I am a Hackney refugee living on the Thames Estuary, for the moment. You can read my blog at www.makemeadiva.wordpress.com
Published November 28th 2012
Voted Britain's Favourite Park
If you have ever watched the television soap EastEnders, you may have noticed that as the opening theme tune pans out from the River Thames, you can see a boot-shaped patch of greenery by the capital E of the title. That verdant patch amongst the grey streets is Victoria Park. The reason I mention this opening sequence, is because the programme really shows how the park lies at the very heart of the East End. In fact, it was originally founded to be 'the lungs' of the area.
Queen Victoria. Image by Alexander Bassano/Wikimedia Commons
Back in Queen Victoria's reign, the East End was full of slum dwellings. People lived in filthy, poor and overcrowded conditions and mortality rates for the area were much higher than the rest of London. Over thirty thousand local people signed a petition asking for the Queen to found a Royal Park in the East End and so in 1850, five years after work had started, the park was finally opened for the health and well being of real East Enders. A rather vivid description of the park's users can be found in a London 'Handbook for Strangers' in 1865, in which it was said Victoria Park provided 'a pleasant place of recreation' for 'its toil-worn denizens'.
Today, whether you are toil-worn or not, the park still shows signs of its original Victorian history with numerous beautiful gates in and out of the vast 290 acres and wide tree-lined avenues. This year the park was recognised as the jewel in the crown of not just the East End, or even London but the whole country: Victoria Park was voted the People's Choice and came first out of 1424 parks and green spaces in the competition organised by Keep Britain Tidy.
The park itself is elegantly laid out in two 'halves'. The west side, the smaller side, is more formal with a large lake and a café, planted flower gardens and a newly-designed children's playground featuring treehouses, rope swings and balance beams. The recent redevelopment of the park has also seen the addition of a skate park, and a Chinese pagoda, no less. On the eastern side, the park is more spacious and there is plenty of room for a kickabout or to ride bikes and scooters or walk the dog. Canals run alongside the southern and western edges of the park and if the your boots are made for walking you can ramble on the towpath right through the East of End of London up to Camden and Regents Park in Central London.
The People's Choice Park. Image by GreenFlag greenflag.keepbritaintidy.org
If a more leisurely day out is what you had in mind, Victoria Park has many local pubs and eateries in Victoria Park Village as well as many others dotted around the perimeter of the park. It is worth walking around the perimeter of the whole park at least once - see if you can spot the seating alcoves that were rescued from the old London Bridge and the Dogs of Albiciades (copies of a Roman statue, the original of which is presently housed in the British Museum). Local legend has it that the a dog rescued a child from drowning in the park lake and that a certain Lady Aignarth presented the statues to commemorate this act of canine courage in 1912. Sadly, the tale might be apocryphal but it's still a good story!
Have a pint in The Royal Inn on the Park. Image by Hackney Council www.hackney.gov.uk
If you venture deeper into the park interior you will find such hidden treasures as the deer enclosure, a model boating lake, a water-park for children and an ornate drinking fountain donated in 1861 by a member of the Coutts banking family to provide clean water for the poor. Just as when it was founded over 150 years ago, Victoria Park remains a place of leisure and relaxation for East Enders and Londoners of all ages, and is still worthy of a day out, all year round.