‘The hunchback in the park, a solitary mister’, is all I can remember of the Dylan Thomas verse slotted in amongst memories occasioned in the municipal park in Swansea. A sad poem that I always found incongruous in otherwise joyful recollections of childhood. We venture into Kelsey Park, a veritable jewel in Beckenham’s affluent crown. Few solitary misters in evidence here, although at one point I feel a hint of anxiety in finding a lone elderly man in the trees, standing with his back to the path. Nothing of concern as it transpires he is feeding birds. And there are plenty of these.
Here are the modern day migrants: a source of squawking irritation to those leafy Londoners whose gardens are ‘infested’ by parakeets but a constant joy to we visitors – Dorset types with nothing but sparrow families to enliven our winter gardens. No parakeets in Beckenham’s past though.
Harrison is fast asleep, wrapped in the multi-coloured blanket which is the only item grandma knitted in time i.e. the only thing he’s not liable to grow out of five minutes before he takes it on. In my experience, Harrison is always asleep unless the adults fancy a grown-up dinner. Anyway, he misses the squirrels who shamelessly wait for us on the path and hover around our feet in a threatening sort of way. ‘You want to be careful’, I say as I skirt around them, ‘one wrong word and they’ll be in the pram’. She hurries off, leaving me to fend for myself.
Those squirrels have probably been harassing folk for years because Kelsey Park has something of an history. In the twelfth century, this place was owned by the Lord of the Manor of Beckenham – not on my manor guvnor. Today, it comprises a mere 21 acres but in the nineteenth century the 3000 acres here included a post for the stagecoach to Sevenoaks.
Naturally, there was a grand mansion house – two in fact. The second went through a number of incarnations, evolving from a private residence into a convent for the Sisters of All Saints, ladies who were leaving their options open. After the sisters left, the house became Kepplestone School for the Daughters of Gentlemen before assuming the status of a WW1 army hospital, with the seriously wounded being possibly nursed by those daughters,
Today, the River Beck still runs in and out of two lakes on its way through. Harrison’s mother is some way ahead of her own dawdling mum. She wants to take me back to a place where I can, once more, see the extraordinary heronry where twenty pairs of these graceful birds are nesting and feeding. ‘It’s where the squirrels were talking to you’, she says.
I think this is rather sweet. My daughter can be pleasingly childlike at times. After, I realise I’ve missed a joke and that she’s being kind to the elderly. Earlier today, before we ever came to Kelsey Park, my left foot took a turn away from the leg to which it is attached and there was a bit of an incident: ‘mum took a fall’, she reported as though this was the first of many inevitable trips which I can look forward to. Fortuitously, a gas man was to hand. He picked up the crumpled grandma, placed her in his van and drove her home. He reminded me of Jack Branning, a swarthy type from EastEnders, so it wasn’t all doom and gloom.
And after Kelsey Park, we retire to some middle class, pram-populated joint in Beckenham High Street for a toasted organic sandwich. I don’t leave a tip, preferring to put excess coinage in a collection tin for the restoration of the Bowie Bandstand in another of Beckenham’s green spaces. Here he is in the process of becoming famous.