Friday, 18 March 2011

What did you do there? I got high

Over the Bridge of Sighs
To rest my eyes in shades of green
Under Dreaming Spires
To Itchycoo Park, that's where I've been

Not Itchycoo Park, Singleton Park in Swansea.  There is always much discussion given over to 'favourite gardens' - less so to parks.  Swansea is blessed not just with the stunning Gower coast on its doorstep but also some splendid parks.  The enchanting Clyne Castle gardens - a child's dream with its streams, pools, rhododendron woods secreting a tiny tower with spiral staircase, and incredible views across Swansea bay, and then the graciousness of Singleton's rolling parkland, green open spaces and diverse areas of interest.  It is to the latter I am headed now in the company of Old Ma Sock who I am visiting on a mercy mission which may turn into a mercy killing if the park doesn't 'rest my eyes in shades of green' and restore my calm and serenity.

Old Ma Sock is now more than a tad demented and a recent fall has fractured not just her arm but her routine. Although she is otherwise healthy and very active any change in her routine makes higher demands on her short term memory which is already shot to pieces.  I am taking her to the doctors later on for a check on her arm and as we walk to the park she has already asked me a thousand times "Am I going for a blood test?".  After the first few dozen times of patiently explaining I have resorted to more and more creative answers - none of which she remembers.  Finally when she repeats "What is it we're going for Arabella, a blood test?" I reply "No. We're going to have your brain taken out so its a good job you've bought a hat as they will have to take the top of your head off!"  Luckily Old Ma Sock finds this an amusing concept and it diverts her for some time from the original repetitive train of thought.  At least she hasn't mentioned how unruly my hair is which I find truly and deeply annoying. For years "Ooh - your hair's a mess - does it need a comb?" has invariably been her first reaction when she sees me.

We wander down to my favourite part of Singleton Park, the Botanical Gardens previously called the Educational Gardens - I can tell you I got some education there over the years!  As we pass the various donated benches Old Ma Sock says "Perhaps you should dedicate a bench here for me?"  "What should we engrave on the commemorative plaque" I ask "how about, Old Ma Sock and Granny GrimbleSock stole cuttings from here between 1960 and 1975".  "We did not!" she protests but at least one of us is suffering from false memory syndrome.  In my childhood the most exciting part of the Educational Gardens was the hot-houses where my friend Paul and I would shelter from the rain on our frequent visits to the park.  These were the days when small kids enjoyed the freedom to wander for miles to these places unaccompanied by interfering adults. I remember how we enjoyed the moist, mysterious, warmth like a tropical rainforest, the atmospheric dripping of water onto exotic jungle leaves, the pools half-hidden by lush foliage, the large goldfish lurking in the secret depths of a dark pool.  Decades later the hot-houses still enchant me.

Not so the formal flowers beds outside recently planted up with what will be a garish display of spring bedding. I find it hideous but no doubt it will impress the elderly, attracted like magpies to the bright cheerful colours.   Old Ma Sock has always been a keen plantswoman, growing fruit and vegetables as well as designing a tasteful flower garden.  Now, even in her garden, the attraction of annual bedding plants has won out and I wonder if this desire for bright and clashing primary coloured plants will come to us all eventually.

I have always loved rock gardens and must have been early influenced by the one here. Now it seems on a smaller scale than my memories of meandering around the narrow pathways between towering mounds of mossy rock, admiring the alpines tucked into cracks and crevices.

As we leave for another part of the park a duck waddles over the ornamental bridge triggering a stranger memory.

What did you do there? - I got high
What did you feel there? Well I cried
But why the tears there? - I'll tell you why-yyyy
It's all too beautiful, Its all too beautiful

I was fifteen, a rather young, naive, fifteen - not like girls now or even some of the girls then.  I was on the cusp of growing out of the youth club crowd where I had hovered on the peripheries never really being a central member. Now I was branching out to find an identity of my own.  My brother and his friends, a few years older, offered something different, excitement, stimulation ...drugs.  I'd hung around with them a bit and occasionally smoked a shared joint which had had no apparent effect on me.  In fact the nicotine buzz off a Players No.6 cigarette was more likely to 'space me out'. This day I tagged along with the group who were going to the park to 'drop acid' - LSD being the popular drug of those times.  Hallucinogens were probably not the best drug of choice for a highly imaginative, sensitive, unprepared fifteen year old.

