Christopher Hawtree

Park life

Travis Elborough's A Walk in the Park and 22 Ideas that Saved the English Countryside reviewed

Petrichor. Coined as recently as 1964 but redolent of Eden onwards, the word appears in neither of these volumes but they are suffused with it. In denoting that tang which arises after rain has fallen upon dry ground, petrichor can make a stroll through park or hillside headier than any parfumier’s establishment. Down the centuries, as people moved into populous cities, such relish of open, green space has become all the more acute, with one man’s wild meadow another’s ‘development opportunity’.

With a steadily lengthening shelf of books that are threnodies for seaside holidays, the Routemaster bus, vinyl records, the transplanted London Bridge and now public parks, Travis Elborough is becoming a latter-day Alan Bennett. Let loose in an array of reference libraries, he summons many a curious fact (such as fashions in beards) from the shelves, which makes for a rich narrative. Essentially chronological and based upon England, with excursions to Versailles and Manhattan, his study lights upon places as the emblem of an era. After lively sections on earlier cavortings (stand up, Pepys), he dwells upon an increasingly civic spirit with the 1830s’ recognition that ‘progress wasn’t always that progressive’, for cramped conditions spread disease and dismay. Of course some, such as the academic Andrew Ure, asserted that child labour was so far from dangerous that ‘the work of these lively elves seemed to resemble a sport’; not ready to leave the matter there, Ure claimed that, mills being better ventilated than Parliament, the latter had no business in making legislation affecting the former.

How much more cheering to read of his contemporary John Claudius Loudon. Publisher of an early gardening magazine, he envisaged green belts, a passion which saw him unfazed by the loss of an arm and two fortunes.

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