Walking with Zoe Shobbrook on 21 May 2011

Richmond Park (Night Time)

I am walking with my friend Zoe Shobbrook. Zoe was a couple of years below me at university in Glasgow but returned to Richmond a few years after graduating. Living close to Richmond Park, once a Royal Hunting ground, the park is very familiar territory. In spite of this, Zoe has never visited it at night time, so a night time walk appeals. We are joined for some of this walk by her partner, Mark, and her son, Finley.

We enter Richmond Park just after11pm, through Cambrian Gate. It’s amazing how dark it looks on the other side of the gate – raven-black; no street lights, no lights from living room windows, just a sort of deep void. A couple out walking a dog pass us, torch in hand. We take the opposite path, and then navigate our way across some hilly, slightly treacherous grass-covered humps. Looking up, I am astounded to see stars; I’d have thought the lights from the metropolis would have neutralised them. Quite a few of the ‘stars’ are moving fast, revealing themselves to be planes (Heathrow flight path). Others are satellites. But some are definitely stars. As our eyes acclimatise the dark becomes more a charcoal grey. Scatterings of white mackerel clouds float above us, beautiful fragile sky patterns. We have brought a wind-up lamp but there’s no need to use it. Though it’s not particularly cold I’m glad I’ve borrowed a scarf from Zoe. Zoe is fully prepared for temperate weather, wearing a shiny, gold puffa jacket and a trapper-style hat (donated by Finley, half way through his journey).

Soon, we find ourselves on a tarmac road. It’s one of the car roads through the park (connecting Richmond with Kingston and vice versa). The vehicle gates to these roads are locked at night time affording a sense of liberation. As if spontaneously responding to this unusual reversal of priorities, Finley promptly lies down in the middle of the 20 miles per hour sign painted onto the road’s surface. Mark follows suit. It’s a joyfully rebellious moment.

Being in Richmond Park at night feels like being on an island; the colourful city lights, blinking in the distance, form a peripheral circle. I understand why parks are considered the lungs of a city. In the distance, tall buildings illuminate a carnival of reds, blues, greens, whites, emanating electricity (the buzz of the city made literal). There’s a constant low-rumble surround sound which might be the planes or the traffic, or both. The belly of the city.

Leaving the road we walk along a dirt track. Finley persuades us all to lie down and look up at the sky, to see if we can sense the earth rotating by watching the stars move. We happen to find ourselves below the Plough. I stare hard, but all seems fixed in place. It’s very relaxing. Having lain down, Finley finds it difficult to get up again – it’s way past his bed time – and after walking on a bit further, Mark agrees to walk back with Finley. As Zoe and I wave goodbye to them, turn round and walk onwards, the complete and sudden change in atmosphere is quite remarkable. Disappointed and annoyed though I am to realise it, Zoe and I both admit that we suddenly feel less safe, more vulnerable, less confident. Even though I am not alone, I carry my gender self-consciously. I wonder what it must be like to be a man, bearing the weight of expectation and responsibility? I wonder if Mark feels that weight? I wonder what he felt when he turned back with Finley, leaving us?

We had been walking towards the Pen Ponds, where Zoe, Mark and Finley had swum recently. But Zoe changes tack to follow the path down the hill instead, heading towards the hollow tree. It’s a remarkable old oak with a hollowed trunk large enough for Zoe to stand in quite comfortably. I hear an owl hoot in the distance. Then we both jump out of our skins as the walkie talkie that Finley has left with me emits an unexpected ghostly crackle cackle. I can’t find a way to turn it off.

We walk on into a copse of old trees – probably oaks but it’s too dark to see their leaves properly. This could be the Jubilee or the Queen Elizabeth plantation. Zoe shares her love of trees with me – their calming presence, the sense of safety they bestow. Try as I might – and even though I am a big fan of trees – I don’t feel particularly becalmed as we make our way along the dark path that lies below them. I revert to my habit of what Armistead Maupin calls ‘horribilizing’ – imagining worst case scenarios. The fact that I have never been in Richmond Park before and am utterly unorientated to this landscape increases my sense of vulnerability. As we walk out of the plantation back onto a much more open plain I feel somewhat relieved (the horizon is open, we can see further into the distance, see what’s coming… Nothing is coming of course.)

Lights flashing in the distance reveal themselves to be orange headlamps tied to a wooden gate – presumably to alert traffic to the gate’s presence. But what traffic? As we pass by Pembroke Lodge we find out – there’s a do of some sort taking place. We can hear tinny music, and then the headlights of a car coming down the road. The gate at this end turns out to be open. A taxi asks us for directions to the Lodge’s entry. A bloke in a red t-shirt, smoking a cigarette, overtakes us. Then a woman in heels, carrying a torch. It feels like we’re walking out of the unsettling, bewitching strangeness of the dark park; soon enough we are indeed at Richmond Gate, at street lights, at illuminated windows of homes and hotels…  As soon as we leave the park I find myself wanting to do it all over again, but this time paying more attention to the external landscape rather than the internal one. Of course it’s easy to imagine myself braver when standing in the utterly familiar. We begin our walk down Richmond Hill, towards home, walking our way out of the unknown and into the everynight.

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