I can remember the trees having faces, the branches becoming arms like the Ents in Lord of the Rings.  I can remember laughing uncontrollably at the ducks then screaming and crying until my brother gave me another tablet to calm me down. 'One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small'.  I can remember time passing but not passing, distance neither being here nor there.  I can remember one girl (who was already rather strange) hugging and singing to a tree.

I can remember being told that some years later she had jumped to her death off a multi-storey car-park... 

I feel inclined to blow my mind
Get hung up, feed the ducks with a bun
They all come out to groove about
Be nice and have fun in the sun

I didn't enjoy the drugs experience and stuck to destroying my brain with cider after that.  The rest of the drug-taking group grew up to be, if not pillars of society, then social-workers, lecturers, doctors, psychologists.

I'll tell you what I'll do - What will you do?
I'd like to go there now with you
You can miss out school - Won't that be cool
Why go to learn the words of fools

My mood has become suffused with melancholy not helped by contemplation of my own madness and mortality.  Old Ma Sock is asking why we are going to the doctors again.  She is diverted as we walk past the Swiss Cottage built by architect Peter Frederick Robinson in 1826 who also designed the Egyptian Hall in London.

"You loved staying overnight there when you were little" she says "we used to play cards with the Park superintendent and his wife who lived in the cottage."  My mind stirs and as I unlock the memory a fleeting moment of the excitement I felt staying in this fairytale place passes through me.  No longer fairytale it was badly burnt at the end of last year. When I was studying A level Art (a subject looked down upon at my rigid all-girls grammar school) a friend and I skipped lessons and spent the day lounging around sunbathing in Singleton on the pretext of sketching.  On return to school the art mistress ripped up the pen and ink drawing of Swiss Cottage I had produced.  I could never draw from life and with hindsight I can understand why it was so bad but at the time I was given no explanation adding to my conviction that school was a waste and the teachers fools.

Apropos of nothing Old Ma Sock suddenly announces "Of course, Dad and I used to go for drinks with Dylan Thomas at the University."  I am a bit stunned by this interesting snippet and it is not beyond the realms of possibility. Unfortunately no further information is forthcoming.

We walk back up to the top of the park passing the druid stone circle.  I have just looked this up and disappointingly it was built in 1925 for the National Eisteddfod ceremony.  Not quite as ancient as I had imagined all these years but still a wonderful evocative place for children to play and clamber over the stones.

Our park visit over I take Old Ma Sock to the doctors.  As we sit in the crowded waiting room she looks and me then says loudly "Do you want to use my comb? Your hair's a bit of a mess."


HappyMouffetard said...


Helen/patientgardener said...

What a fab post and lovely mixture of humour, thoughtfulness and information.
I remember when I was 7/8 we used to be able to waunder for miles without any one worrying. There was a derelict manor house near us with greenhouses all overgrown but still having strange flowers in them, we used to pick them and walk home with them in our hair and no one questioned us. Such freedom.

KB said...


Anonymous said...

Lovely post. The park by my mum's house (not so far from where I live now) is so full of overlapping layers of memories of sledging, sunbathing, splashing in the paddling pool and drinking cider on the swings. Good to be reminded to appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

AND (i've just remembered) me and my horrible teenaged friends once spent an afternoon pulling all the petals off the roses and throwing them at each other! Dreadful! I should lose my RHS membership for that...

Zoƫ said...

Very evocative. I have mixed memories of the Crown Meadows, and Abbey Park in Evesham. Last time I went back it made me cry, it had changed so much

Anonymous said...

Oh such an evocative post and written beautifully. I accompany a friend to Swansea several times a year and whist she visits ageing relatives I have fun exploring the gower, walks on the beach at the mumbles, swan seas indoor Market which is an education!!
I misspent my youth in local parks getting into various scrapes but still find a sense of peace and recuperation in them. Thanks for your post, chris xx

Sue Beesley said...

