A walk in the park with Travis Elborough is fast-paced and richly peopled. This book is the story of the communal and the individual, of the transgressor and the good citizen, of earth, turf and concrete. It is, he confesses, ‘underscored by my foibles and preoccupations’. And what could be more agreeable?
After a quick preamble dealing with autocrats and royalty, villages obliterated for deer hunts, naughty Thames-side pleasure gardens and Edwardian cod spiritualism at Versailles, Elborough settles down in the long 19th century. He unashamedly lingers over heroic figures, none of whom was more prolific or given to multitasking, both on the page and on the ground, than John Claudius Loudon, whose first effort at designing a park occurred in Gravesend.
In 1839, the 73-year-old industrialist Joseph Strutt commissioned Loudon to plant an arboretum in Derby. Loudon’s creation is one of several that have justifiably made a claim to be the first ‘public park’. Strutt stipulated that it should be open to all without charge on certain days of the week