ODE TO A LONDON PARK

Holland Park is in the middle of Kensington, one of Londonís most desirable residential areas, and probably the most expensive. White stuccoed Regency and red brick Victorian housing abounds. Step away from the streets and into the park, and you arrive in a quirky place, a mismatched jumble of components. One half of the park is wooded, with curving paths luring you to lose your way. Old fashioned farm-style fences enclose areas which border on the unkempt, some with their five barred gates mysteriously locked. A statue of Lord Holland, whose park this was, sits in a tiny pond by a crossing of paths, his noble head affording a resting place for pigeons.

Not far away the landscape alters, and a smaller gate gives access to the ornamental Kyoto Garden, donated to Kensington by the people of Japan, and why not? Then again, why? A narrow path leads to a bridge over a small lake, at the foot of an artificial waterfall. A peacock struts around inspecting Japanese sculptures and the occupants of benches, while a heron stands on a rock, sceptically eyeing the koi carp which are far too large for a mere bird to tackle.

Leaving by yet another gate, we head towards the grand Holland House itself, or whatís left of it. Itís a Jacobean house, that is to say early seventeenth century, with rounded Dutch gables hiding the triangular ends of the roofs. It was lucky to survive the eighteenth centuryís mania for rebuilding in a classical style, but less fortunate in the nineteen forties when it was comprehensively bombed. One wing survives, very obviously patched up in times of post war austerity, and now serves as a youth hostel.

One might expect the remainder to be either re-erected or cleared away, but there are remnants of walls, a detached tower, and various more recent brick structures whose purpose is a mystery. The orangery more or less survives, and hosts weddings and other feasts; a walled garden has been restored and is overseen by a doleful Medieval statue in a niche; and at certain times of the year a marquee occupies part of the site, from within which an opera singer startles us by practising her scales. There are more pools; the concrete hippopotamus submerged in one would be surprising anywhere else.

When the sun shines and there are people about, there is nowhere better to wander. When the drizzle descends and the paths are deserted, the remains of the poor old house lend a melancholy air.

A utilitarian modern cafť has been built onto the back of a surviving wall, and outside there are solid timber tables, some of them sheltering in a series of cave-like brick arches. Itís a great place to sit with a cup of coffee on a summerís day, looking out over the park, which here is a mown playing field fringed by trees.

The cafť is run by the local authority, not one of those slick American chains. Thereís charm in wondering whether the coffee machine will function, and perhaps in being handed an allegedly white coffee with no milk. A notice on the inside wall invites you to breast feed, an offer which I have not taken up.

Sauntering southwards out of the park, we are in a small enclave of fine housing, close to High Street Kensington. One detached Victorian house two minutes from the park was for sale not long ago. It was tempting to move there, but the price of sixty million pounds persuaded me to stay in Orpington. I shall continue to frequent Holland Park, nevertheless. It is worth the detour.