I remarked in a previous post that the urban park is a distinctive form of landscape. What I have to discuss here is a very good example of this, but one which also shows that we do not always value the urban park for what it is.
Waddon Ponds is a small park near Croydon. It was until recently the point where the River Wandle first became visible; now at nearby Wandle Park upstream, where the river was chanelled through an underground pipe in the mid 1960s, it has once again been revealed. Still, the breadth of the ponds at Waddon is a stirring sight.It is here that we first have the sense of a watercourse that will influence a whole district. The park once could not have been more of an urban park, and to some extent this is still so. The lawns, the flowerbeds, the shrubs, the railings, the surrounding houses – all add up to an example of the gardener’s art which is both a resource for, and a dramatic foil to a densely populated district – and which could not reside anywhere but such a district.
Recent work on the park, however, has deliberately moved away from this characteristic scene. Notices at the park entrances tell us that:
Waddon Ponds is one of the few places in Croydon where you can see the River Wandle above ground. With its crystal-clear water it’s a much needed peaceful haven in the town centre.
Work is currently taking place to make the ponds more natural for the benefit of birds, amphibians and insects.
This work seems to have consisted mainly in planting reeds in the river and in the use of rough-cut timber to train them.
Why is there this impulse to turn everything into a semblance of country? Compare this with the marketing of the suburban house between the world wars as a country retreat. This practice has been conventionally criticised on the ground that suburban development turned to town the very countryside that was supposed to be its attraction. Not quite: the suburb is a distinctive landscape too, different from countryside or town. It is worth looking at, and pleasant to exist in, for its own qualities. (And wildlife of a distinctive kind can look after itself there too.)
A park such as Waddon Ponds is part of the suburban landscape. I do not think the alterations at Waddon have gone too far; but the attitude behind them carries the danger of smothering a distinctive and subtle savour which has never had its due – though it has remained popular with citizens.