I’m walking through the Horniman Gardens with my boyfriend on our allocated daily walk during lockdown. A heady cocktail of emotions wash over me as I think about how much my life has changed over the past few weeks. Not being able to see friends or family, to travel freely throughout London and as the need for freelance portrait photographers melts to zero, I was stripped of not only my career, but also of my passion.
I was appreciative of the beauty and quietness the Horniman Gardens gave me, to ponder my situation, calm my anxiety of not knowing when my next job would be, and to try and find a creative outlet. Then it dawned on me, this is only my version of what visiting the Horniman Gardens means at this time. Each person I walk past has their own motivations, and reasons to be here and I became intrigued to find out what they were. That spark of intrigue became an idea for a portrait series, I wanted to photograph people walking through the park during lockdown and to find out what brought them to the Horniman and how they were coping during lockdown.
A place to connect with loved ones, a source of creative inspiration, or simply somewhere to stay sane, I share with you what the Horniman means to some of it’s lockdown visitors. All walkers were approached with care at over 2 meter distance.
Facing the closed pathway to the park’s victorian conservatory, Lloyd was found excitedly talking about the beautiful glass building to a young man standing over 2 meters away from him.
Lloyd beamed as he explained what a nice wedding venue it would make. Recognising and abiding by social distancing measures, Lloyd was taking a walk with his son Nathan who he had not seen for weeks on end. The sunny stroll granted him the opportunity to wish Nathan a face-to-face Happy Birthday for the previous day.
“Because of Lockdown, I’ve been indoors most of the time. I thought it would a waste of a nice day not to come out and enjoy nature”
As his proud father Lloyd beamed about being able to safely see his son for the first time in weeks, for Birthday boy Nathan, this was also a joyous time to see his dad and a chance to break up the tedium of lockdown.
The most difficult part of lockdown is the monotony of it all. The days start to feel the same”
The walk had provided Nathan with a respite from the boredom of lockdown and had re-ignited his fondness for the park.
“It’s rare to have such a beautiful space like this on your doorstep, you’ve got the animals to see, the flowers and the views, it’s such a nice place”
Layla has been visiting the Horniman since before she was born, when dad Paul and her expectant mother would come for daily walks to the gardens. Spotted taking her dad Paul for their daily walk on a sunny afternoon, Layla has made sure that the lockdown doesn’t kill this tradition.
Layla’s favourite parts of the Horniman have changed and developed over the years, originally preferring the animals and museum. During the first few days of lockdown, Layla would walk towards the entrance to the museum and try to get in. As the building has closed to the public during lockdown, she has started to explore - and fall in love with - other parts of the grounds, such as finding places in the bushes to hide.
Paul has found that people’s attitudes haven’t dampened due to the lockdown and in some ways have enhanced Layla’s social life.
“Everyone has been much friendlier, and there are lots of other children of a similar age to Layla who she makes friends with at a 2 meter distance”
Proud father George told us that he brings his children here to entertain, exercise and “wear them out so they nap properly”
The Horniman allows Ada and Toby a safe place for them to fulfil some of their many hobbies. Like Frederick Horniman himself, Ada is a keen finder and collector of items such as bouncy balls and snails. On the day we met Ada - she proudly exclaimed she had “found the sky.”
“I found the sky” - ADA
Ada’s other favourite activities in the park include, playing music, hide and seek and running, whereas Toby takes a more chilled view of things, preferring to kick back in his pushchair and take in the views. It was clear from talking to the family that - aside from the lack of ice-cream - lockdown hadn’t affected their experience of the park in the slightest.
Once thing was for certain, with Toby and Ada’s passions combines, it would be George taking that nap later.
Gingerly approaching people for their portrait and story at a time of social distancing felt awkward at first but the overall response was extremely positive. One man made the job of approaching easy for me. Whilst scouring the area around the bandstand, a friendly voice from behind us called “I’ll do it”
Artist and photographer Richard - another frequent visitor and friend to the Horniman - is normally at the museum and gardens to test out his camera equipment.
