Every once and a while, I feel like a real Londoner. Someone asks for directions, and I offer advice like a boss. Getting through Seven Dials is nothing to me. I can get to Battersea and Bermondsey (and have pub recommendations in both places.) I can navigate the exits of Old Street like a native. Someone asks someone else for directions, and the answer is dodgy and I step in and give pro tips. (“Don’t wait for the 271–any bus will take you up the hill to Waterlow Park, and frankly, it’s close enough to walk,” I whisper.) I navigate without a map. THROUGH COUNCIL ESTATES. My sense of direction is strong. I can recommend coffee shops and where to get a real ale all over town. I can name some magical tourist sites off the beaten path, and I know that you can use your Oyster card on National Rail within the city–take that Overground weekend closure!
But then, as soon as that feeling arises, I have to travel to Gunnersby. There (only in Zone 3 for goodness sake,) I am reminded how big and sprawling London is, how my knowledge is really based on false pride (and in the end is so small as to be insignificant,) and how many pockets that I have never heard of hold treasures I never imagined.
And I guess that’s what it means to be a Londoner: To have a tight grip on a corner of the metropolis and to live in the knowledge that your corner is tiny and your grip tenuous.
For me, however, this is exhilarating and inspirational. Like staring at the ocean, I find the sense of how small I am in the vast universe strangely comforting.
Which brings me back to unexpectedly scenic Gunnersby. I was early to an event there a few weeks back, and I got off the tube at Acton Town. Walking directions took me through residential streets and along a motorway, but a giant park was close by, and the weather was lovely, and I had time to kill, so there I found myself in Gunnersby Park.
It’s a ruin, really, a classic pile. It’s even on the English “Heritage At Risk” list. It’s crumbling, it’s decayed, and it’s magical. Off the tourist path, it’s a place where the didactics are so faded and so damaged as to be nearly unreadable. Because of this, Gunnersby Park seems to ask for the full Lettice and Lovage treatment, inviting you to make up the story of the place.
I look at my photos now, and they in no way capture the peaceful nature of the place on a cloudy spring day. It’s a spot paradoxically inviting by way of its neglect.
I went to the Ruin Lust exhibit at the Tate Britain last month, which explored (the title is the spoiler!) the obsession we have with ruins, both real and imagined. I’m like that: obsessed with ruins. I just got back from Crete, where I spent days pacing out ancient sites like I was going to buy them (to paraphrase Our Town.) What I love most about London is that wherever you look, there’s a story. Even my garden, for example, turns up 17th-century clay pipes. Places I love all over the planet are often repurposed spaces made up of ruins, whether they are on the tourist map (The Highline) or not (Clipper Mill and The Patapsco Female Institute in Maryland.)
Gunnersby is not quite yet fully repurposed. There’s a museum (which is sadly closed on Mondays, the day I visited,) and a kitchen garden (located within the original walled kitchen gardens of the estate,) but the decay is still marching in and there appears to be no concerted effort to stop it.
I’m not against restoring Gunnersby Park to its former grandeur and full potential, but I am saying that something magical is happening now–in that ruins reveal stories that were there all along, but are uncovered only through neglect.
And I guess if I was a different kind of blogger, I’d conclude with some grand metaphor about life, but instead, I’m just going to leave this here.
It’s falling apart, and it’s beautiful.