In this most often sprawling and chaotic existence that we get flung into in London, I find it most heartening to know that with every bustling, stinking, and noisy main road, in less than a minute you will find an oasis of calm. You simply have to consciously redirect your path and the charm of London will open itself to you once more. The abundance of secret gardens, parks within the squares, church cemeteries and petite public green spaces are in such abundance that I’m still puzzling over why we’re not as zen and chilled out as we ought to be. Maybe we’re in too much of a rush to notice, but they are all over our city and not just in our main parks: on Oxford Street you have Cavendish, Grosvenor, Hanover and Bedford Square; in Soho you have both Soho and Golden Square; around the Law Courts just off the Strand you will find numerous perfectly manicured floral corners; whilst across town in the city and beyond you will find a multitude of small parks and burial grounds that double up as places for quiet contemplation one of my favourites citing the slightly eerie yet film-set-beautiful Arnold Circus. But nothing will prepare you for the delights and emotionally charged journey that Postman’s Park will send you on.
Nestled snugly between St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, the Museum of London and the overbearing shadow of St.Pauls Cathedral it is both an enchanting pocket of peace as well as a memorial to the dead that have died saving the lives of others. Set beneath the dark frame of an alcove, the plaques bear the stories of the person and the simple noble act that saw their lives cut short: “David Selves, aged 12, off Woolwich, supported his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms, September 12 1886”; “Joseph Andrew Ford, aged 30, Metropolitan Fire Brigade, saved six persons from fire in Gray’s Inn Road but in his last heroic act he was scorched to death, October 7 1871”; “Daniel Pemberton, aged 61, Foreman L.S.W.R., surprised by a train when gauging the line, hurled his mate out of the track saving his life at the cost of his own, January 17 1903”; and “Richard Farris, Labourer, was drowned in attempting to save a poor girl who had thrown herself into the canal at Globe Bridge, Peckham, May 20 1878”.
I first heard about Postman’s Park from my own mother. In her younger days she would walk through the city to work and through the years has amassed many a little gem from her mini adventures. She occasionally throws these discoveries in my general direction like shiny new coins. “Oh I don’t know why you haven’t discovered it sooner” is her usual reaction to my own excited finds. When I recently mentioned that I was on my way to Postman’s Park she quickly advised me to “take a hanky”. I soon saw why. It has an insignificant entrance but once you’re there you suddenly feel cut off from your surroundings. So tranquil is it that man and bird forget their differences to bask in the sun side by side. The dappled light shining through the mature oak trees allow your mind to wander and then you see it. Modestly tucked along the side wall peeps the George Frederic Watt’s memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice.
Built upon a former burial ground (hence the steps to higher ground) of St. Botolph’s Aldersgate Church, Christ Church Greyfriars, St. Leonard’s and the General Post Office (form which it takes its name) the memorial was set up by the artist George Frederic Watts in 1900 like a loggia with the intention that the open view of the garden would inspire reflection and good thought. By the time of his death in 1904 only 13 tablets had been installed, but his wife Mary took over the management of the memorial and installed a further 40 tablets as well as a small monument to her husband. The couple had long been upholders of the idea of using art as a medium for social change. Despising wealth and all its fake power he often chose his portrait sitters for their ordinariness and positive social influence. Failing to find funding for many years he even considered selling his own home to finance the project, lamenting that “if I had proposed a race course round Hyde Park, there would have been plenty of sympathisers”. Watts finally approached Henry Gamble, Vicar of St. Botolph’s Aldersgate to raise funds to secure the land. Watts then paid out of his own pocket £700 (£58,000 today) to finance the memorial structure. Aged 83 at the time of its opening on July 30 1900, he was in fact too ill to preside over the ceremony and was instead represented by his wife. When Watt’s died on July 1 1904 he was lauded as “the last great Victorian”.
The tiles were custom made by Watt’s acquaintance William De Morgan costing £3/5s (£270 today). The wording on the panels often included the humble workplace and lowly social standing of the people involved to intentionally elevate them to exemplary prominence. With 120 planned tablets the enterprise soon ran into financial difficulty what with De Morgan’s escalating prices and lack of wanting to mass-produce his craft. Royal Doulton produced the 2nd batch but the colours came up looking much paler and less significant than De Morgan’s efforts. Mary Watts eventually tired of the venture and concentrated her efforts on her husband’s estate. After her death in 1938 the park fell back into the shadows of obscurity and was mostly forgotten until renewed interest came about from Patrick Marber’s 2004 film ‘Closer’, starring Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Jude Law and Clive Owen. Marber himself often cited London, the city, and more specifically Postman’s Park as the fifth main character of the film. He often walked his dog through the park when he was first developing ‘Closer’ as a play and later used the location in the film version for its affirmative, moral qualities and as an anchor to the turbulent and emotional plot. The name ‘Alice Ayers’ is also taken on by Natalie Portman’s character as a pseudonym.
Looking around, all I see is contentment and quiet reflection from the people sitting in their lunch break and the open jaws of the figures slowly side stepping along the breadth of the memorial wall. As I slowly reach the end of the plaques myself, I can feel the emotion welling up. I look into my bag to see that I have indeed forgotten to bring my hankies. But as I glance upward I notice the last plaque, -“Leigh Pitt, reprographic operator, aged 30, saved a drowning boy from the canal at Thamesmead, but sadly was unable to save himself, June 7 2007”, – the first in a new wave of plaques…and I’m hoping it’s not the last.