“The Horniman has landscapes, distant views, animals, people, well kept gardens and museum artifacts. This variety is perfect to test out my various equipment ”
Through comparing notes on equipment, lighting and techniques, it soon became clear that Richard wasn't carrying his photo gear.
“Recently I’ve not been bringing my camera, I’ve just been walking here a lot as it keeps me sane”
It was then that it started to become clear, these spaces are not merely places to view or conduct hobbies, they play a vital role in people’s health and wellbeing, particularly at times like this.
In January before Covid-19 took hold, The good spirited Caroline and Michael had been passing through the Horniman Gardens as part of the green chain walk. Four months later, recalling the lovely food market they had stumbled upon that day, the pair had extended their daily walk in Dulwich park to revisit the Horniman.
A place where he used to bring his daughter, Michael was reflective of the important role green spaces such as the Horniman play, particularly during the pandemic.
“What you realise in such an urban area such as London, is that during lockdown, you need the green spaces more and more. Through the difficulty of lockdown, we have been fortunate to have a closer feeling to the ruralness that lies within London” - MICHAEL
There was a real sense of optimism around how people’s lives and behaviours are being impacted by the power of London’s greenery.
“The people - like me - who would normally post tiddle taddle on social media, are now turning to pictures of nature” - MICHAEL
The Horniman’s role in encouraging this connection to nature was clear as Caroline pointed out her favourite areas of the park, from the views on the hill to the varied pockets of gardens.
“People can have a second education on the greenery and birds, and the Horniman has a lot of information on those things” - CAROLINE
Michael left me with a reassuring summary of the health benefits of walking through the Horniman,
“Through walking you can eat and drink as much as you like and remain the same weight” - MICHAEL
Admittedly the title of the project is “walkers” not “workers” of the Horniman but the dedicated people who work at the Horniman play an important role in making it a special place to visit. And workers also walk through the Horniman, even on their days off.
Security Juraj and garden keeper Rich were at the pavilion on this particular day to record a podcast about the trees in the Horniman for the Urban Tree Festival 2020.
Unable to dig any deeper into the top secret podcast, Juraj was able to shed some light on how lockdown, and the tighter rules has affected people’s behaviour in the park.
“Most people have been behaving themselves and abiding by the rules”
About 2 months before we spotted Sum in an almost crab like pose, he was passing through the Horniman gardens on a daily run, when he spotted one of his true loves, the large and beautiful Cedar tree facing the prehistoric garden. Since then, the tree has become a regular spot for Sum to practice his animal flow - a mix of Yoga, Capoeira and Pilates, and has continued to become his spot for daily exercise.
“Everything here just seems...right” I can come here and practice some TRX, practice some animal flow, once I’m in my spot it’s easier to keep my distance whilst practicing”
This has allowed Sum to get his recommended daily exercise and also learn other people’s stories. Once day, sat in his usual spot, he noticed a lady approach a man sat on the bench opposite the tree and - at a safe distance, asked if she could touch the bench. Bemused and not hearing properly through his headphones, the man left. The lady was joined by her husband and Intrigued, Sum sparked up a conversation. He learned that the bench was a memorial to the couple’s son, who passed away last year in Croatia. This resonated with how Sum’s Dad passed away suddenly.
"It was nice how the father liked to talk about his son, and you could see how proud he was"
Sum now has a new relationship with the benches, always taking time to read the stories and of course, he has his favourite tree.
“One of my buddies asked me “How’s your girlfriend?” “What are you talking about I said…”Your tree?” he replied.
Wondering what to do with a set of keys we had found lying on the ground, David appeared to the rescue in his Park buggy to keep the keys in a safe place. Chatting to garden keeper David, revealed the important role the park has played for mental wellbeing, for workers and visitors alike.
The first few weeks of lockdown were tough for David who had to self isolate with his family for 14 days as his baby had a fever. David realised how fortunate he was to return back to work when your office is the gardens of the Horniman.
“Coming back here has been great, some of my friends are indoors on zoom, but I think I would go crazy being indoors all day”
Understanding how hard it can be on his wife, at home and furloughed, grandmas unable to visit and nurseries shut, David brings his family here. Despite it not being their nearest park he still visits on his days off as a place for them to come and rest. Not a lot of people can have the same connection to their workplace.
