‘Oh my God, like, have you done Burgess?’ said the young woman near us, to someone just out of view. ‘The people there are so friendly!’
That’s when it struck me. People are using parks like once they used bars, in the Before Time: To get a change of scene, see friends, sink a couple of bevvies… Parks are, at least for the time being, the new pubs.
We were sitting in the magnificent four-way shelter atop Brockwell Park, gazing across at the spire of Holy Trinity Church, bathed in late afternoon sun.
‘Thank you, God,’ I said.
‘What?’ said Roxy, sparking up a beast.
‘I am thanking God for giving us parks,’ I said.
‘The same God that sent the pestilence and closed all the pubs?’
‘He moves in mysterious ways.’
‘You move in mysterious ways,’ she said, ‘Especially since your Chalfonts flared up again.’
It’s funny to think that the idea of boozing in a park simply wouldn’t occur to some people. They look, broadly speaking, like you and me, these people; they walk and talk and sit and stare, but they just don’t like drinking in parks, or won’t allow themselves to. Unfathomable. And a large part of why I had to give up full-time employment.
But for the rest of us, as the weather cheers up, it’s parky time! Now that we’re allowed to meet another person socially (‘What have you been up to?’ ‘Nothing.’) and, later in the month, five other people outside, this is all set to be the Spring of Parklife.
But no two parks are the same, and our demands and requirements are ever-shifting, changing day to day, depending on the weather, our urge to explore, and, some would say, inherent fussiness.
We may need cover on a wet day, for example, or shelter on a windy day. We may need elevation. We may need supplies or tables or benches. And we will always need the toilets, about every half hour once you get started.
So, here, in no particular order, are some of our top spots for parks and recreation.
There’s a lot to be said for the sweeping-if-somewhat-barren majesty of the Common – not least that it’s open all hours – but it’s the Park, at the southern end, that offers the tables, benches and lavs so important for the outdoor socialiser.
You can load up at Hop, Burns & Black or, when they’re allowed, the Ivy House and the Herne Tavern. The latter did a cask Harvey’s Sussex Best takeaway last summer so delicious that I sometimes taste it still, in dreams.
Having said that, the old lido fountain at the northern tip by the Rye pub, does offer some seating and secluded piss spots, but this has long been the preserve of real-life, professional tramps. They’re a friendly bunch, but they will ask for your shoes.
On the eastern reaches of my park-jaunt perimeter lies the upraised and uplifting Hilly Fields, Brockley. Quite abruptly, you find yourself 175ft above sea level looking over the stupid City, where people work and everything.
It’s this hilliness that allows you find a spot out of the wind whichever direction it happens to be blowing – an important consideration until it’s proper T-shirt weather – and the cafe also has a handy public toilet, should you need to expel anything you might have picked up from waterintobeer or Brockley Brewery.
Roxy was also keen to mention what she calls the ‘stoner circle’, which on further interrogation turned out to be the twelve large granite stones put up to mark the new millennium in 2000. Either way, it’s a lovely bit of green.
Crystal Palace Park
This awe-inspiring Victorian ‘pleasure ground’ features ruins, lakes, dinosaurs, a maze, a concert bowl and the National fucking Sports Centre. And still the best thing of all is sitting with a tinnie or a smoke, gazing at the views.
Beer yourself happy at Craft & Courage up on the Triangle, or if you’re coming from the east, drop into Southey Brewing. You could even pick up some Deserter IPA. It’s bloody lush.
Enjoying sunsets shouldn’t be the preserve of holidaymakers or vampires, and the western sections of this little park on the edge of Camberwell offer an excellent vantage point to enjoy some crepuscular rays. Toilets are on hand, too, in the old pavilion.
You can dodge the wind at the ex-bowling green and there are occasional music performances in the bandstand over the summer. In fact, there is an application in to make these more frequent and even add a mobile bar this year.
Sounds good in principle but one of the great things about parks, of course, is tranquility, so you have to be careful what you wish for. Do we need daily twilight techno? Probably not. And rather than paying festival prices for pints of lager, the Tesco Express on Denmark Hill has a very decent drinks selection. It’s almost as if they know.
This seemingly ever-expanding park, now one of London’s biggest, was reclaimed from derelict industry, housing and waterways and assembled and landscaped over decades. Well done, everybody.
As well as the aforementioned friendly people, Burgess Park offers lakes, toilets, a cafe and a succession of curious mounds on which to get high.
For booze, Orbit brewery and bottle shop is nearby and the petrol station on Camberwell Road offers something called a ‘Beer Cave’, which almost sounds better than a park, to be honest.
To get a more easterly perspective for this list, I asked Deserter colleague, Dirty South, where he has been visiting during these difficult times.
