Clouds often dictate my route. When they head southwest, I pedal northeast, uphill, past the Tufnell Park station, turning right through an unremarkable entry into a park not shown as green on maps. Its perimeter is fenced in, and only a narrow pavement ending at a playground is visible from the road. More fencing runs on the top of a steep grassy bank on the right.
I scramble with my bike up the bank and cruise along the edge of the fence, which encloses a reservoir built in 1855. The brick-edged tanks dug into the ground comprise most of the park’s area. The exposed hilltop is swept by a perpetual breeze which ripples clipped grass otherwise undisturbed behind the fence. Rolling past the line of metal slats, I am surprised with a panorama of London whose latitude dwarfs the more popular lookouts of Parliament and Primrose Hills. Cranes in Canary Wharf slot more towers between tacky behemoths, a reverse Jenga of the internationally-financed skyline. Scanning right along the twisting Thames, the City of London’s glass monuments to architects’ egos crowd over the marble monuments to Britain’s earlier imperialists. Further still, in the southwest limit of my view, I can make out two of Battersea Power Station’s four chimneys, the only parts that will remain visible after the Malaysian government finishes the vulgar glut of luxury flats surrounding the power station.
The park offers a direct survey of east London. Arsenal Stadium sits like a steely, white-latticed bowl oblique to four identical tower blocks spaced like dominoes over the lower-slung neighbourhoods. The twisted incongruous red steel of the ArcelorMittal Orbit, one of Mayor Boris Johnson’s hare-brained vanity projects, marks Olympic Park in the distance. Per the post-games “legacy plan,” Stratford is morphing into a dull middle-class suburb with too-wide streets, the businesses abruptly evicted and cheated to make way for pools, pitches, and stadiums long gone. You can trace railways and gentrification by drawing lines between the hundreds of cranes fussing over sites, which in the next decade will metastasize 500 more glinting towers, indifferent to the people below, leeching property value from speculators’ promises and proximity to train stations.
If they weren’t fenced in, the reservoir’s water tanks would attract picnicking crowds, but the city view is restricted to the skinny stretch along the fence lined with a dozen distantly-spaced benches, below which the park immediately sloughs downwards. A blank panel that maybe once held a map, or was supposed to, has been scrawled over: Fuck Friday, Everyday is Payday! Archaeologists identify ancient trash piles where animal bones and terracotta fragments cluster, suspended in soil. I lean my bike against the fence and wonder how they’d assess the crushed cigarettes littered like metal filings around the benches.
Solitary smokers stare at heavy clouds that slide like battleships across the broad mauve sky. On clear evenings, when all the benches are taken, couples slouch on the crest, resting their elbows on bent knees to take wide-lens pictures. Nobody has their photo taken. Young women in pairs belly laugh over beer cans, or sob. The other benches are usually occupied by half-dozen groups of restless teenaged boys dressed alike in hoodies and sweatpants.
One boy, as his friends cackle, tries to emulate the growl of the rapper whose music played, but sounds like a gravelly parody of Louis Armstrong. They lob rocks at the cylindrical rubbish bin towards the bottom of the hill. One makes it in when everyone has turned away, disinterested, and I vouch for its thrower when his celebration is met with scepticism. Another bounces a basketball, which ricochets off a pebble and rolls down the steep slope, resting under the “N” of a freshly-graffitied message (“Happy B-Day Stan!”) on the dividing wall separating the park from a cream-coloured apartment block. When clouds permit, the sinking sun casts the boys’ shadows on its windowless western face.
Every detail except the red trim of this building was ignored in its construction. Its central courtyard, a grim asphalt void, blocks light into the ground-level flats below grade. A matrix of square planters holds brown stalks. Laundry hangs over the railings of the narrow corridor since there are no balconies. It is thoughtlessly designed, a lazy show of contempt for its anticipated occupants. The signage around this small estate indicates it may belong to Islington Council, if it wasn’t a casualty of Thatcher’s vampiric “right to buy” scheme, in which local authorities hemorrhaged their public housing supply at below-market costs into the private sector. The United Kingdom has never once in its history had an adequate number of suitable homes for its working class. A short walk down the road, Victorian terraced house prices edge towards seven digits.
Once the sun disappears completely behind the hill, and the wind chills the park beyond comfort, I pull on my own hoodie and watch the shapes of foxes emerge. One leaped onto the narrow rim of the rubbish bin. After nosing through the top layer of discarded food wrappers, finding nothing, it balanced unmoving on the edge, face to the wind.
If the traffic lights are lucky, I can coast downhill nearly all the way home, sailing under the green lights and past the cars behind red ones, waiting.