This post began as a kind of experiment.
At one point it looked as though it might not end well, but we’ll come to that.
It started with a question I find myself pondering quite often: just how differently do other people (than me) see the same places?
Crystal Palace Park, for instance. When I think about it, (and other places), my perceptions usually come laden with all manner of baggage – things I’ve read, personal history and all sorts of likes and dislikes, both significant and trivial.
On any given visit these thoughts might range from Marshall Berman’s description of the grand historical Crystal Palace building, to wondering why so many crows are here strutting about, or who on Earth, (or on Bromley council’s parks and leisure spaces sub-committee), believed it was a good idea to describe a group of Sphinx statues as ‘The Guys’.
I might also think about Oak trees in light rain, how many selfish bastards does it take to scatter so much litter and whether Ice Cream vans parking themselves outside The National Sports centre is a good thing.
Then if I wrote about it in a blog piece, I’d be in danger of editing most of that stuff out, adding some local history from a popular, but out of print, local history book and then cack-handedly attempting to re-enchant the place with some lost Sydenham poet’s impressions of Ancient Penge.
Not this time. This time I want things to be different. An alternative view, that gets me away from me. A bit. So in a kind of cheat’s shortcut to Keatsian ‘Negative Capability’ and ‘Disinterestedness’, I bribe my eldest son, Sam – who’s about to turn 6 – with promises of treats and fun to come with me on an ‘adventure’ to Crystal Palace Park and then draw a map of it together.
“Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences”
– Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
I vow to do this his way, letting him decide when and what we’ll do – then almost instantly get annoyed and impatient as he spends ages jumping between some concrete blocks to one side of the bus station, before demanding a snack.
Already there’s a difference in approach. My instinct is to hurry past this area and get into the park-proper. For him these blocks of stone placed to stop cars or buses driving onto the grass are an obstacle course, something to jump on and inbetween.
Next in a stretch of flat lawn behind the bus station we stop to look at ‘the headless lady with no arms’ (she has arms ). She is a statue, probably once a Palace decoration, but now a battered relic. To my son she is at once terrifying and fascinating. We stop on some steps so he can eat crisps and announce that this place is like ‘a peace garden’.
‘What makes you say that?’ I ask.
‘It just is…well actually, they are where Ninjas go and sit like a Lotus. Come on, let’s go’ he says.
We skirt around a concentric circular flower bed – walking right at the edge, tightly following the curve. Then instead of taking the steps down to the next spot, we plunge through a steeply vertical desire-path – recently visited by eaters of KitKat and drinkers of Super Malt – through some shrubs and scrabble down to the flat, ‘proper’ path below.
I’ve been told we need to make a list of ‘scary stuff, cool stuff and things that might make you happy.’ These will form the main categories of things to be found here and marked on to our mooted child’s map of Crystal Palace Park.
Next we come to a Sphinx, or ‘Stinks’, imprisoned by temporary metal barricades. The statues of ‘the guys’ are undergoing restoration and the fencing makes them more interesting than normal to my son. These, I am informed, can go on the ‘cool list’.
We loop back a little towards the small Crystal Palace museum – I suggest we go inside, Sam is more interested in the ‘Prison’ to one side – a locked-iron gate to a dark and winding passage.
The gate reminds me of a similar one in Bristol’s Castle Park, guarding one of the few remaining visible parts of the former fortress. Me and my brothers and sisters used to press our noses right up to the bars and gaze down into the darkness, imagining ghosts and knights and whatever else might have been down there in the shadows. The gate guards a rubble-choked subterranean passageway beneath the long-demolished castle, once the sally-port, built to allow soldiers to slip out and surprise an attacking enemy.
This one is not quite as exciting, once leading to some boiler rooms, but that doesn’t matter to Sam, as he backs away from a shadow and says we need to add this place to the scary list.
We pop into the museum. I look at prints of the Crystal Palace, Victorian visitors, plans for Paxton’s great glass edifice. Sam looks between the two sides of a cardboard cutout photo display. He finds an intricate mess of cobwebs, meshed and redrawn countless times.
I’m arm-tugged back outside, then he’s diving back into the undergrowth, before swiftly returning and demanding to know what the tiny red dots on a series of leaves are, in the hope that they are some kind of minute red spider. This is a Daddy let down moment, as I don’t know the answer then and there. Later though, having done some research I try to explain that they were probably “plant galls on a sycamore leaf, the red swellings are the plant’s defensive response to attack from mites”, but it’s too late.
The fact he clocked these marks on leaves well below my head height, and previously unnoticed by myself, reminds me that the scale of things is very different to a child. Small things, lower down are more likely to be noticed. The park as a whole is – relative to our respective heights – more than twice the size for Sam than it is for me.
I’m looking up now to the Crystal Palace transmitter tower, which to me looms over this park like a gigantic mapping pin, but Sam’s having none of it. He shrugs, not particularly taken with it, we need to see the giant head now.
