‘An immense forest extends itself, beautified with woods and groves, and full of the lairs and coverts of beasts and game, stags, bucks, boars and wild bulls.’ William Fitz Stephen.
London’s green spaces largely owe their existence to a passion for blood sports and mock combat and to this day campaigners continue to fight to keep school playing fields from the hands of developers. The first parks were the fields just north of the walled city where medieval schoolboys went every lunchtime to play ball games. There were also wrestling matches between the citizens of Westminster and London. The same fields were in spring the site of mounted military exercises for their older brothers every Sunday in Lent. During a cold spell, because the Moor that gave its name to Moorgate was a fen, like Oxford’s Port Meadow it could become a huge skating rink. But the most popular exercise was hunting.
The open grounds were contested from the earliest times. Edward III complained to the sheriffs of London that people were using Moorfields for handball and cock fighting rather than archery and ordered a ban on non military sports on pain of imprisonment. Edward Hall’s Chronicle of 1542 describes a popular protest in 1516 to keep the fields clear of hedges and from being used as a rubbish dump: An act of 1592 banned building and enclosure ‘to the let or hindrance of the traynyng or mustering of Souldiers or of walking for recreation, comforte and healthe of her Majesty’s People’. Moorfields ultimately was lost, but Lincoln’s Inn Fields, modelled on Moorfields, survived with riots in 1680 that preserved Red Lion Square from the attentions of Dr Barebones, the would-be developers.
Steen Eiler Rasmussen believes it was resistance to autocracy that preserved the open spaces. In seventeenth century Europe monarchs closed off open ground for their own use. By contrast in England popular pressure forced kings to add to existing recreation grounds by opening up royal gardens and hunting fields. In 1649, the year of Charles I’s execution, the parliament announced that Hyde Park, together with Richmond, Windsor and Greenwich parks were to be thrown open to the public (though the cash strapped commonwealth then sold it on to an entrepreneur who by 1653 was charging for admission).
This tradition was carried on by the London County Council; in the year after it was formed, it bought the 35 acres of the Lea Valley’s Hackney Marshes, on the far eastern boundary of Middlesex, which are now Europe’s largest area for amateur football, with 88 full sized pitches marked out. Sport as big business was also born on the fringes of London and it’s often kept areas open as grounds and stadia. The first incarnation of Lords Cricket ground (1787) is now Dorset Square, and when the fraction of the Forest of Middlesex called St John’s Wood was built over with villas in the early 19thcentury, one area was left open to become the present day Lords.
The Kensington Hippodrome was shorter lived (1847-42) but left its mark on Notting Hill in the form of the distinctive curves (Elign Crscent, Stanley Crescent) of the streets around Ladbroke Grove. Twickenham Rugby Stadium has survived, built in 1907 on old market gardens, hence its informal name of ‘The Cabbage Patch’.
But there’s now no trace of one of Middlesex’s most innovative developments, the Northolt Park Racecourse which opened in 1929 as the national centre for the new sport of pony racing.
This had a 1.5 mile course, a new kind of starting gate which stopped jockeys jumping the gun, photo finish equipment, an electronic clock for race timings (installed in 1935) and a course watering system. It was the location for at least one of ‘cheeky chappy’ Max Miller‘s two comedies playing the role of Educated Evans, a cockney racing tipster and in 1938 the scene of one of the BBC’s first TV sports Outside Broadcasts. The innovative cantilevered grandstand by Oscar Faber was demolished after the war when the whole site was redeveloped for council housing.
There’s rarely any guarantee that sport will create a lasting ‘legacy’, hence the political tussles over the future of the Lea Valley in the wake of the Olympics. The Empire exhibition of 1921 at least left Wembley stadium together with an industrial estate; but the arable farmland, the site of the 1908 Olympics and the British Empire Exhibition the following year has all been built over; even the ‘Great Stadium’ went in 1985 to make way for BBC White City.