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.
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?