Carry on up the park!
On this week’s virtual ramble, Diary cycles around the Outer Circle, has a kickabout on muddy football pitches, and meets a legendary comedian
12 June, 2020 — By The Xtra Diary
Kenneth Williams lived on the corner of Osnaburgh Street in the now-demolished Marlborough House flats. Photo: chmee2
WE pulled up to a halt last week to gaze over the railings at the Giraffe House in London Zoo, ending our ninth instalment of a virtual walk around the borough.
We’ll pick up the scent here and cast our mind’s eye to the Outer Circle, a 4.45km-long gyratory around the Regent’s Park, once the favoured promenade of Georgian dandies and today appreciated by the urban cyclist keen to burn off wobbly bits caused by the ageing process.
As we follow the curve of Regent’s Canal, a camber mimicking the shape of the Outer Circle, we will recall the “Regent’s Canaletto” – Hampstead-born painter Algernon Newton (1880-1968), who earned the nickname for his various studies of the canal in the early 20th century. His devotion to the canal network, whose terminal decline as a means of moving goods was by then well entrenched, saw him become the vice president of the Inland Waterways Association, a post he held for more than half his life.
We now look incredulously at John Nash’s preposterous villas on the western side of the park – home to ambassadors, billionaires and princes – before we duck into the park proper and tread upon ancient ground.
Cyclists in the Outer Circle
Henry VIII hunted here, while Oliver Cromwell confiscated the space and turned it into smallholdings for the foot soldiers who made up his New Model Army. They cut down 16,000 trees to raise crops before the land was snatched back by Charles II. The Prince Regent commissioned the current layout, while the fields became an accessible playground for Londoners from the Victorians onwards.
Boasting scores of football pitches, they had a well-earned reputation for being virtually unusable after autumn’s first rains. The reason for their pools, ruts and puddles dated back to the Second World War. Nearby homes and railway lines were heavily bombed, as was the canal.
The park had all manner of debris tipped on it and then grassed over. Just beneath many a goalmouth are the bricks and mortar of the lost homes of pre-war Camden Town.
The park’s lakes also have tragedies hidden beneath their surface: 40 youngsters drowned when ice collapsed beneath them during a winter skate in 1867. The lake was more than four metres in depth and, following the incident, the basins were made shallower.
We now move to the southern end of the park, and as we reach Albany Street, let us all pull our most “stop messing about” faces we can muster and prepare to squeak out an impression of the late, great comedian Kenneth Williams.
It is here, on the corner of Osnaburgh Street, the master of camp comedy lived for decades in the now-demolished Marlborough House flats.
Williams’ screen-ography is immense, his unique voice being heard on everything from the 26 Carry On films he starred in through to the 69 episodes of Jackanory he presented. It is said his tone of voice was caused by being whacked on the nose by a football as a child, which irretrievably squashed one of his nasal passages and gave him a lifelong dislike of the Beautiful Game.
Now we cross the car-fugged mess of the Marylebone Road, turn for a moment to see the empty plinth that once hosted a bust of the assassinated US prez John F Kennedy.
It was moved in 2017 to a spot around the corner after vandals allegedly fired a gun at it. The piece was by sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, a Lithuanian-born Jewish artist who was to become a key 20th century figure in Cubism and was good friends with Pablo Picasso.
He had settled in France in the 1920s but when the Nazis invaded, he knew his life was at risk: he got himself south to Marseille, where he met the American journalist Varian Fry.
Fry had set up the Emergency Rescue Committee, a group that worked both in the open and clandestinely in Occupied Europe to save people from the Nazis.
Working from a shortlist of people wanted by the Gestapo, he raised £3,000 and helped writers, artists, musicians, dissidents and hundreds flee. He hid Lipchitz in a villa in Marseille despite constantly being watched by the Vichy regime, before helping him and others get over the Pyrenees to Spain.
Among the 2,200 Fry rescued were Marc Chagall and Arthur Koestler, and of course the man behind the JFK piece, Lipchitz.
Now we head back towards town, and stroll down Great Portland Street, home to fashion house sample stores, swanky neo-British restaurants and the Portland private hospital for women and children.
Has there ever been a fee-paying maternity unit to see such well-heeled baby booties emerge from their private rooms?
Those who have pushed out sprogs from this postcode include everyone from royals to A-Z-lister celebrities such as Victoria Beckham, the Duchesses of Sussex and York, Kate Winslet, Liz Hurley, Trudie Styler, Jemima Goldsmith, Anneka Rice, Victoria Wood and Pamela Stephenson.
The hospital, which opened in the early 1980s, is on the site of a famous car showroom that was synonymous with the area for much of the 20th century. Second-hand car sales was the bread and butter of the businesses along the stretch. Ralph Gorse, the criminal protagonist in author Patrick Hamilton’s The Gorse Trilogy, buys a red open-top sports car from a dealer there.
Hamilton lived in the vicinity and had seen young men like his rat-like character browsing the showrooms, and heard the salesmen drinking after work in the pubs he frequented.
HG Wells also drew on Great Portland Street’s slightly seedy, spivvy reputation when he gave The Invisible Man a slum there to lodge in.
On this note, we will part for another week. Stay well, and stay safe.