AMID all the noise about Greenwich Park, a row that can only get louder as the months go on, SE10 does still boast one small, green, park-like space of total peace and calm.
The East Greenwich Pleasaunce is not just a name to drive your spell-checking software berserk. It is that very rare thing for our town – a slice of local heritage which no-one in authority is currently threatening to wreck.
Perhaps that’s because no-one in authority knows the place exists. I feel almost worried to be writing this piece. If I draw attention to the Pleasaunce, will the council, Locog or Greenwich Hospital suddenly come up with an “exciting” new plan to “transform” it into an iconic £300 million eco-interpretation hub, complete with token wind turbine and pointless new building in multi-coloured glass?
But let me take the risk – let me tell you, in case you didn’t know, that you find the Pleasaunce firmly tucked away, behind a high brick wall, in that small clump of streets just south of the Woolwich Road and just east of where the old hospital used to be. You find it down a little alley between two houses on Halstow Road. You find it through rusty old gates, not very well marked as leading to a public park, on Chevening Road.
But once you have found it, what do you find in it? More than you used to, for sure. The reason I went to the Pleasaunce the other day was to test out the new Pistachios café that’s opened there – an attractive, small, low building at the top end of the park with a pleasaunt outlook over the gently-sloping space.
I can see this being a place I’ll try more often. It’s nice to sit there with a drink and the newspapers, which they have. (They do have some funny ideas about what constitutes a Welsh rarebit, though. When I pointed out that this dish does not have tomatoes in it, the boy who brought it over agreed apologetically, but said that was how the owner made them. Wrong, owner!)
They had a farmer’s market – just the one – the other day. It had been promoted as a regular weekly event, but as the Friends of East Greenwich Pleasaunce say on their blog Pistachio’s have been a “bit previous” in their marketing. The council hasn’t given permission yet and – nice as the idea of a farmer’s market is - there are important issues about the traders’ parking and vehicles to sort out before it does give permission.
Because this, let us not forget, is also a graveyard. The Pleasaunce wasn’t created as a public park, but as a kind of upmarket dumping-ground for about 3,000 dead sailors, former Greenwich Hospital pensioners, who in 1875 were decanted from their previous accommodation in central Greenwich when the South Eastern Railway wanted to build a train track underneath it.
Only a handful of extra-eminent naval stiffs, such as Nelson’s oppo Hardy, were allowed to remain in West Greenwich, in a special vault just missed by the railway tunnel; I visited their mausoleum on Open House Day last month. Everyone else went East. Fascinatingly, burials in the Pleasaunce continued until 1981 – and there will be a special memorial service in the park on Trafalgar Day next Wednesday to remember all those who, in the words of a Pleasaunce tablet, “served their country in the wars which established the naval supremacy of England, and died the honoured recipients of her gratitude.” (However rousingly-worded this is, it does strike me as a slight piece of Victorian spin. If England had been all that grateful, it would presumably have let the veterans stay where a few more people might have come to honour them.)
The future for the Pleasaunce looks good, in a low-key sort of way. The council’s “management plan” sounds sensible, apart from an ominous mention about “toggle-testing each standing gravestone.” Let’s hope they don’t end up, like other bureaucrats have done, demolishing headstones on the remote chance that one might eventually Fall Down On A Child.
Perhaps the real safeguard, though, is that other West-to-East displacement. A hundred years after the corpses moved down the road, the local professional classes began to follow – and for somewhat similar, property-related reasons. Now there is a strong core of people to run friends’ groups, keep an eye on the council and buy Welsh rarebits (preferably without tomato) from their new café.
One thing, at least, they will not have to contend with is a lot of horses trampling over the flowers.