Site unseen / Stone alcoves, Victoria Park, London, E9

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The Independent Online
F ew parts of London repay such detailed attention as Victoria Park in Bethnal Green. Every tree is worthy of note, each blade of grass full of historic interest.

How can I be so certain? Because some years ago I lived in a flat near Victoria Park and from time to time, driven by the determination to look good on the beach and mercilessly kick sand in other people's faces, I would embark on a jog. This explains why each and every feature in Victoria Park remains firmly etched in my memory.

I quickly came to admire the impressive columns which heralded the formal entrance to the park, built in the 1840s on a part of London once known as "Botany Bay" - most of its inhabitants were eventually transported there. I fell in love with the rabbits, the deer, the canal and the lake with its island reputedly inhabited by Chinamen who only ventured out at night.

Even in my dishevelled and sweaty state, I still admired the neo-Gothic drinking fountain erected in 1862 by that great Victorian philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, in the forlorn hope that it would satisfy the users of the park which was firmly alcohol-free. Nice idea, shame about the result. Today the approaches to the park are stuffed full of pubs.

It was on the eastern fringes of the park that my lungs began to burst and a period of repose was urgently needed. Happily, two interesting stone structures offered welcome sanctuary. Slumped there, signalling to oblivious passers-by that the presence of an ambulance would be much appreciated, I sometimes wondered what the hell these alcoves were doing here in the first place.

I felt much better when I discovered that they were the last survivors of old London Bridge, the crossing built as long ago as 1209. For centuries the bridge was spanned by shops and houses which brought extra revenue to the City Fathers. These additions were pulled down in the 18th century. They were replaced by stone alcoves into which pedestrians supposedly leapt for safety in the face of oncoming traffic.

In the 1830s "old" London Bridge itself was pulled down but a handful of the shelters were saved. One is to be found in the grounds of Guy's Hospital while two ended up here in Victoria Park.

Many is the hour I spent panting inside them, chanting "no pain, no gain" and convinced that this year at least I would be a real wow on the beach. That it has still to happen is absolutely no fault of Victoria Park.

The alcoves are on the eastern side of Victoria Park, near Cadogan Terrace, London E9

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