The little recreation ground which lies about twenty metres below the kitchen window of this flat and just under where the world’s aircraft, bound for Heathrow do a final sharp turn before drifting down the last eighteen miles or so to earth, is undergoing a dramatic change. The sounds of children playing, footballs being kicked, people whizzing down the slide and the squeaking of swings have been replaced over the last ten days by the sounds of a small mechanical digger making large holes in the ground and heaving around great shovels full of rather ripe and deliciously fertile-looking earth. And the erstwhile population – eager legions of little – and some not-so-little- people running helter-skelter hither and thither, shouting and laughing has morphed into four large men in safety jackets, hard hats and their own personal portaloo. For the next few weeks the metal gates are locked, children and all-comers banned. For someone somewhere – and it’s a puzzle in this time of cuts, cuts and more cuts – has found the money – and it can’t be cheap – to extend the recreation ground and even to add a few new playthings, apparatuses – whatever you call the things children play on in places like that.
However, the word of these changes seems not to have spread quite as far perhaps it should have done. Children often scurry ahead of their parents along the winding paths through the trees of the park, eager to get started on throwing themselves around and are suddenly brought up sharp by the firmly locked gates. For a few seconds, they stand there dumbstruck, unable to compute this lockout. Then they rattle the gates. Then they turn to the approaching parent who is often equally dumbstruck and perhaps even a little affronted that they were not personally informed of this. Occasionally one of these thwarted toddlers will burst into tears.
But then something else takes over – curiosity. For what’s actually going on down there makes an intriguing sight. The whole of the original recreation ground plus the large extra area which the restructuring will add to it, is surrounded by high but completely see-through metal fencing. Everything within it is clearly still a bit embryonic, but where once there were swings, there is a now a complex erection of stout wooden struts and spars, sunk into the earth, three metres or so high, which looks like a row of gibbets. The metal horse which used to heave forward and backward going nowhere, is now on his side, abandoned on the ground with a hangdog expression. His place seems to have been usurped by a deeply sunk, steel disc which I can only assume is the beginning of a merry-go-round. And then further on among a group of trees, some very large, irregular wooden constructions are going up made from huge timber spars treated with some yellowy substance. One of them involves a couple of huge coiled metal springs. It looks a bit like a military assault course and intended for people well-above toddler age. But I guess we’ll have to wait for their real function to reveal itself as the days go by – unless you’re more familiar with recreation grounds than I am.
So curiosity takes over and many of those who came to play, and being thwarted, to complain and/or cry, often stay to wonder, sit down, watch and point fingers. And indeed this last weekend, there were families picnicking on the grass around the fenced-off area in which this transformation is taking place, like in a different location they’d picnic around a lake or a river. In the throes of its rebirth, the recreation ground has become a local tourist attraction.
It may or may not be a coincidence – it surely is not? – that at about the same time as this work is due to be completed, there is to be a big local festival in Crystal Palace. Many of the events will take place in this park. So if I’m right and the reborn recreation ground and the festival are due to coincide, the four big men in hard hats have only that time in which to transform this intriguing building site into a recreation ground fit for the discerning. For it is clearly going to be a must-see/must-have-a-go attraction for swarms of festival-goers from toddler level upwards.
I hope the weather holds. It’s warm and sunny at the moment, but with the jollifcations still almost three weeks away, that means very little. There are a lot of things I would not wish to be, and the organiser of any outdoor summer activity in this country would come near top of the list. So whoever you are, power to your elbow; I hope you win, triumph, come through, and despite the worst the gulf-stream may possibly throw at you, do have a successful festival. In the event of rain, we shall be watching from the kitchen.