‘Oh, I’ve got a lovely little spot near me, on Blackheath,’ he told me. ‘A bench by one of the duck ponds, just across from the Hare & Billet.’
‘Isn’t that where you go anyway, when there isn’t pandemic?’ I said.
‘Is it?’ he said. ‘I thought it was familiar.’
‘What about Greenwich Park,’ I asked.
‘It’s a bit busy for me, if I’m honest – and if it’s not people, it’s deer, which is alarming,’ said the Dirty One, who is at two with nature. ‘But you can’t argue with the views.’
You certainly can’t. From the top of the hill there is a knock-out vista down to the Royal Naval College and across the river to Canary Wharf.
Here you can inform your drinking buddies, as I recall doing, that Canary Wharf is named after the Canary Islands, which in turn is derived from the Latin name Canariae Insulae, meaning ‘Islands of the Dogs’. Which is funny because Canary Wharf is in, yes, the Isle of Dogs! Only to turn round and find they’ve all wandered off somewhere without you, like the trivia philistines they are.
One Tree Hill/Camberwell New Cemetery
I know what Dirts means about crowds, though; they’re not always what you want. Not in a pandemic. I discount the popular family hangouts of Dulwich Park and Horniman Gardens for the same reasons – they’re lovely spots, but teeming with parents and children, and I get enough of that at home. ‘Not enough outlaws,’ as the Dentist put it on a recent visit.
But I do like One Tree Hill, which might fall into the same category. You get the views, but its canopy of trees (for the name is a lie) offers something different from open parkland, and when you’ve had enough of something different, you can pop next door to the cemetery to pay your respects to the dead with a powerful DIPA.
Is it disrespectful to down a DIPA with the dead? The way I see it, if they really minded, they could always haunt me, and I’ve never even seen a ghost, apart from when I called heads or tails correctly 20 times in a row and Spider had to give me all his money and go for a sit down. Personally, I’d be positively honoured if anyone turned my grave into a pop up bar.
However, talking of near-death experiences, beware getting locked in the cemetery later on. A year ago, Micky Science and I got locked in while celebrating a good day on the Cheltenham Races and had to scale the spiked iron perimeter fence to escape. Two layers of my clothing were pierced in the process, which was just as well as the third would have been pristine arse-cheek. I was quite shaken and it was all I could do to make it to the Watson’s for a pint.
Beckenham Place Park
Roxy reminded me of this belter, where she once forced me – kind of – to abandon my car and get gently sozzled in the sun. True, I’ve not been since, but I bet it’s been a tremendous boon to locals during lockdowns.
I remember wildlife, lakes, rivers and even trains. Best of all, it’s big. Big enough to get momentarily lost in, which I like. I’m lost in the countryside! you can think to yourself, or even text a mate. And when they turn up an hour later to rescue you, you can see if the Shortlands Tavern is open.
And then there’s Brockwell. I mean, really, this one’s got the lot.
Most parklifers would kill for an adjacent brewery. Brockwell has two: Canopy and Bullfinch. Trooping up to the top of the hill with a litre of Up the Creek Kveik or Wolf American Pale in your duffle bag, well, you feel like you’ve arrived, like you finally understand what afternoons are made for.
The Hobo Hut, as we call the shelter at the top, is a lockdown lifeline. Not only are you under cover and sheltered from the wind, the view in every direction is sublime. Yes, even the one of the toilets, because after a certain point in proceedings it’s nice to keep an eye on where they’ve gone. (For gents, the outdoor urinal there is a wonder. Pissing while gazing at the clouds is the very quintessence of parklife.)
And the hill, as we were discovering, makes for good sunset action, too.
‘It’s like fucking San Antonio up here,’ said Roxy, as a socially-distanced crowd gathered for sundown, ‘Where they clap the sunset.’
And sure enough, there was a murmur of appreciation and a ripple of applause as the sun dipped below the horizon. We even joined in. I guess we’ve not had much to cheer in the last year, and we’ll take what we can get.
The main gates close at dusk but over by the lido, opposite the Prince Regent, a gate stays open into the night, allowing you to slip out – or indeed in – when you’re good and ready. As I say, it’s got it all.
We are blessed with parks in London: 35,000 acres of them, 40% of the city. That should keep us going for a bit. And you don’t have to book, you can just pitch up with a bag ’o cans and a camping chair and you’re good to go. Not even that if, like me, you’re happy to lean on a tree.
‘What if we all get used to them and just go to parks from now on and never go back to pubs?’ I said to Roxy.
‘Don’t be daft. Where else am I going to chat shit with drunks and idiots all day long?’ she said, looking at me. ‘Oh, hang on…’