An open park
in the centre of Leeds
, across the road from the back of Leeds University
. There aren't any fences or hedges around the border - you can wander in and out of Hyde Park from any direction, day or night. There are large chestnut
trees all around its outer edge, and inside are wide open expanses of grass crisscrossed with paths. During the day the paths are busy with cyclist
ers and pedestrian
s, and at night they are almost empty - Hyde Park is not safe at night, being unlit and unpolice
d, and wise people enter only in groups. That said, I used to walk through every night after dark
until someone told me to stop, and I never felt any danger.
The areas around the park, particularly around Hyde Park Corner, used to have one of the worst crime records in England, with one road, Chestnut Avenue, being the most burgled street in the country. The area has been changing over the last 10 years, as has most of Leeds, with the influx of students and money. Leeds has been going through an economic boom, part of the 'revival' of the North of England, and I lived in Woodhouse, right beside Hyde Park, for almost a year without ever seeing any trouble. One morning I came out of my front door to see the neighbour's car up on bricks and missing its tyres, but that's about as bad as it got.
On summer days, Hyde park fills up with jugglers, hippies, sunbathers and freaks, and queues of twelve-year-old kids in torn baggy pants line out the gates of the skate park at the bottom of the hill. New Yorkshire yuppies play frisbee in their bare feet with their mobile phones hidden in their trendy shoes nearby, and blonde-dreadlocked slackers share spliffs under the shade of the trees that line every walkway. The main road by the university is full of cars on their way to or from the saturday shopping slaughterhouse, but somehow you can't hear them in the halo of the trees.
I would call my friends in the early afternoon and we'd meet there, trickling into the central areas from our various directions. Matt would bring thuds, and do twirly ball tricks for the benefit of little kids. Jake would bring his unicycle, which he would ride for 5 minutes until his crotch ached, and then he would lie down and smoke, or play football. Mike would bring his fire stuff, and attract a lot of attention blowing big plumes of lit paraffin. Once, when I wasn't there, he burnt off his eyebrows and eyelashes - he always spoke about it with pride afterwards. Eric would amble along from wherever he was currently living, in his big dirty duffle coat, and say hi to everyone in an embarrassed kind of way - he always seemed to be embarrassed to be seen out in public. People would come and go. The sun would gradually head west and the park would get cooler, and the pink-and-green sign over the Tandoori house would flicker on.
Hyde Park is a nexus. You can see the endless, doll-like rows of houses in the hollow between it and Woodhouse Ridge, unreal, so clear it looks like you could pick one up and pop it in your mouth. You can see the white tower of the Parkinson building in the University, with its four clock faces that tell slightly different times. You can see across the city centre and the west, where on heavy days a sickly smog builds around the setting sun.
There's an outdoor bowls green hidden behind scraggly hedges and a gate, where we once went when we were drunk and started cheering madly at every slow, measured cast, glared at disapprovingly by old men in starched shirts. There's a wide oval ring of tall trees where I played with a boomerang one day, until the inevitable happened - it got caught in the branches, and I spent the next half an hour throwing sticks and stones at it until it finally fell. A young girl and her mother stared at me as they walked through the park on their way...wherever. At the entrance near the University there is a statue of the Duke of Wellington, staring off into the distance with the sort of air that enables a man to command an army and make decisions of life and death - pompous asshole. Someone obviously felt the same way, because one morning on my way to the University I noticed that his boots had been painted bright red, at a single stroke turning him from an intimidating symbol of old imperial power into a sad old clown. It's been four years now, and the paint is still there. Maybe everyone likes it better that way.
Hyde park is the center of Leeds - the real center, not the choked interior of the city, with its Victorian arcades and tiny streets, but the empty, bright heart of it. Sometimes it is made explicit, and there are outdoor concerts, jumble sales, festivals, even (once a year) unicycle races, but it would be the center even without these things. All true centers are empty - places where people can gather for no reason other than to be around other people. No one wants to stay in the city centre. You can't rest there, all you can do is buy things, eat, go to theaters, clubs, pubs. You're always on your way somewhere, or always about to leave, bound by time and cramped in space. Hyde Park is part of what makes Leeds a habitable city - a truly public space, with no walls, only soft green borders that don't make you feel like you're locked in, or locked out.