Before we get there we have to wait a while for groups of cyclists doing a Triathlon to speed past. Eventually, after wave after wave of lycra has whizzed off, we make it across the path.
This next landmark is a massive sculpture of Joseph Paxton’s head, carved in 1869 by F. Woodington, but to Sam it is simply ‘the giant head’ – a handy reference point for the nearby sloping concrete slabs, placed around a small rectangular square, which are brilliant for sprinting around and jumping off.
I ask if we are heading towards the lake and the dinosaurs – the famous, beloved part of this park. ‘Nah. They’re boring now’ he says. I try to mask my outrage. Instead we balance on a wall next to some tennis courts, then pass the sports centre and look out for model racing cars on a circuit below a concrete bridge. Today no one is racing. For one of us this is a disgraceful state of affairs.
Frustrated, we head for the dinosaurs. On arrival, via a twisting meandering sprint between prehistoric style plants on yet another slope, we see a Heron. The Heron makes Iggy the Iguanadon (not pictured) and friends a little more interesting. Though not as interesting as the rocks and bushes and footbridge over an algae covered finger of the lake.
We skirt around Megalosaurus and make for the Angry Gorilla. This is a 1961 David Wynne sculpture of London Zoo’s much celebrated Guy the Gorilla – but as with Paxton, this information seems irrelevant to six-year olds – what matters is that you can climb up the pedestal and sit between the creature’s huge front arms, pulling grumpy faces. At least until the queue of other children and tourists waiting to do the same begins to grow.
We take break with a perversion of an ice-cream – a sort of 99 with a red ice lolly sticking out of the coiled Mr Whippy goo where a chocolate flake should be. One of us thinks this is brilliant. The other considers that the looming Shadows of Brexit and President Trump aren’t the only signs that we are living in the end times.
Our final destination is nearly upon us, the maze. This is a surprisingly difficult example of the form – a properly deceptive labyrinth of hornbeam hedges – and the largest hedge maze in London. It marks the sight of the first scout rally in 1909 – which a group of girls also turned up to and demanded that something be done for them. A year later the Girl Guides were founded.
None of this matters to Sam: getting to the mound in the middle as fast as possible and touching the granite monoliths on route – each featuring different animal and flower designs, including bear and flower and dolphin – is what needs to happen here.
Before we go in, we stop to talk to some friends and their baby. Sam is nagging to go on in, edging closer, despite me asking him to wait. And then he’s in.
I follow, seconds behind, thinking he can’t have got far.
I can’t see him.
I start to follow the paths of the maze. Other children and their Mums and Dads are walking around smiling and giggling. Together. I still can’t see him. ‘Uh Sam’ I say hesitantly. No answer.
I keep going, two minutes perhaps have passed. This is ridiculous I think, of all the places to lose your child. A maze. What a cliché. How stupid. Why didn’t he stop? Why didn’t I go with him straight away? Five minutes now – far too soon to panic – even for a 21st century helicopter parent.
‘Sam, where are you?’ My voice slightly louder now. I start to run. 7 minutes or so but it feels like 20. I conjure M R James’ The Rose Garden, that awful pink-sweaty face peering through the plants. I picture the end of The Shining. Axe wielding writers running, running in crazed circles. Like me.
I think of Larry’s Party and the construction of mazes. I wish this one was easier, with shorter hedges. I wish Sam was shouting or being loud like normal. ‘SAAAAAAAAM’. Another group of older kids go past. Smiling family groups, giddy couples. 12 minutes. Horrible adrenal waves and empty gut chills are passing through me.
I look at the ragged edges of the trees beyond the formal hedging. I can’t help thinking that despite the difficulties for a small boy, or an overly polite Dad; the wrong kind of person, the worst kind of person, could easily grab a kid and exit this place in an unofficial way, pushing through the trees and bushes and make off through the huge park.
This ENORMOUS park we’ve been shambling about in for most of the day. This vast, tree covered, buddleia haunted, easy to hide in massive park.
All these thoughts converge within my head in the space of seconds. This is ridiculous. Don’t panic. It’s fine, he’s in here. He is. With loads of other kids. They’re all fine. What’s wrong with you? Get a grip.
My friend the Dad of the baby is now looking as well. 12 minutes, 15 minutes. SAM, SAM, SAM!!!!!…
A woman asks if I’m looking for a little boy. How could you tell I think sarcastically and hopefully and anxiously all at once. He’s over there, she gestures. I see another blocked off passage. SAM! Maze etiquette gone, I scramble over a granite post and jump down. Sam is there, looking very small, a bit concerned but not really worried. ‘Are you ok? Couldn’t you hear me…why didn’t you shout? Sam…’
Sam, of course, is fine. We head back to the bus station, one of us chastened and relieved and feeling a bit stupid, the other wanting to know what’s for tea.
We sit down at a bus stop. ‘Daddy’, Sam says. ‘I don’t feel like drawing you a map anymore’.
Links and References
Crystal Palace Dinosaurs
London Hedge Mazes