13 things I learned from reading a list of 1,669 historically important English parks

The entrance to the Jewish Burial Ground on North Sherwood Street, Nottingham. Image: Google Street View.

Where are England’s best parks? Obviously this might depend both on your opinion of what makes a good park and your definition of what counts.

But if you’re looking for an official answer, you could always turn to the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens of special historic interest in England (these days managed by Historic England), which has attempted to keep track of the most notable ones since it was begun in 1983.

How do you, an aspiring park or garden, get on this list? Basically by being some combination of old or interesting: the older you are, the looser the definition of interesting gets. (Much like having a conversation with a CityMetric writer.) But don’t get complacent: you can get binned off, like Philips Park in Prestwich which got delisted due to “deterioration”.

There are 1,669 parks and gardens on the current list, of which 145 are Grade I (i.e. very good), 455 are Grade II* and the remainder are Grade II (for it is said that if ever the Heritage authorities learn of the existence of the number three, the Tower of London will fall).

So, what did we learn by reading the entire list?

1. Where the most historically important parks and gardens are

Some 150 of them can be found in Greater London – not even counting the 3 in the City of London. You can find 60 or more in each of Somerset, Gloucestershire, Kent and Hampshire. Another 33 of them lie in The Cotswolds political constituency, making the inevitably Tory Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown the MP who represents the most listed parks and gardens.


2. The biggest park or garden

That would be the accurately named Windsor Great Park, which is 8.7 square miles in size and is only one of seven different entries on the list that are part of the Royal Estate in Windsor. Bloody favouritism if you ask me.

3. And the smallest is...

The Jewish Burial Ground on North Sherwood Street, Nottingham – which is listed due to its historical importance as the first site of Jewish burials in the city. Since superseded by larger sites, there’s no public access and from the road it’s on it just looks like a locked door in a wall, presumably to keep out fans of tiny listed gardens.

4. Which is only one of the 112 cemeteries on the list (plus three crematoriums)

Cemeteries have a bit of an advantage here because they can contain all sorts of historically interesting things, not least the people buried six feet under. Why not go to your local cemetery and take a disrespectful selfie with the grave of the most famous person you can find?

5-7. The most northerly park in England is Tillmouth Park in Northumberland

Which is the grounds of a country house turned hotel. The most easterly is Belle Vue Park in Lowestoft, the most southerly AND the most westerly is the garden of Tresco Abbey on the Isles of Scilly.

If someone wants to pay my transport and accommodation costs to visit them in compass direction order, I am prepared to do it and send up to 9 deeply unfunny tweets about it.

8. The park or garden with the longest name is...

It’s back to Windsor, for:

The Royal Estate, Windsor: Virginia Water (Including Fort Belvedere And The Clockcase)

Which I reckon is just the Royal family trying it on by lumping things together to sound more impressive.

9. The parks or gardens with the shortest names are...

Vann and Enys, private gardens in Surrey and Cornwall, respectively. If you’re a fan of briefly-named parks and gardens you can visit them, but until the revolution comes you’ll have to check which days they’re open and pay for the privilege.

10. There are 19 Squares on the list

They’re almost all in London, which people who are not from London may use to do a funny joke. There are also five Arboretums, four Botanic Gardens, two Circuses (never as exciting as they sound) but only a single Common – Southsea Common, which to be fair does include a scheduled ancient monument AND a Sea Life Centre.

11. There are 2 listed parks in prison

Because they didn’t grass off the keep???

Actually they’re both in cemeteries in the grounds of Dartmoor, to commemorate French and American POWs (in the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 respectively).

12. The most popular park name on the list is Queen’s

There are 10 of them: Brighton, Swindon, Longton, Crewe, Chesterfield, Manchester, Bolton, Rochdale, Blackburn, Burnley. While the ambiguity over which Queen their creators meant is a good bit of common sense future-proofing, a clue to the likely most relevant Queen is that:

13. The second most popular park name is Victoria

There’s Victoria Park in East London, Victoria Park in Leicester, Victoria Park in Tunstall, Victoria Park in Tipton, and Victoria Park in Portsmouth. Oh, and two Royal Victoria Parks, a Royal Victoria Country Park. Not counting Victoria Embankment Gardens, Victoria Tower Gardens and definitely not Handsworth Park (formerly Victoria Park), because that would just be silly.