David’s interactions with visitors to the Horniman reveals how important it is to the community as he recounts how more people say “thank you, we love the gardens” or enquire about the opening hours. During the lockdown, the hours were shortened to protect both visitors and the workers. As if his pride in the Horniman wasn’t already clear through our conversation, he ended with the words.
“It’s a privilege to work here”
With a smile as warm and infectious as his look, Mohamed showed us how the energy of the park can be harnessed and taken away to inspire others.
The West African musician, dancer, storyteller and teacher frequently visits the gardens as a source of inspiration. He comes for the headspace to think about the next thing he will practice when he returns home.
On this particular day, whilst fasting, Mohamed had come to the Horniman looking for inspiration for challenges to set. He had been creating dance and musical challenges to provide his students and friends, and keep them busy during the lockdown.
“It’s good to come here to lift you up as it’s hard for people to be in one space for too long”
Tentatively re-emerging after a long period indoors, this young family were out to throw a frisbee and test the waters of outdoor life.
As Covid-19 gripped the world, Jas had the unfortunate news that her dad had contracted the virus and had to be hospitalised. This scary period had prompted them to be quite rightly strict with themselves and remain indoors, with only short visits outside for exercise.
“We’ve been quite militant about staying indoors as my dad contracted Covid-19 and we thought the worst - JAS”
Having been cooped up in a flat together, through sunny days and even Winston’s birthday, as rules began to slightly relax the family were enjoying their first group outing in a park albeit with hesitation.
“It still feels a bit weird, we’ve had 10 minutes to throw a frisbee about but we’re not sure if we should be” - RHYS
Being close by Jas, Winston and Rhys didn’t feel as “naughty” coming to the Horniman for their first family trip back outside into nature. The smiles on their faces indicated that this would be the first of many as the local residents try to regain some form of normality.
The good news is that Jas’ dad beat the virus and made a full recovery.
No-one looked more comfortable in their stride through the park than Tess and for good reason. She has been coming here for her morning walk since she moved to the area as a puppy, 7 years ago and now considers it an extension of her back garden.
Whereas Allison loves to visit the seasonal sunken and grass gardens, The dogs Cora & Tess prefer the trees and squirrels.
Visiting a friend to say hello and take a 2 meter distanced bike ride and walk, this was Carol’s first ever visit to the Horniman. New to London at a strange time, the daily exercise allowance was a chance to get out on her bike and explore somewhere new.
Being young in London, there are a bunch of things you miss because of lockdown
“I’m by myself all the time, can’t see my friends, can’t travel, can’t go clubbing or visit museums”
For Carol, it was nice just to get outside, ride and see somewhere new.
As a northerner living in London for the past 9 years, it had always been important to Rick to be close to friends and have that feeling of community and support. It was therefore an odd choice for him to leave most of them who live in North and East London and move south of the river to Forest Hill.
Longing for an area which had access to green space, nature, a hideaway from the chaos of the city, but still with a strong connection to the pulse of London, Forest Hill ticked all the boxes for Rick and the Horniman played part in the decision to move.
“Having visited years before moving, I fell in love with the layout, the serenity and the community feel of the park. Since then it has played so many roles for me. A companion on the days when friends are not instantly accessible, a haven to relieve stress - by just being in it’s gardens, a place to bring friends and family, a place to be inspired by the musicians and dancers who perform at the band-stand, a place to learn, a place to impress dates”
The last date Rick brought here was so impressed, she moved to the area and into Rick’s flat and is now as in love with the Horniman as much as he is. That girl he's talking about is me.
It has given us a safe haven during lockdown to get his daily exercise and look after our mental health.
“On one of our daily walks, my girlfriend, a photographer unable to work, and intrigued by the people walking through, became intrigued as to what their stories were. Together , we started this project to find out.”
And so the Horniman continues to provide inspiration.
To view all images from this portrait series visit: www.nylasammons.com/walkersofthehorniman