There’s something beautiful and eerie about Regent’s Park – the large, green and often empty space just minutes from London’s West End.
I’ve felt this on the many occasions that I’ve been there over the years. When my wife and I frequently travelled to London some years back, we would usually stay at a nearby hotel, from whence I’d set out for 5k or 10k runs early in the morning. My route would take me around the Outer Circle and partly into the park, and more than once I felt wholly alone, my only company the statues that occasionally appeared out of the early morning fog.
Even at noon, when families and office workers throng the Broad Walk that runs through the center of the park, three minutes walking off a side path can bring you to solitude.
Last Saturday I did something I’d never done before – circumambulate the park at night. We’d just arrived off a flight from Dublin, and the previous day had been a long one. I set out alone, to take the air, and discovered that our accommodation was less than 10 minutes from Regent’s Park.
And so, in the darkness, encountering only the occasional walker and a small number of passing cars (London was empty, it was the holidays), I walked the three miles around the Outer Circle. Part of it was lit by a long row of street lamps, another part in total darkness – which made traversing the old, broken pavement that bit more difficult.
The atmosphere was what I remembered, though: an air of natural beauty, even at night, offset with an occasional start, as when an animal (or something else) would break cover in the undergrowth on the other side of the park fence.
In my mind I thought of Maurice Bendrix, the main character in Graham Greene’s “The End Of The Affair”, and his nocturnal walks in another, not too distant, London park during the blackout of The Blitz. There was something Greene-like about the quiet sense of order, the neat pathways and clipped back hedges of the park, which faced the large, authoritative faces of the expensive houses that bordered it.
It was a setting that awaited an event – a scream, a shot, running feet on the pavement, a hand on the shoulder. I turned off the music in my headphones.
Minutes later I walked back into the streetlights near Hanover Gate, and all such feelings subsided. I sped up and was home within 20 minutes, to a seat, a cup of tea and dinner plans. I quickly forgot the park feeling.
Until, leaving London three days later, I came across the picture above, which I’d taken on the lonely street of the Outer Circle. I elected to keep it, and write this piece, as a reminder that – even in the hyper-connected and hyper-surveilled heart of a 21st century city, there remain moments, stretches, of wonder and unease. We may never be quite as secure as we think we are.