 
 
 
 

Why aren’t working class people living in cities also “left behind”?

The metropolitan elite. Image: Getty.

If you have hammer, everything’s a nail. The hammer for much of Britain’s political class and commentators is Brexit, which is meant to explain everything from social mobility to the north-south divide to attitudes to immigration to public transport investment.

However, a huge amount is lost in this sort of analysis. One particular casualty is our understanding of working-class communities. This is particularly striking in the presentation of London as being a Remain stronghold inhabited by metropolitan elites.

In fact, the reality is that working class communities, especially in cities, have been just as “left behind” as those elsewhere in the UK. Even 72 people dying in the Grenfell Tower tragedy, a preventable fire which happened within sight of Parliament, hasn’t dislodged the dominant narrative of London as a leafy cosmopolitan elite bubble.

The lazy and reductive “London is cosmopolitan elite” narrative extends well beyond the far right. This shorthand gathers into one category people who have a second home in Provence, and outsourced gig economy workers who live in Hackney. By flattening such diversity into catch-all terms, we erase the existence of working class Londoners, ethnic minorities and migrants.

The facts are stark – London has some of the highest poverty, highest pollution, and largest working class community in all of the UK. Seven of the top 11 local authorities in terms of child poverty are in London, while the capital records the highest level of air pollution in the country.

Yet the statistics are airily dismissed because a majority London residents voted Remain in the EU referendum – and remainers, of course, are all elite, especially if they live in London. By such magic thinking, three in four black people in Britain become elite because they voted to remain in the EU, a point that should perhaps give pause to even the doughtiest proponent of the everything-is-Brexit theory.

Despite our national obsession about class, Britain already had an impoverished understanding and narrative on the topic even before Brexit. Why aren’t the ethnic minority and migrant people who live in tower blocks and experience disproportionate levels of child poverty (rising to 59 per cent for Bangladeshi children) viewed as working class? Why aren’t those living in cities, or who die in preventable fires also “left behind”?

One answer is it doesn’t suit a narrative that wants to make everything about Brexit, and that only addresses class when the context is Brexit. Another is that recognising that many ethnic minorities are also working-class is not helpful when your aim is to prosecute a different argument: that Britain needs “tougher” immigration policies.

At its most extreme, this argument ties into the longstanding narrative that only white people can be British or live in Britain. Of course, this is a narrative that divides working class communities and blames ethnic minorities and migrants for all of society’s ills.

It also has a direct policy effect. It is easier to justify cuts to public services if expenditure on those services is associated with “undeserving scroungers” who don’t really count as fellow citizens.

Recent research published by the Runnymede Trust and the Centre for Labour and Social Studies shows the wider effects of this narrative. The report’s title “We Are Ghosts” are the words of Henry, a working-class Londoner in his ‘60s living in Southwark and capture a wider sense of precariousness, neglect and lack of voice in the face of London’s ongoing gentrification.

Henry happens to be white – but his experience of injustice and prejudice is shared by people of colour interviewed for the same research. Where people engaged with public services, especially housing, policing and social care, they felt treated with indignity and indifference.

Decades of blaming the poor and migrant has led to a punitive culture within our public services which affects all working-class people, white or otherwise, as they see their voices and needs  being routinely ignored.

This is one reason why we need more locally devolved services: to strengthen working class, BME and migrant voices. Terms like “co-production” may sound thinktanky, but the aim is a democratic one: to ensure that those most affected by a service – such as housing services – or decision actually have a say in how that service is delivered.

Devolution isn’t just about putting more power in local rather than national government; it’s also about devolving power more directly to people, through community organisations and charities that are often better placed to represent and understand local needs and experiences.

The British working class has been multi-ethnic for centuries. Working class communities aren’t the same everywhere but they do experience the shared conditions of lack of resources, and lack of voice or power.

By always foregrounding Brexit when we talk about class, we not only miss these shared conditions among working class people across the UK, but deflect from the solutions that might actually address them.

If we’re serious about actually tackling race and class inequalities and prejudice, we need to put down the Brexit – or any other – hammer. Instead we need to change how we think and talk about race and class, invest more in the safety net, and redesign public services to provide those using them with greater dignity, voice and power.

Dr Omar Khan is director of the Runnymede Trust