Apropos of nothing, my ex-hubby's father (grandad to my two) was head gardener in Swansea until about 1985. He was a Lancastrian, but had worked at a botanic garden in the Bahamas for a few years. He introduced the palms and other exotics and also invoked a policy of buying up end terraces, levelling them and building a garden on the corner of the street.

He was a lovely guy, a Britain in Bloom judge and his name was Harry Parker.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post! Thank you. (I've gone over all sentimental too now, remembering all my early experiments with mind-bending substances!)

Anne Wareham said...

Strangely, I have just been visiting - I think for last time, the place I grew up. Went back to the park,looked at my primary school, all that powerful stuff.

Met people who are buying the family home. Cleared the home...

And went with my family and Charles to throw my parent's ashes off Druid's Altar.. and toasted them with bubbly...

Very difficult, strange time, full of memories and sadnesses, loss and

My mother died of Alzheimers. Feel for you.

Unknown said...

you did make me laugh and remember my mother who was completely addled at the end. She used to come and stay with me when my brother needed a break. By the end of the first morning, I would feel insane and have to park her in the garden for an hour to 'get some fresh air'. One occasion that really sticks in my memory is when I took her to a lovely garden in Cheshire. There was a family Chapel which had seen better days. A very kind warden showed us around. 'It's lovely' declared my mother 'but it has fallen into disrepute'

markd said...

Fantastic post x

Karen - An Artist's Garden said...

Ah Bless.

What a wonderful post Arabella. It evokes tears and memories.


Susan Tomlinson said...


VP said...

Fantastic post - you've triggered all kinds of memories of my own.

Singleton Park was an escape for me for a while too as my mum was involved in an accident at The Mumbles and spent 6 weeks in Singleton Hospital before being transferred to one closer to home. Dad and I used to walk through there between hospital visits.

You're right about the attraction of garish bedding coming to us all. I've been reading all about that this week - apparently the colour red is the last to go as our eyesight fades and anything bright is much clearer for aging eyes.

WV says caught!

Chris said...

Thank you! I am a child again, walking with my grandmother in her favourite park, where there is also a 'swiss cottage'and nicking cuttings....
Funnily enough it was she who introduced me to cider too...

Arabella Sock said...

thank you all for your kind and thoughtful comments. It is interesting what memories 'parks' seem to hold for many of us, particlarly those from childhood.

Patientgardener - like you I wandered for miles at that age, sometimes on my own. The countryside of woods and fields was then just over my back wall. We also had a derelict manor house with overgrown greenhouses in a walled garden. I once shinned up a tree and as I climbed over the wall I saw a fox stopped in its tracks to stare at me - I can still see the exact scene in my mind.

Lia - I think we must all plead guilty to callously pulling the petals off flowers at some stage. Oh and the cider and swings thing too!

Anonymous - I haven't visited Swansea indoor market for years but it was a pretty good one. Anything from 2nd hand Superman comics to snack of cockles with vinegar or slabs of lava bread.

Sue - what a great idea turning end of terraces into gardens. It would certainly open out Brighton to a bit more green space!

Anne - I dread the idea of a 'last time' visit to Swansea. The idea that I will lose all connection with the place I grew up is very sad.

Richard - that made me laugh and it is so good to find humour in these situations. I know just what you mean about feeling insane by the end of the first morning! Actually I give it an hour!

VP - that stuff about colour/ageing is fascinating. I just hope I don't become addicted to 'yellow' or 'orange' in my dotage.

Chris - I wonder why these Swiss Cottages were built. Was there a sudden craze for them? I will have to start googling

anjacouto said...

Love this posting so much - it almost makes up for my aborted visit to Singleton Park last year following taking my own poor mother to the hospital for bloodwork, and then overshooting the turning twice for the park by my haphazrd driving on the "wrong" side of the road... Should have learned to drive on the left before leaving the country! I used to play hooky there from Bishop Gore, and have fond memories walking the RSPCA dogs through the park with friends. Wonderful childhood memories.