Special places

There are so many places you can stumble across in London that have a special feel to them.  If you are in a rush, then it is easy to note the special feel and just press on.  But if you have a little time, it’s a luxury to linger.
One such place is Postman’s Park, near St Paul’s Cathedral and next to St Botolph’s Church, also near the BT Centre.  I have often found myself with a few minutes to spare and spent some time in this shady, green spot, hemmed in between busy streets with buses and taxis rushing by and overshadowed by buildings ceaselessly being constructed and destroyed.  The park’s name derives from the fact that it was built near the original General Post Office (which was torn down years ago) and whose workers used to come here for lunch.
The wall is a memorial.   It is quite a reminder of those acts of extraordinary bravery and self-sacrifice which make up the fabric of a society and community that is not wholly motivated by personal ambition and greed:
‘ that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.’
(William Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey)

In most of these cases the man, woman or child died in the act of self-sacrifice to save another’s (or others’) lives.  Their act of self-sacrifice is commemorated simply but poignantly on a single tile on the wall.

The blue-and-white tile plaques were manufactured by Royal Doulton, and some were made by the Chelsea ceramics designer William De Morgan.  

They were installed by the idealistic artist George Frederic Watts and his wife – at his own expense, after his public appeal to mark Queen Victoria’s 1887 jubilee by recording “stories of heroism in every-day life” fell on deaf ears.   Each plaque consists of several tiles, with pleasing lettering and a variety of decorative motifs – mainly flames and flowers.

I’ve always been interested in how you can capture a key moment, the essential qualities of a person, or the ingredients of a life, in a small space (such as a plaque or a memorial stone), and this is a good wall for it.

You could write a story, or a folk song, about each of these simply stated, usually tragic events.  Or you could even write or sing the story of the wall.

No happy endings here….

There is something sobering and also melancholy about this place which offers a reprieve from the assault on the senses that hits you as you come out of the garden onto the surrounding roads.  It makes you put into perspective some of the everyday events taking place in these characterless office blocks, understand what the values espoused in so many corporate cultures really mean, and revisit bravery, courage and selflessness.  I also like the determination of Watts in creating his memorial.

 Special places just have that je ne sais quoi about them, it’s hard to put into words.  You know it when you find them, you literally feel a tingling in your bones or a new awareness, a heightened sensitivity, a descending calm and ease. 

I always remember the garden at Ickwell Bury which was one of the most special places I’ve ever visited.  Sitting by the lily pond with all the dragonflies whizzing around…. When you entered the garden a feeling of peace and well-being came over you, and it helped that it wasn’t entirely enclosed because there was a legal exit through a gate at the far end which took you into a nature reserve with a huge pond full of moorhens, ducks and wild geese – and then, beyond that an illegal path that took you round the pond and further into the nature reserve….  That feeling of openness and delicious trespassing made it more than just an ordinary garden. 

It was an open circle where people could come and go.
Where are your special places?

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10 Responses to Special places

  1. What a great post, and those pictures are very humbling and profound. What will we leave behind 100 years from now? Will we be remembered as people who gave everything to help another? Thanks for the essay and photos!

  2. Karin says:

    Glad you liked it, Mike. It’s an interesting time to be posing the questions you pose too, as we are poised on the brink of our Comprehensive Spending Review in the UK this week. I hadn’t thought about the timing of this post until I read your questions.

  3. Simon C Jones says:

    I have four special places, each with their own uniqueness.

    My first place is the West Australian desert where I had the chance to work on a very remote mining site for a year. It was hot, 52 degrees C at its highest and barren (from civilisation’s perspective). Of especial note were the desert storms that sometimes swept across the desert. The desert is massive, expansive, and the storms didn’t disappoint, listening to the thunder roll around the desert hills and the sounds of the huge rain drops falling around me, then seeing the lightening, but not just the main conduits we see in cities but the very fine filaments lit up by the clouds. These were very humbling experiences up against such massive energy and intensity.

    St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, is my next place. I took the time nearly 15 years ago to sit for hours under the dome to take in the magnificence of its architecture, and after a while I began to notice the symbolic significance of the view before me. High above the horizontal are two quarter sphere images either side of the Choir when looking towards the Altar. On the left an image of Christ immersing in to water, on the right the risen Christ in majesty – entering the subconscious and then transformed. The awe inspiring part for me is the gap, air, of about twenty metres between the two quarter spheres, looked on from above the Alter in the distance by the crucified Christ. I find it very difficult to describe that gap between the water and the transformation.

