Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - May 3, 2024

Saturday in the park

While there certainly is no shortage of gardens in the United States, the British have taken gardening to another level. In my 2016 column - Daft over gardens, I spoke about this peculiar British fascination with creating vegetation eye candy. Not only do Brits spend a disproportionate amount of their personal time on their gardens, it also seems everyone has a professional gardener to help them over the rough spots.

It has been suggested that this unusual condition is related to the British weather. The warm Gulf Stream waters that bathe Britain means weather extremes, such as what we experience in the Midwest, are fairly rare, but rains are frequent. Given the moderate temperatures and plentiful moisture, being a successful gardener is a bit easier than it might be in other places.

Then there is the latitude. London, Britain's capital city, is near the southern edge of the country, yet it is farther north than any part of the United States except Alaska. This means that in the winter, a Londoner sees the sun rise at 9 a.m. and the sun set at around 4 p.m., making long, gloomy nights common.

Husband Art recalled one spring about 35 years ago when he had flown to Connecticut for a business meeting. He picked up three Brits, who had arrived the previous evening. Poking fun at their English weather and contrasting it to the beautiful spring day, one pointed to the sky and said, "What's that yellow thing up there?"

So it's been suggested that Brits are so crazy about their beautiful gardens to compensate for their dark and dank winters and springs.

Whatever the reason, we visitors can reap the benefits of their gardening efforts, both in large cities and small villages. On a recent Saturday, we tried our luck at Quarry Park in Shrewsbury, a city of about 75,000 near the Welsh border. The park is a 29-acre green space located in the center of a loop in the Severn River. As with almost everything British, it dates back centuries and was undoubtedly visited by native son Charles Darwin, who was born there in 1809.

On the northern edge is an area dedicated to children's amusement with slides and other playground equipment, as well as ice cream vendors and Coffee Evolution - a café honoring Darwin.

Lime trees line the pathways, and a large expanse of grass provides ample space for people to have picnics, play Frisbee, or chase after their children or dogs.

It was only about 60 degrees, but people were frolicking on the grass as there are no chiggers to irritate the visitors. It was hard to decide whether the humans or animals were happier to be released from winter's grip.

We walked along the banks of the Severn, pausing to watch young boys in a regatta-style boat being coached on their handling of the paddles, Then, we headed to the Dingle - yes, that's really the name of the English garden near the park's center. Between the 14th and 16th centuries, the Dingle was known as the Wet or Water Quarry because it was a source of both stone and clay and prone to flooding. In the 19th century, the Shropshire Horticultural Society funded the clearing of the site and the planting of the ornamental gardens, which opened in 1879.

Left: Coffee Evolution at the left provides a place for parents to relax while their children enjoy the playground equipment. Right: the coach - in the motorboat - of a rowing team gives direction to the youngsters.

A bust in the Dingle honors Percy Thrower, who was Shrewsbury’s park superintendent from 1946-1974. Could his name have been any more quintessentially English? Thrower was a gardener, horticulturist, broadcaster and writer. Working as a journeyman gardener at the Royal Gardens in Windsor Castle in 1931, he later became a gardener at Sandringham - another of the royal estates. He became nationally known through gardening programs, starting in 1956 with the BBC's "Gardening Club," then "Gardeners' World" from 1969 until 1976.

The Dingle, which in Middle English means "a deep hollow or dell," is bordered by a combination stone wall and tall shrubs. Near the center is a pond, complete with ducks, ducklings, and fish.

The tulips were the stars of this early-spring show, and were in various stages of bloom. The yellows were nearly spent, while their red cousins were just starting to open. Daffodils, rhododendrons, Japanese maples, lantana, weeping willows, and other flowers, bushes, and trees gave the garden a variety of textures and made it a riot of color.

While older folks sat or lay on benches soaking up the sun, children couldn't seem to stay still. One young boy ran in circles around the garden beds and eventually hopped on his bicycle and pedaled away. A girl of about 4 or 5 was dressed in a delicate pink dress and sturdy blue boots. She ran from flower bed to flower bed, gently touching and often sniffing the blooms.

Our day in the park, a sunny one in the middle of several of rain, reminded me of the million-selling 1972 song, "Saturday in the Park" by the group Chicago.

Saturday in the park
I think it was the Fourth of July
People dancing, people laughing
A man selling ice cream
Funny days in the park
Every day's the Fourth of July
People reaching, people touching
A real celebration

Robert Lamm wrote those words while looking at footage from a film he shot in New York's Central Park.

... as I watched the film I jotted down some ideas based on what I was seeing and had experienced. And it was really kind of that peace and love thing that happened in Central Park and in many parks all over the world, perhaps on a Saturday, where people just relax and enjoy each other’s presence, and the activities we observe and the feelings we get from feeling a part of a day like that.

Our visit was not on the Fourth of July, but our Saturday in the park certainly had the same feel and effect on us!

Thrower's bust - top-row-center - watches over the Dingle. During our visit, many youngsters were enjoying the flower garden, while others were taking advantage of the freshly cut grass - bottom-row-center.

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