Pleasure Gardens then and now

BATTERSEA PARK IS but a very few miles (only three!) from where we live in London, yet it is a place that until now we have hardly ever visited. Maybe, this is because it is across the River Thames on its south bank. To those who live on the north side of the Thames, anything across the Thames seems extremely far away and almost in another country. That sounds ridiculous, but it is the case. The river is like a psychological barrier to us ‘northerners’, but it is well worth crossing it. We parked our car in Chelsea close to the Albert Bridge, an elegant structure built in the early 1870s. A short stroll across the bridge brings you to Battersea Park, which stretches along the south bank of the Thames to Chelsea Bridge, which is downstream from the Albert Bridge.

Before 1858, when the park was opened, the land on which it now stands was marshland reclaimed from the Thames and used by market gardeners. Prior to the opening of the park, the area was a popular location for duels. The Duke of Wellington challenged the Duke of Winchilsea in this area in 1829.

The name Battersea is derived from the Anglo-Saxon name ‘Badrices īeg’, meaning ‘Badric’s Island’. In the Domesday Book, it was called ‘Patricesy’. Gradually, the name evolved into its present form. The park was laid out between 1846 and 1854 by the architect Sir James Pennethorne (1801-1871), but when it opened in 1858, the year that Chelsea Bridge was completed, it differed somewhat from his original plans. In 1889, the year when the Eiffel Tower opened in Paris, the park came under the control of London County Council (‘LCC’). Moving forwards to 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain, much of which took place near Waterloo Station on what is now called the South Bank, Battersea park was used to stage a part of the festival known as the ‘Pleasure Gardens’.

You can read much about the Pleasure Gardens on an interesting and informative illustrated website at https://alondoninheritance.com/eventsandceremonies/the-festival-of-britain-pleasure-gardens-battersea-park/ . In contrast to the rest of the Festival, the aim of the Pleasure Gardens:

“… was to balance the other events and add an element of fun to an otherwise mainly serious festival.”

Unlike other parts of the great event, the Pleasure gardens allowed commercial sponsorship. This was because the cost of these gardens was greatly in excess of what the government could afford. The Pleasure Gardens’ attractions included: a shopping area, ‘The Parade’; the Grand Vista with its fountains, arcades, towers, eating areas, and firework displays; a miniature passenger-carrying railway with two stations (Oyster Creek and Far Tottering); a fun fair; lawns and flower gardens; a dance pavilion; specially designated areas for children’s performances such as ‘Punch and Judy’; and a zoo. It must have been quite a wondrous place and a great relief for many people who had suffered hardships during WW2 and just after it. Many of the structures in the Pleasure Gardens were designed by well-known artists of the time including, to mention a few, John Piper, Osbert Lancaster, and Hugh Casson.

The former Pleasure Gardens were on the north side of Battersea Park close to the river. Little remains of what must have been a wonderful sight. The Children’s Zoo flourishes. It is the descendant of the zoo created in 1951. It nearly closed in 2003, but was rescued by Carol and Roger Heap, a couple intensely interested in wildlife education and conservation. Their son Ed is involved with the zoo’s management and his wife Claire is the zoo’s resident vet. I have yet to see the zoo, which we did not visit recently on account of the rain.

Hardly anything remains of the other parts of the Pleasure Gardens. The funfair that was opened in 1951 continued to operate until the early 1970s when an accident involving the Big Dipper occurred on the 30th of May 1972 hastened the fairground’s demise. What little remains of the Pleasure Gardens today has been conserved well by Wandsworth Council. This includes, The Parade (a tree-lined avenue running inside the park parallel to the riverbank), the Fountain Lake, and a few remnants of the Grand Vista. The prominent Peace Pagoda (erected 1985) with its gold coloured Buddha stands where once the Mermaid Fountain (sponsored by Lockheed Hydraulic Brakes) stood.

We visited Battersea Park on a grey weekday when few other people were in the park. The remnants of the Pleasure Gardens, where many people once congregated to have fun, was eerily empty, almost surrealist in appearance. Next year, it will be 70 years since the Festival of Britain. Being optimistic, it would be nice to imagine that maybe the pandemic will have subsided significantly, and we might be able to celebrate again, possibly with an element of ‘socialdistancing’ as one of the ‘attractions’.

Hollowed out of the rock

WE HAVE VISITED BUDDHIST cave temples carved out of the ‘living’ rock in the following places: Junagadh, Somnath, and Siyot (near Lakhpat in Kutch). A young Dutch tourist, whom we met at Dholavira, showed us his photos of some other spectacular Buddhist rock caves at Kanheri in the heart of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, which is close to Borivali (about 32 kilometres north of Bombay Churchgate Station).

The 109 caves contain inscriptions dating from the 1st to 11th centuries AD. These help to age their construction. They are carved out of a basalt outcrop about 7 kilometres away from the Park’s main entrance.

We travelled to Borivali on a fast, limited stop train from Churchgate Station. It is lucky we bought first class tickets because the second class sections become very crowded at intermediate stations such as Bombay Central, Dadar, Bandra, and Andheri. We were glad that we had paid the extra fare because the train we took back Bombay was very crowded, but slightly less so in the first class.

A short autorickshaw drive brings one from Borivali station to the entrance of the national park. There, we were badgered by a young man who gave us incorrect and untruthful information about travelling the seven kilometres up the hillside to the caves. He suggested it would be best to hire a car for 1500 Rupees. Otherwise, we would have to wait for two hours before a public bus departed. He was fibbing. In fact, there is a very regular bus, which we boarded, that covers the distance for 10 Rupees per head.

The Kanheri Caves are a paradise for lovers of antiquities and the antics of wild monkeys. There are 109 manmade caves carved out of the rock, but only three of them are visually interesting. Cave number 3 is the most impressive. A ‘vestibule’ flanked by two massive sculptures (standing Buddhas), many times the height of an average human being, contains many other beautifully carved figurative sculptures. The vestibule lead into a huge manmade cave that in many ways resembles a vast romanesque basilica. The walls of this voluminous chamber have pillars carved from the rock as well as other sculptures depicting animals and deities. The pillars line the sides of a central space that resembles the nave of a church. The wall at the far end of this room is curved like the apse of a church. A large cylindrical stone object, of religious significance, sits in the ‘apse’. There is a curved passageway separating this cylindrical stone from the curved wall of the ‘apse’. Compared with other Buddhist cave temples I have seen, this particular cave beats them all in terms of size and beauty.

I clambered up the hillside to see some of the other temples. I saw about ten of them, but none contained any carvings that I could see. Many of them looked manmade and most of them provided shady places for visitors to sit, chat, and take selfies.

I do not know whether it is of any significance but I noticed that many of the caves are carved into the rocks that form a valley for a stream that still contains water. Maybe, the cave carvers chose to make their caves here because of the water supply provided by the stream.

On our way out of the cave area, we stopped to buy some books. This proved to be a lengthy business because it involved much paperwork that involved three officials.

The train journey back to Churchgate was uneventful once we were on board. Waiting for the train was unnecessarily exciting as the platforms at which trains were expected to arrive kept being changed.

Having visited the Kanheri Caves, I can recommend them highly to everyone visiting or living in Bombay (except those who cannot manage stairs).