    Normanville is on the Fleurieu Peninsula on which Adelaide in South Australia is also built. It isn’t easy to get to and you have to pass a small beach will sulphur producing bacteria to get to it, leading on to a very rocky outcrop, but once half a mile on the world seems far away surrounded by high cliffs that echo your shouts back to you. There, where hardly anyone goes, you can sit, be pensive, listen to the waves crash on the rocks, take in the Sun and observe Nature.

    My last place isn’t so significant as the others, more an experience than a relevant place. I call it my shaft of light moment. In the early 1990s, recovering from a latest bout of severe illness I was at the ‘depths of the mothers’, very depressed, I had lost everything including a marriage. Lying on my bed, curtains drawn, some time during the day I awoke to a brilliant shaft of light cutting across the room highlighted by the specks of dust in the air; it landed on my hand. It was a numinous experience, one that threw me out of my melancholy like a rocket with such a burst of energy and will. It enabled me to appreciate the other, later, places above with greater depth of understanding and exploration.

    • Karin says:

      Simon, each of the places you write about comes to life through your powerful prose, and I feel like I’m there too. You bring Nature to life stepping off the screen. There is also something alchemical about these descriptions. Your ‘shaft of light moment’ is incredibly rejuvenating, it feels like an epiphany and a transformation. Thanks for making the effort to write this, I hope it’s been as good for you to write as it is to read.

  4. Viv says:

    Where to start?
    Many many places, but I found this one you describe poignant in the extreme.
    The garden at the back of the actors’ church, St Paul’s at Covent garden is a little oasis of peace and greenery….
    Too many to count, I think.
    thanks for these.

    • Karin says:

      Maybe you’ll share more in time, I will look out St Paul’s at Covent Garden, and will share more of mine in time too. I often drop into a church when in London, and the church in the Postman’s Park is also rather special.

  5. Chris says:

    Oh Karin – how you have taken me back! I have eaten many a lunchtime sandwich in Postman’s Park and enjoyed a brief respite there from the hassle of work and the London streets.

    We used to go regularly to some holiday cottages in Wales and they were a very special place to me. A barn owl nested in one of the roof spaces. The quality of the air and the light seemed to change as we rounded the final bend on arrival. It felt like coming home from a long journey – although in fact we were arriving after a long journey away from home which is on the other side of the country. The only other place I have experienced such a feeling is literally when coming home and approaching my house from one direction. Having seen the house and knowing that we wanted to buy it we had to wait some time before we could do so and one day realised that we had never driven past the house to explore further down the lane. So we did and when returning ‘the Wales feeling’ hit me hard. We knew then that we were doing the right thing. And twenty years later I still get the same feeling when I approach from that direction.

  6. Karin says:

    Chris, I had a feeling you might know the Postman’s Park as it is in your old stomping grounds. I love your description of approaching your house from one direction and the feeling of it being absolutely right. You have reminded me of a house which used to be a B&B in the Quantocks, where we used to go and stay – it had the most amazing garden as you walked up to the house and the house itself had the friendliest feel. We almost had the opportunity to buy it and move there but things didn’t quite work out, and in many ways that was probably better. But it had ‘the Wales feeling’ for me every time when arriving there. It is very hard to know what brings on that feeling, it just happens for some unknown reason, a connection between oneself and that place, vista or landscape.

  7. Madhu Sameer says:

    My special place is my home. And my garden too but primarily my home. I could write a lot about why, and how, and what it makes me feel so and how landscaping a backyard has me feel I am in heaven, but it may suffice to relate an incident.

    A few weeks ago we were out on the streets on a weekend…shopping, eating out etc, I had resigned myself to spending the whole day out because I felt it would be sacrilege to keep the kids at home on such a beautiful day. I asked my kids “what would you like to do next? Woodward Park? ” and they haltingly said “no, lets go home”…and on the way they told me something that made me realize that a lot of things are transmitted intergenerationally, without a word having been spoken. One of them said “I don’t know why, but I love home so much! It seems I never want to go away far from it. I don’t enjoy anything, being anywhere as much as I enjoy being home.” I couldn’t have captured the feeling with better words. After returning from a trip to Hawaii last year they had said “We’d rather have stayed home!”

    The space within, is comfortable and serene…..but I do wonder what this really means?

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