Nii Ayikwei Parkes. My London: Blythe Hill Fields
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Life & Arts news every morning.
Anyone who knows me knows that food drives me. When I first arrived in London from Accra in 1993, I came with a contraband bag – of dried chilli powder, Maggi cubes, dried shrimp, dawadawa and Ghanaian kebab spice – and stayed with an uncle in a small community in the Borough of Lewisham called Brockley. Not accustomed to waiting for buses, I ended up walking a lot, a mini A-Z in hand, whistling Jimmy Smith riffs from a tape my father made me. It was on one of those walks, having bought a portion of fish and chips at Wilson’s (on the parade of shops at Brockley Rise, where bus 172 terminates) from my first pay cheque, my chunky grey Walkman rattling on my belt, that I discovered Blythe Hill Fields. I sat on a patch of grass at one of the highest points of the fields and drifted away. My father was under chemotherapy at the Royal Marsden, I was worried about my university fees, but for the entire B-side of a Maxell tape, I was at peace.
I rediscovered the park over 15 years later, as a parent living on the Catford side and occasionally lugging the kids up Blythe Hill Lane to play, and it enchanted me in new ways. I fell in love with the way it straddles things. Or perhaps I mean it allows a person to make of it what they will. I love my kids, but I still prefer to go alone, approaching via Brockley View. This is probably because it is not just Blythe Hill Fields I love, but Brockley – my London landing-point – as well. I like the fact that if you choose not to climb up to Blythe Hill Fields from Brockley Rise, there is a little green offering city-soundscape solitude across the road from the wonderful Indian restaurant, Babur (yes, I do food landmarking) on Brockley Rise, two doors from one of south London’s definitive establishments, Morley’s Fried Chicken. Anyway, I digress.
This is how you find a moment of peace on Blythe Hill: walk in via Duncombe Hill, proceed until you come to the fourth bench by the footpath. Being close to a bin (this is my assumption), it is often empty. Sit on it, lean back and let your eyes tune in. Over the Guy’s Hospital athletic grounds in the foreground, framed on the left by a cluster of young trees – beeches, planes, rowan and birches – you will see The Shard and, as you scan to the right, will notice (depending on clarity) other famous London landmarks like the Gherkin, the Heron Tower, the squat 20 Fenchurch Street . . . until a slender plane stops your gaze at a church spire in the foreground. I’m not going to pretend I know which church that is. Up high, phone reception is strangely bitty, which I find useful for quiet places in London. If you skip beyond the pesky church-spire-plane, burnt ochre roofs of different shades, you’ll see the other famous London skyline – Canary Wharf.
But Blythe Hill Fields is about more than peace and the view. It has delightful quirks; a tight huddle of hills, it evokes a moment of gossip. For me, it is also about the communities that radiate out around it; the incredible network of green spaces, the food that is accessible to the global gastronome. On the Catford side, you will find ingredients for Bengali, South American, Chinese, Caribbean, Polish, Thai and west African cuisine. On the Brockley side, you’ll find restaurants – the kind that have clientele spilling into the streets – serving Cuban, Italian, Spanish, Cantonese and good old fish and chips. And there is culture here too: my kids saw Chris and Pui from Show Me, Show Me at Catford’s Broadway Theatre, there are salsa spots and there is ballroom dancing at the old Rivoli Ballroom on Brockley Road. One of my favourite places, opposite a Chinese takeaway (yes, we end as we began – with food) is the Brockley Jack, a fabulous pub and theatre.
I sometimes think someone should put a plaque in Blythe Hill Fields to point out to people what you can see, but then it would lose that sense of the untouched. And untouched is what I look for, ironically, to feel connected, because I am touched endlessly on public transport without feeling a connection. Jogging up towards Blythe Hill Fields early in the morning, I often catch a horizon massed by greenery, giving the feeling of entering into an endless wonderland of sky, verdure, possibility.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes’s novel ‘Tail of the Blue Bird’ (Vintage) was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Prize. His poetry collection ‘The Makings of You’ is published by Peepal Tree Press. He also writes for children under the name KP Kojo
Photographs: Mark Mattock