A little while ago whilst staying away from home, and with a need for some fresh air, I carried myself and the little ones off to Herrington Park, Sunderland. On the surface, I simply wanted to experience some of the bracing wind, some casual walking and, I hoped, some late February sunshine. There was also an ulterior motive to get the kids away from their screens and outdoors for a while.
Landscaped over twenty years ago, Herrington Park features machine-sculpted hills and hollows and is dressed with hedgerows, trees and shrub-filled thickets. These plantations are busy and mature, now bringing life to the park with significant opportunity for nesting and foraging birds. Additionally, the planting doubles up to control views and create wonderful characterful areas too, where cleverly a path appears to loop behind every shrubbery to draw you always onward. Any Georgian landscape garden worth its salt could hardly have bettered this achievement – if I dare to draw a comparison that is.
As we walked, I couldn’t help but notice that buds had begun bursting on some of the thorn shrubs – somewhat early I thought. Tiny fresh leaves in patches had unfurled, boldly opening to soak up some of that same winter sun that I sought, appearing from a distance as green confetti caught in thorny twigs. Mind you, with February temperatures hitting double figures of late and hazel catkins visibly shrivelling as their work neared its end, I shouldn’t have been surprised to witness such eagerness for spring.
Aside from the thickly planted, wilder and open pool spaces though, the expansive park is largely mown grass. To this I can’t help but think that its summer cutting offers a monotonous task each week for someone, not least for the extra challenge of trimming a large grass amphitheater, with its many steps and angles. All that cut grass though, aside from creating acres of playing space does assist appreciation of the sculpted ground forms, and when scanning the landscape, those smoothly contoured and mown slopes often encouraged my eyes, if not my feet, to fly out across and into the view.
There are curvy peaks and troughs across much of the park, but its success for me is the balance struck between detailed, more intimate spaces and wide open ones. On that blustery day, those thoughtfully composed areas worked perfectly to shield us from the weather’s worst, allowing us to sit calmly on a sculpture bench and watch the world go by in one spot, whilst also giving opportunity to connect with the more distant views in another, most notably the impressive Penshaw Monument, an awe inspiring Greek style structure just across the way.
Another strong and evocative presence in this park is the rows of terraced houses nestled towards the perimeter. I took them for miner’s housing from yesteryear, on the basis that this whole expanse of land was once a colliery from the 1880s, through to the 1980s. Green and pleasant it might now be and a space for people to roam free, but once upon a time it were a working mine, where hard physical inputs had to be matched with revenue building outputs – or else! These time-served houses connected visually and mentally with countless others in nearby estates, and quite appropriately stood as living mirrors to the history of this place.
Today, Herrington Park is an exemplar venue for rebirth and recreation. Ponds and streams, trees and tussocky grass, pitches and play grounds, ice cream vans and interactive sculpture now populate and heal a place once plundered for its mineral assets.
Artistic and landscape considerations aside, I was drawn whilst walking on that windswept day to consider the park’s impact on us. At one point, after a mini rock climbing moment, my kids were perched on a huge boulder that in turn was perched atop a hill we’d zig-zagged up. They both stood up momentarily in defiance of the wind that threatened to lift them clean off, but on hearing their shouts of pure joy and raucous laughter proved to me that every step of the walk had been worthwhile, and to feel the exhilarating wind that screwed their eyes and chilled their cheeks, was priceless. Talk about being in the moment…
A football might have been kicked along and carried as we walked but it was landscape, nature and fresh air that lifted our spirits in that park, on that day. People walked dogs, pushed chairs and fed waterfowl, kids played on equipment and wheeled around the skatepark. Birds chased others through branches, a duck danced above the water to stretch its wings and people queued for snacks at the park hub. Everywhere we looked, folks were actively enjoying and drinking it all in.
Herrington Park is, like all other parks I suppose, an engineered and reworked landscape; a re-dressed piece of earth if you will. As I reflect now, understanding more of its past than before, I realise there is so much more to that park with a history deeply imbedded beneath its smooth mown grass. As we walked and talked, observed and experienced during our February visit, what I felt then and what still resonates as the days pass, is that Herrington Park is as rich a resource now as a public park, as ever it were as a colliery; and long may it remain so.
Gary Webb. February 2023. My writing journey continues…