My first trip to Hyde Park was the summer of 2008, when I studied in London for a month with other privileged Americans. We were at the London School of Economics, right in the center of the city, but more than a quick walk from the park. NYU to our Central Park. Hyde Park was another box on my touring list, snuggled between trips to Tate Modern and Harrods. I lived in Boston at the time, but had spent almost zero time in the city’s outdoor spaces. My outdoor time was generally spent on a field, and honestly, I wasn’t sure how to act in a public park. Especially alone.
The most memorable part of that trip was that I took the Tube (subway) to the park. Something about packing yourself in a small train 100 feet below ground in order to find some slice of nature didn’t feel right. Beyond that, I had no sense of direction. Not a smartphone or a map, nothing. Like a little gopher, I popped out and headed toward open space, constantly afraid I’d lose my reference point. I can still feel the unwillingness to leave the station behind. That was an important lesson, don’t keep your reference points. You can’t get very far if you’re stuck on a leash.
The east side of the park is bordered by one of the city’s largest roads, full of buses, taxis, and cars. Directly within the east gates is a walking path, then a larger, vehicle-width road that acts as the border of the park’s fields. These fields, especially on the north east side, are flat, groomed, and open. It’s a welcome view when everywhere else in the city gives no more than a few dozen feet of unobstructed viewing. When I first caught a glimpse of the fields, I was taken back by just how many people were playing soccer.
As far as I could see, there were pick-up soccer games. I’ve gotten to understand these games better over time, European pick-up soccer, that is. I grew up playing sports on full sized fields with plenty of space to run. These were miniature pitches, contained by adjacent games, walking paths, and the players desire to run. The athlete in me wanted to join, see what I still had left. That was a dream though, there was no chance my lonely self would interrupt a game of strangers. The idea that the games were open if I wanted to, though, kept me satisfied.
Fairly quickly, no less than fifteen minutes after arriving, the rain started and I headed for the Underground. It was a nice reprieve from the outdoors and a good way to avoid my own growing desire to join a game. I’d seen about 5 percent of the park, and two things stuck out: soccer and walking paths. It was great to see people playing sports, but why was the park so groomed? Five foot wide, asphalt paths slicing through a perfectly good field, it painted a picture of London for me. The natural, wild feeling I had hoped for wasn’t about to be found here. The park wasn’t a piece of nature plopped into a city, but a city block bulldozed and planted with grass. Who could find escape in such a place? Well, ten years later, it’d be me.