Hyde Park opens at 5.00 but the padlocks are already off and I’m through the gate at 4.40 this morning. There’s a chill in the air today. What was a clear sky looks to be clouding over. I cross the bridle-path and begin to wander through an area of long grass populated by maturing trees and bushes. Apart from the traffic I can still hear back on the Bayswater Road, I could almost be in the country. The birds are trilling merrily all around. Within a few minutes, I’ve seen a song thrush, some chuckling magpies, a very tame robin that bobbed down in front of me, a pair of flitting chaffinches and a woodpecker searching for grubs. There’s no one else around, apart from the squirrels.
The idyll doesn’t last. Around a bench lies yesterday’s debris: two William Hill branded cardboard coffee cups, a crushed can of Carling Black Label, a plastic bag and a pair of discarded cinema tickets. They’d been to the Odeon to see The Hangover 2.
I pass by the park nursery, an enclosure fenced with solid black railings, and soon find myself in a glade of tall plane trees. They look old and wise, their limbs stretching out to make a lush green canopy up above. I stop for a moment, in my own enchanted forest. The air smells rich with loam.
I can see the Serpentine down the slope, but decide to bear left along by the Ranger’s Lodge. I’m wondering idly who it is that I’m going to meet first today, when I spy a figure in the distance. He’s heading in my direction, up from the boating lake. We’re both on paths that cross some way ahead and I soon sense that we’re on a collision course. He’s moving quite fast, with some purpose, yet seems to drop his left hip giving him a shambling gait. He’s wearing a blue checked shirt, black trousers and trainers. He looks maybe forty, with a shock of greying hair.
I keep walking at my own pace but continue to gauge the distance between us. I’m watching as we reach the crossroads and hold back ever so slightly so that we don’t crash. I’m waiting, too, for some sign of recognition before I offer him a cheery greeting. There is none. The man stares straight ahead as he passes right in front of me.
Let’s hold that there. It’s not yet five o’clock in the morning and we’re about as far away as one could possibly be from another human being in the whole of central London. Literally. There isn’t anyone else within a radius of about half a mile. We’re three feet from each other. I could have touched him. And this guy totally ignores me. Which is fine. I just want to say that I do find it a little odd.
Anyway, moving on… here’s something useful. If you’re ever in that part of Hyde Park and need to post a letter, fear not. Unless I’m hallucinating, right beside the Ranger’s Lodge stands a shiny red post box. It even has separate slots for First and Second class. There is a kind of Alice in Wonderland quality about its being there. I must confess – I do look twice, just to be sure.
I continue tracking round until I reach the spot where the Reformers’ Tree used to be.
A mosaic of smooth pebbles marks the spot: a black tree on a pale background. I have to walk round it twice to read the inscription. A venerable tree, it’s been called. Or so it was. Burnt down during the Reform League riots of 1866, the stump became a notice-board for political demonstrations and a gathering point for the Reformers. It’s where I meet my first jogger of the day anyhow. He stops for a breather and I wish him ‘Good morning’. He gives me a nervous laugh and goes ‘Allright?’, before setting off again.
From here, I can see the traffic moving on Park Lane across the grassy open space. A watery sun is breaking through at last, coming into view above the penthouse roofs. To the south, planes are droning in on the flightpath to Heathrow and I can make out the chimneys of Battersea power station above the treeline. I wander up towards Speakers’ Corner and notice someone wrapped in a bag, asleep under a tree. There’s another man in the long grass, sitting motionless, surrounded by his bundles and a kids’ buggy, lying on its side. It’s very quiet, but there are a few more people walking or running across the park now.
I’m still looking for today’s photo opportunity and decide to check out the Serpentine. On my way, I see two more sleeping bodies: one under a tree, the other out in the open. If I was homeless, I guess I’d rather kip here on a midsummer’s night than in some doorway.
More wildlife is happening down by the lake. A gaggle of some thirty Canada geese see me coming and start waddling towards the water. Ducks, ducklings, a pair of elegant swans and their fluffy cygnets are scooping for food. A grebe dives out of sight and a cormorant is resting on a post. Then I see the heron. He’s perched on the top slat of a park bench keeping an eye on the water’s edge. So I creep up on him. I inch slowly round the end of the bench, keeping my distance once I know he’s seen me. By the time I’ve finished, keeping very still, moving half a step at a time, my lens is about six feet from his scrawny beak. We look at each other for a while. In the end, he gets bored with me and flaps off.
It’s now past 6.00 so the joggers are out in numbers. They aren’t the superfit, on today’s evidence. They stomp and puff and grimace, moving at whatever pace they can. And good for them.
A woman in a black tracksuit approaches through the trees. She’s out with her dog, a dark Alsatian with a long shaggy tail. He sees the ducks, runs over and starts stalking them.
‘Don’t you dare think about it,’ she shouts, then whistles. ‘Come on. Rolfie! … Rolfie!’
Rolfie’s not listening. He’s splashing about as the ducks fan out across the water.
‘Rolfie! Come here. Come on. I’m gone…’
She carries on walking until she’s a hundred yards away, still calling and whistling. Rolfie realises the game’s up with the ducks but then notices me. All this time I’ve been standing, cradling my camera on the tripod. I’m not too fond of dogs, especially when they’re some cross between a wolf and a rabid fox.
Rolfie decides to show who’s boss. He runs up, barking angrily, lunging at me, paws outstretched. I don’t know what it is, but he’s clearly threatened. I find that I tend to keep more still for Alsatians than I do even for herons. But Rolfie’s not for giving in. He moves closer, growling and snarling.
She now calls back, as if it’s all a bit of a joke. ‘Rolfie! Come on! Oy! Here… Rolfie! This is dog training…’
I’m not sure which of us she’s addressing with the last bit.
Rolfie turns to go, then changes his mind and bounds back for more. He’s cunning. He comes up behind me this time, does it all again. I don’t move except to look round. All I can see are Rolfie’s finely sharpened teeth.
So much for wildlife.