Yesterday I decided that I’d had enough of being ill and stomped along Parkland Walk, a long and narrow strip of nature reserve that stretches along an old railway line, from Finsbury Park up to Alexandra Palace. Originally a suburban offshoot from the main line, there were plans to incorporate this bit of track into the Northern Line, under the rather romantic name ‘The Northern Heights Plan’. Unfortunately, the onset of the Second World War put a stop to the idea, and the line subsequently dwindled – with its last passenger train in 1954 and last freight train in the 1970.
It’s a beautiful walk, and one which provides the added satisfaction of getting somewhere, cutting through the houses far better than pavemented streets. And it was especially beautiful yesterday, bleached white with the snow, which lay thick on the ground and neatly lined along branches, sprinkles of powder wafting off with the slightest breeze.
There are several extraordinary things about this strip of park – the old station platforms, the heavily graffittied bridge, the views down across roads, train tracks and out across the skyline. (Please excuse the awful photos which were taken on my mobile and don’t begin to do it justice.)
But what really strikes me about the walk is that houses are rarely out of sight. Rows of suburban roofs spread out from behind the trees, the mess of branches only thinly screening their windows and gardens.
I wonder whether the houses are pleased with the changes to this strip of land. Now the window frames aren’t rattled by passing trains, now their brickwork doesn’t pass by in a flash to vacant-eyed commuters. Now lazy chatter drifts towards them over the trees and they can hear children playing, perhaps the occasional misfired snowball might splat against a wall. Perhaps they’d be allowed a wry smile when hearing the harsh pants of joggers, or the fizz of graffiti artists’ aerosols, at work on the railway bridge. They stand over this land with incredible knowledge. They have seen and heard everything that’s happened here; they know its past, its secrets.
Jenny Erpenbeck’s magnificent Visitation tells the story of a house in the German countryside, from its construction to its eventual demolition, and the different people who have lived in it over time. It is a novel in which things are always being hidden – people in crates and secret cupboards or behind a pile of wood, silverware sunk in the lake, porcelain buried in the garden. And this pattern of hiding things is a strand in the more intricate pattern of filling gaps. Concrete is poured into the cavity of a tree to give it support – something which reminds me of Rachel Whiteread’s concrete sculpture House, which renders the negative space of a house.
Because a house, in some sense, is just a gap to be filled – a surprising amount of space caught within four walls. And its occupants, as they come and go through the years are the fillers of this space, making their small marks and indentations as they live in its rooms, sit in the garden, hide in its cupboards. Nothing is hidden from the house – it knows every hiding place better than anyone, it is party to every secret.
While Whiteread’s House shows the interior space of a house so marvellously, it omits the space outside its four walls. In Visitation, the remit of the house spreads down through its garden to a lake. A house doesn’t exist independent of its site, but is affected by what goes on outside, the sounds, the happenings, the changes.
And so while these houses that line Parkland Walk have certainly been keeping an eye on what goes on inside, privy to all sorts of daily domestic dramas, they’ve also got an eye outside – watching this space undergo an astonishing change from railway to park. I bet they have some stories to tell.