Some people walk or jog, or walk their dogs, at the same time every day. You see ancient dons in their old tweed jackets often talking to themselves, shuffling on scuffed soles, or well-off retirees taking their post prandial stroll, or immensely fit post-grads during the vacation doing the circuit two or even or three times. Its a handy bit of green landscape sited between the Science area and oligarchic Norham and Crick Roads which once housed shabby professors and their large families.
Someone I knew at university in London was brought up in one of those gloomy Gothic piles with cheerless interiors. His father cycled his motherless children to the University Church on Sundays and they came back to congealed roast lamb and mint sauce followed by apple crumble, also cold, with top of the milk. Each morning the dour parent would hand each child four sheets of Jeyes toilet paper (hard and slippery) which was their ration for the day. My friend ended up in the Warneford Mental hospital at the age of 12.
The Parks are a good place to transit to the next life, which many have done by walking into the river. When I found a bench dedicated to one such person I felt a poem coming on. It’s called Memento Mori
When the goading to my sole became untenable I stopped
By a park bench propping my foot on the seat
Unlaced my shoe and shook out the grit.
The park was drenched in milky mist
Trees and pavilion ghostly faint,
Dogs running up and disappearing, leading their owners down the paths.
The bench of shiny new varnished hardwood
Tacked with a black metal plaque that read
“In memory of Sheila Weatherhead,
A dear friend who loved to walk in the Parks.”
And her face came to mind, a sad oval framed with a dark bob
Always a bob, that over years graduated to grey.
She favoured autumnal colours of mourning, willowherb and veronica,
Daily walking with steady pace to the city library, her place of work
Where she wore a long cardigan with pockets .
Someone said, “She would have loved to marry,
Have children,” but she walked into the river
And drowned. They brought her up a whole year later
But I found her memento mori only yesterday
And I thought of other friends, almost expecting to see Michael Aris taking his daily stroll with his long melancholic face, thinking of his wife. Or Greta wearing one of her chic hats and maybe her red Chloe overcoat, dreaming of Shakespeare’s sonnets. She too walked into the river, fittingly by the willows in Mesopotamia. Her dog ran home trailing its lead, but she wasn’t found for over a year.It’s a sad place, one of the sadder stretches being Lazenbee’s Ground in the North corner. Here are planted some of the exotic, statuesque trees- some before storms brought them down- by William Baxter in the late 19th century. Mongolian lime, Silver maple, Blue spruce, Tree of Heaven, Oriental plane (a pungent and resinous aroma of the essence of freshness when you crush the maple shaped leaves), Cut-leaved beech, Black mulberry, Himalayan birch, Highclere holly and one of many magnificent copper beeches that are scattered in the grounds.
Platanus orientalis , Oriental plane
Lewis Carroll wrote a poem (1867) about his dislike for how the Parks had been trashed to accommodate cricket!
How often have I loitered o’eer thy green When humble happiness endeared the scene…
Ill fares the place, to luxury a prey,
where wealth accumulates, and minds decay,
Athletic sports may flourish or may fade
Fashion may make them, even as it has made,
But the broad Parks, the city’s joy and pride,
Where once destroyed can never be supplied.
The thwack of leather on wood
And during the last few months, with Covid on the brain, the melancholy is accentuated by the memories and the shades of the fast fading leaves. Perhaps when the students return the gloom will disperse and we will recall sunlit picnics and playing tennis on the grass courts again.