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Central Park

Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity Team are offering a weekly ‘virtual walk’ this week the team are exploring Central Park in New York city.

Hello, everyone.  This week we’re visiting New York city’s Central Park, a green oasis nestling in the heart of Manhattan, a vital breathing space amidst the hustle and bustle of the concrete jungle.

We’re starting on the park’s East Side,  at the entrance on East 72nd street.   It’s one of those days in early September where you can almost pretend that it’s still high summer. It’s sunny, but with just the tiniest hint of coolness in the air—as if to remind you that the weather will turn soon and you should make the most of this day.  The park is so busy that you think everyone else must have had the same thought. We pass joggers, people pushing prams and families speeding by on bikes that they’ve hired for the day, as we journey into the green heart of the park. A horse and carriage even trundles by, full of tourists snapping pictures.

After a little while, a wide set of steps opens out on our right, leading down to an open plaza paved with salmon-coloured tiles.  This is Bethesda Terrace.  You’ll probably recognise it—it appears in practically every film or TV show set in New York.  The enormous fountain in its centre, with its sculpture of an angel, is particularly famous. Unveiled in 1873 by the sculptor Emma Stebbins, this statue was actually the first publically commissioned major piece of art in the city of New York that was designed by a woman. You can take a seat on the fountain’s rim and trail your fingers through the water, if you like.  The angel looks down on you with her distant, serene expression, as if she’s following the way the water ripples and glistens as you move your hand.

Bethesda Terrace overlooks the central park lake, which is where we’ll continue our walk. There’s a lot of traffic on the lake today, with ducks vying for space with people on rented rowboats.  We’re not the only people enjoying the view- the benches that line the path are full of people. On one of them, an older gentleman sits, surrounded by a flock of pigeons which he feeds from a bag of seed in his hand.  He smiles down at them with the air of long familiarity, and you get the feeling this is something that he does fairly regularly, maybe even every day. I wonder why.  Perhaps he used to come to this bench, long ago, with someone special. Perhaps it’s simply an excuse to sit in the park for an hour or two, enjoying the fresh air.  Or perhaps the birds are his friends? Maybe he’s come up with a name and a story for all the regulars, keeping track of all their comings and goings over the years.

Coming up we get to a point where the lake narrows and it can be crossed by a footbridge, the famous Bow Bridge.  This is another much-filmed location, and you can see why, because if you stop here you get a beautiful view out over the lake, through the park and to the skyline beyond.  The buildings that line the West Side of the park are very distinctive. There’s the Dakota with its pointed gables, the Beresford with its octagonal corner towers, and the Eldorado and San Remo, both of which sport twin art deco spires. With all their turrets and elaborate ornamentation, I suppose they’re the closest thing to a modern fairytale castle- and with their exclusivity and hefty price tag, you have to be modern royalty to live there.  Celebrities as varied as John Lennon, Diana Ross, Groucho Marx and Jerry Seinfeld have all lived in apartments on the West Side of Central Park at one time or another. What a life that must be, waking up every morning and looking out to see Central Park spread out outside your window like your own personal front garden.  

The other side of the bridge comes out into the Ramble, a little area of natural woodland that forms the wildest part of Central Park. It’s a peaceful place, full of dappled sunlight and quiet, secret nooks and crannies. We wonder through its meandering paths, past a craggy landscape strewn with fallen branches and boulders and a thick carpet of last years’ leaves. You can hear a lot of birdsong, which is unsurprising as this area is home to over 230 species of birds and is popular spot with birdwatchers. All of a sudden there’s a flicker of movement and a fluttering of wings and something flits rapidly across our path. It’s gone before we have a chance to get a proper look.  That’s a shame. Was it something rare, or simply a common-or-garden sparrow? I guess we’ll never know.

Eventually we come out on the north eastern side of the Ramble and continue down the path until we come to a huge stone pillar engraved with -is that hieroglyphics? Your eyes do not deceive you; that’s a genuine ancient Egyptian obelisk here in the centre of New York. It’s the twin of one that stands on the Embankment in London, and was sold by the Egyptian government to the US back in the 19th century. There’s a time capsule buried under the obelisk which features an 1870 U.S. census, a Bible, a Webster’s Dictionary, the complete works of William Shakespeare, a guide to Egypt, and a copy of the Declaration of Independence …and also a mysterious box which no-one knows the contents of.

There’s a hotdog vendor, here, and the savoury smell of it is so tempting that we can’t help but go over and buy some.  It’s a New York institution, after all. The first bite is so good- the soft savoury sausage, slightly burnt onions and the little kick from the mustard- it’s the perfect thing to satisfy the appetite you’ve worked up during our gentle stroll. We wonder along, taking the odd bite as we go,  in search of a good spot to sit down and finish them. Suddenly our train of thought is interrupted by a loud shout : “Barney! Barney! Come back here!” and then before you know it a dog comes trotting up to us, trailing his lead. He’s a bright-eyed, inquisitive little fellow, with more than a touch of terrier about him, and seems very interested in the half of a hot dog you still hold in your hand. His eyes are so big and plaintive that you can’t resist giving him a little bite of it. You ruffle his floppy ears as he munches it contentedly. A few moments later a harried-looking owner runs up, out of breath and apologising profusely. “I hope he wasn’t bothering you!” she says. But you don’t mind. Even if you’re not a fan of dogs in general, you can’t help but be charmed by Barney.

Finally, here we are at the Great Lawn- a 55-acre grassy oval perfect for outdoor games and picnics. As the gate clicks shut behind us we spot a group of people in yoga leggings doing tai chi. There’s something very soothing about their slow, synchronised movements, and the identical expressions of concentration on each of their faces.  We pick our way through all the people sitting on the ground,  looking for a convenient spot to set ourselves down. This seems like a good place to stay for a while, soaking up the sun- perhaps we could read a book, or simply lie back and take in the clear, uninterrupted blue of the sky above our heads.  Shall we end our walk here for today?  I hope you enjoy your peaceful afternoon in the park- and see you back here next week for another walk!