Looking back

Screenshot 2023-04-24 at 16.37.54John Dexter and the park keeper’s lodges, circa 1960s

Wanstead Park has been a constant for the whole of my life, yet it’s a place of evolving change, reflects Paul Donovan, who believes humankind must take a step back to move forward 

Life is a conveyor belt of change. Human beings are constantly seeking to get off the journey, settle and feel some security of tenure. But you cannot stop the journey. The thought occurs when looking back at people and places around us. 

When I was a child, John Dexter was the park keeper in Wanstead Park. We’d always see Mr Dexter around, a respected, imposing figure. He kept order as well as doing much work in the park. I was at school with Anne, his daughter. The Dexters lived in one of the park keeper’s lodges by the Temple. John left the park in the early 1990s, moving locally. He died recently. Ann put up a number of pictures of John from the old days, in front of the Temple and various other places. They brought back memories of great times.

Another memory was refreshed when standing recently by the Shoulder of Mutton Pond. The area immediately adjacent to the east used to be open grassland. We used to play football there. Earlier still, a couple of guys came in all weathers to swim in the lake. I only found out later that one of the guys was the father of a later friend of mine. He used to cycle from Dagenham for a dip. Now, that area is totally covered in bramble, a good terrain for the birds, but no one would know what it was like before. No one swims in the lake. Times change.

The park, of course, has a long history, with people from across classes and generations enjoying the area. The recent photo exhibition of COVID times by Russell Boyce marked another period. A time that is already being looked back on as part of the story of the park.

Getting older can seem a lonely business, as those you have known die off. The net can appear to be closing in. But more positively, looking back should show the way forward. Learn from the past to progress in the future.

Not everything in the past was great. People can come to romanticise the past as they grow older, a resistance to the inevitable. Moving forward, we do have more knowledge as to how to work in harmony with nature, not seek to dominate it as has so often been the case in the past. The promotion of biodiversity and efforts to combat climate change are to be welcomed. Never forgetting these crises have largely been created by the reckless behaviour of human beings. If humankind is going to survive, it most certainly needs to learn the lessons of the past. Indeed, maybe for the first time in recent history, there needs to be a step back in order to progress forward. A need to live more simply and tread lighter on the Earth. This will be a progression, that is likely to come when we recognise our own mortality and that we are only part of a passing phase in the history of life. Enjoy our time here, learn from the past and look to the future.

Paul Donovan is a Labour councillor for Wanstead Village ward.