Victoria Neumark visits Coram's Fields, where London's children have gambolled for years. Petting the animals at Coram's Fields "is just like the country" for many of the city children who visit this pleasant green space in the heart of London's officescape. "NO adults admitted without accompanying children" boasts the entrance to the playground where seven acres of grass, trees, climbing frames and city farm are framed by colonnaded white Georgian buildings.
It is 60 years since the Fields, site of London's original Foundling Hospital, were turned into a playground for inner-city children. An exhibition at Camden's Holborn Library (until September 28) commemorates the anniversary with photographs, illustrations, prints and contributions from local children who use the Fields in their hundreds every day. Whether they are stroking Rambo the elderly sheep, successor to the famously grumpy Columbo, feeding ducks and chickens, or mucking out the new little pig, children in the Fields exude the happy confidence which comes from playing in a safe space.
It's a far cry from the dark days of 1740 when retired seaman Thomas Coram opened a haven for the young babies routinely abandoned by young women seeking to avoid the shame of illegitimate motherhood. Under cover of dark, distressed women could creep up to the front door of the hospital and ring the special bell. The door would open and the infant be given a new home. Cramped conditions and bad sanitation led to the growing practice of fostering out of London and the hospital buildings being used for training the older orphans: the girls for domestic service and the boys for the army. The band room in which they learned to play brass instruments still remains. In the 1920s the Thomas Coram Foundation moved what was now a fostering and adoption service out of London and a group of local businessmen, residents and the media got together to buy the site and provide healthy outdoor experiences for impoverished local children in the grounds.
Since 1936 a small independent trust, the Coram's Fields and Harmsworth Memorial Playground Foundation, has managed and run the Fields, with a grant from Camden Council, which operates the playscheme (for 100 or so children each day).
The trust runs a day nursery for 25 local children and a drop-in playgroup for three- to five-year-olds. For older children, Coram's Fields offers training in football, basketball, cricket, athletics, tennis and hockey and facilities for pottery and photography, also used by other children's groups like Kith and Kin (for children with disabilities). In the holidays, events like the King's Cross County Show, open air opera and Scout and Guide jamborees complement the activities of the playscheme. Boys and girls run happily on the football pitches, play tennis and basketball and tenderly stroke the denizens of the mini-farm.
"The best children's playground in the world," as the campaigners in the 1920s dubbed it, still attracts new generations of inner-city children to the healthy outdoors.