South-west of Richmond, sandwiched between that florid neighbourhood, the equally affluent borough of Twickenham (Twickers for those in the know), and the considerably grittier Kingston is Bushy Park.
I’ve lived in London for almost a decade, I’ve flown above it dozens of time per year, but I’ve never been there. But, hey: if ever there was a time to pay it a visit that’s now, when the explorable world has shrunk from the entire globe to just what we can reach on foot.
It’s not as if Bushy Park is next door, mind you. All things considered it’s a 30-km hike, which Better Half (who considers it the best park in London) will accomplish by bike; as for myself, given my rather conflictual relationship with cycling in the city, I’ll go old school.
Five AM on a Saturday. The dawn spectacle is already underway and Kew is deserted, Canada geese the only witnesses of my passage. Richmond is equally dormant, homeless still fast asleep in their duvets. A publicity screen at a nearby bus stop proclaims that one night spent rough sleeping is one night too many, but I just need to look around to know the emptiness of our Mayor’s invective.
Twickenham – pardon, Twickers – is a treasure trove of different architectures, mixing small-town touches with 1930s tenements where you could all but imagine Hercule Poirot giving his little grey cells a workout. A Singapore Airlines jetliner rumbles overhead, covering the last miles of its journey to Heathrow. It’s almost as if normalcy has returned… almost.
Bushy park is silent or, rather, pleasantly devoid of human sound. Better Half waits for me outside the Strawberry Hill gate; inside, ducks chat amongst each other and blue-eyed crows totter around looking as if they’ve all received bad news and are pondering their next steps.
A flock of starlings, petrol-green birds that, in my airline days, we used to call The Kamikazes for their propensity to fly straight into jet engines, are doing a coordination drill. Parakeets, as much residents of West London as Benedict Cumberbatch, are having their usual morning shouting match. Coots, on the other hand, are still chilling out.
Wildlife is clearly not bothered by the sight of passing humans. We are at best registered, at worst ignored. Mama duck isn’t worried for her ducklings and the swan only flaps its wings because we’re from outside the TW postcode. Snob.
There are more than 300 deer in Bushy Park, Better Half informs me, but today it seems they’ve all gone someplace else for the weekend. That’s until we turn a corner and, squatting amongst the tall ferns, we find them.
A gang of young bucks are chilling out together, growing respectable antlers ahead of this year’s mating season fights. One of them is an albino, spots still – somehow- visible on its mantle.
I’m a horrible person. Show me a deer and it’ll be seconds before I can visualise it as a huge cauldron of stew with polenta on the side. Hey, in my defence I’m a quasi-vegetarian! And… aren’t we supposed to be eating local, free range, organic? Better Half pilots me away with promises of a burger, the first since January.
But then… disaster. Rabbits!
Admittedly, these little balls of fluff are way too small and big-eyed to risk ending up in the pot, but since we’re amongst friends I will confess to having nurtured deeply unholy thoughts involving red wine marinade and Vitelotte potatoes. That’s probably why Bunny, here, is looking a wee bit alarmed.
Better to move on before the irreparable happens. Time to start the long trek home. Bushy Park, we’ll be back.