing library donated by Andrew Carnegie, but I was amazed when I walked round the corner and through an undistinguished gate in a row of Victorian houses. Luxmore Gardens is a peaceful green park with an enclosed children's play area and imaginative new planting - completely hidden between two rows of Victorian houses. It is near to my home, and although I have lived in Lewisham for nearly forty years this is the first time I have seen it!
I frequently drive past the Sue Godfrey Nature Reserve in Deptford, but I walked there for the first time in May to find a peaceful, country meadow with wildflowers and fruiting apple trees. As I wandered in the Reserve and in the Churchyard of St Paul's across a busy main road, I felt myself slowing down and becoming calmer. This usually happens when walking in the parks, but here, as soon as I walked through the enclosing walls and railings, there was a change in the atmosphere - the traffic and noise disappeared and it was almost like entering another layer of time. Perhaps this sounds fanciful, but - if you have experienced it yourself - perhaps not.
Ordinary Londoners appreciate these green spaces and I have noticed many 'Friends of the Park' groups which organise activities, raise money, improve the facilities, and even take part in gardening. The parks provide exercise opportunities for children and adults - and dogs - with plenty of space to run, skateboard, or just walk. I have also noticed several outdoor, portable gyms with draconian trainers: "Keep going! Keep up! Good work!" I can't imagine anything worse at the end of a long day - some people just enjoy the quiet.
I was born abroad, and I have noticed that people born here in the UK are often less curious about their surroundings. The sense of layers of time here leads me to try and understand the history of the parks in which I walk - perhaps it is a way of finding a sense of belonging, or connecting. Often there is a continuity of purpose over time, but always there is a need for green and natural spaces.
The DLR, which runs from Lewisham town centre into Bank, passes through Brookmill Park, alongside the River Ravensbourne. It may be small and unknown outside Lewisham, but this river was once the source of water for south east London and the site of several mills and factories. Eventually it became too polluted, and water was taken instead from London's artesian wells. Deptford Park was once part of John Evelyn's country estate and continues to be cherished, but Sayes Court Park, also part of the estate, seems to be under threat from multinational development companies. Pepys Park has extraordinary hidden squares and, although it was once the site of thriving commercial and Royal Naval dockyards, today the green spaces are well maintained. In Eckington Gardens, a housing estate carefully developed by the Haberdashers' Livery Company in the 19th Century, there is also some sense of ownership, with an active Friends Group. Then there are surprises, like a historic motocross track in Bridgehouse Meadows!
Above all, walking through trees and in wide open spaces is calming. There is time to look down, around and up, and to just enjoy the trees, the plants and the birds. I have enjoyed interesting contemporary planting ideas like the groves of white birches in Charlottenburg Park or the dry grass garden in Fordham Park, as well as beautiful old London plane trees and old oak trees in many of the parks. Whatever layer of time I feel myself inhabiting it is me-time, or as my mother used to say, 'space to bring yourself towards yourself'.
I look forward to many more months in Lewisham's green spaces, and after that Greenwich, Bexley, Southwark... There are 33 boroughs altogether in London - I don't have enough time!
Read Candy's blog on the Grand Surrey Canal Linear Park at London Parks and Gardens Trust Blog