Hidden spots in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens
Three young children fed squirrels which took the peanuts from their hands and then scurried back up a tree before descending a few minutes later for more, all eyes and bushy tails. A few yards away a middle-aged couple stood with some food on their outstretched palms as beautiful finches fluttered above them and then suddenly dipped to snatch a mouthful. A wood-pigeon got into a scuffle with a city pigeon as they patrolled the area picking up the scraps. On the nearby lake many swans and a variety of ducks, some with attendant ducklings, glided along with one eye on the look-out for tasty-bites. This was particularly pleasing because it took place in the heart of London, in Kensington Gardens.
There is no barrier between Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens but basically the latter is to the west of the Italian Garden, just south of Lancaster Gate station. The land where the park now stands was acquired by Henry VIII in 1536 and he used it as his private deer park.
Incidentally the name Soho was originally a hunting cry like ‘tally-ho!’ to indicate that an animal had been spotted. In 1637 Charles I opened the park to the public. In 1851 the south-east section of Hyde Park was the site of the Great Exhibition which displayed the technological prowess of the burgeoning British Empire.
If you’re in the middle of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, you can almost feel like you’re in the country and it’s easy to become disorientated. On the south side there are a number of prominent landmarks to help you including the Albert Hall and the, in my opinion, truly horrible Albert Memorial while on the north side Lancaster Gate Hotel stands out a bit but there’s nothing so spectacular. Of course it’s a very popular place, especially in summer, but it opens early in the morning and several times I’ve taken quiet strolls there before 7 a.m.
The Elfin Oak is one of my favourite spots and it’s located at the entrance to the Lady Diana Children’s Playground in the north-west corner of Kensington Gardens. It’s the stump of a very old dead tree that has had numerous animals, pixies and the like carved into it, by the late Spike Milligan among others. Some other characters have been glued on in places and many have been brightly painted. In addition to the Elfin Oak, art lovers can enjoy the Serpentine Gallery, which is in Kensington Gardens just to the west of the bridge across the Serpentine, and there are several sculptures throughout the park but the only one I like is that of Peter Pan. This is just west of the thinner northern section of the Serpentine, known as the Long Water, and half way between Lancaster Gate and the bridge. J.M. Barrie, the creator of the boy who never wanted to grow up was inspired to write the story by children playing in Kensington Gardens and he used to live nearby at 100 Bayswater Road.
Just to the west of the Round Pond is Kensington Palace, once the home of Diana and Charles. A little north of the palace is the Orangery, which nowadays houses a very bright café. If you head directly eastwards from the Round Pond and keep going, you’ll finally reach the Serpentine or the Long Water. It’s all part of one of London’s many and largely subterranean rivers, the Westbourne. There are apparently large pike in there. I’ve enjoyed rowing a boat on the Serpentine and on one occasion I went round on a pedalo. There’s a lido on the south side but I wouldn’t fancy swimming in there myself. On Boxing Day there’s a charity dip and I definitely couldn’t handle that. Just west of the lido is the Diana Memorial Fountain, which looked very dull to me when I first saw it but it’s growing on me; it’s certainly a popular attraction.
In July 1969 The Rolling Stones played the first major pop/rock concert in the flat grassy area at the eastern end of Hyde Park and in the summer months this is host to numerous open-air extravaganzas. I’ve never been to one but on the morning of Charles and Diana’s wedding in July 1981 I strolled through this area and witnessed the huge clean-up operation after the fireworks display the night before and there were hundreds of empty champagne bottles among the mountains of rubbish. On the day of Diana’s funeral on 6th September 1997 my sister together with thousands of others sat in this same area to watch the ceremony on a large screen.
In the north-east corner of the park is the world-famous Speakers’ Corner where on Sundays for the last hundred and forty years anyone has been able to get up on a podium or even an old fruit box and spout off about a subject close to their hearts. Marx and Lenin among many other notables have frequented it. You get the same old performers there every week complete with their ‘feeds’ in the audience to keep the act going. It’s also a favourite haunt of pickpockets.
The area just north of Marble Arch was known as Tyburn and thousands of ‘criminals’ were hung from trees there, the last being in 1783. Huge crowds would gather to watch the spectacle and bodies were often snatched afterwards to be sold to doctors for medical research. Two popular drinking expressions arose from all of this as while they were being conveyed in a cart from Newgate Prison along to Tyburn the condemned were allowed to stop and have ‘one for the road’ to try to calm their nerves but once they’d finished they were ‘on the wagon’ and had supped their last.
A Guest Post by Ian Mole