I was working on a deal, and it seemed that every week I’d be in London for a meeting, somewhere. In busy winter weeks at work, it’s hard to run, and so I try to walk instead.
And where better to walk than across Hyde Park ? At 350 acres, it’s one of the largest central urban parks in the world, and perhaps the most famous. Nearly every park, in nearly every other city, owes something to Hyde Park.
It’s the largest of London’s Royal Parks, a regal title which neatly hides the theft of this land in 1536. Henry VIII stole it from the monks of Westminster Abbey (he never was that keen on the church, you might recall) and used this as a private hunting ground to chase deer and wild boar conveniently close to the western edge of the old mediaeval city.
Elizabeth carried on that tradition, and it was 1637 before the land was opened to the public by Charles I. Perhaps he wanted to cut a more popular figure at the time, a phrase taken a little too literally for him as he was tried and publicly beheaded at the conclusion of the English Civil War just twelve years later.
The park has changed through many guises and different landscaping styles since that time. Each age has left its mark upon the park.
When the Serpentine lake was built here by Queen Caroline in 1728, its design began the trend towards modern ‘natural’ landscape architecture. Before then, gardens had always been geometric, formalised, like those at Versailles, or Hampton Court.
The giant Crystal Palace was built here for the Great Exhibition of 1851, before being dismantled and reconstructed in the south London suburb which carries that glassy name today. Later royal additions would include the Albert Memorial (1872), a glittering gold edifice designed by Gilbert Scott in homage to Queen Victoria’s late husband, and the less imposing but differently innovative Princess Diana Memorial fountain finished in 2004.
Emerging from Victoria Station into a sunny winter’s morning, a short walk along Grosvenor Place brings me past Hobart House. This unlikely neighbour to the grandeur of Belgravia’s white-painted mansions, and Buckingham Palace hidden behind the wall across the road, was once the miner’s trade union headquarters where much of Britain’s industrial history played out through the 1970s and 1980s.
Five minutes further on, I make my way gingerly across the legendary traffic of Hyde Park Corner. Elegant Park Lane and a string of London’s most famous hotels lies on my right, but instead I head straight on into the park through Decimus Burton’s massive monumental gate, commissioned by George IV in 1820.
From this southeastern corner of Hyde Park, the view of trees and green stretches as far as I can see. The open space is deceptively large – almost two miles long and over four miles around – a surprisingly long run for any London lunchtime. I’ve run the circuit once or twice on summer evenings, and it’s a perfect distance to hone the thirst with friends before you find the pub.
Balmy summer sunsets still lie some way ahead just yet. I button up my coat against the westerly breeze blowing towards me along Rotten Row. Originally the ‘Route du Roi‘, this was the first road inside the park, built by William and Mary to bring them safely into town from Kensington Palace.
If I keep straight on I’ll pass the Royal Albert Hall, close by Imperial College and its South Side Bar where I often found myself during student trips to London.
Further ahead lies Kensington Gardens, another 275 acres of a technically separate park with its Round Pond, where I used to sail my model sailing boat on childhood trips into the city. The lake seemed vast to a boy of six, and even if it appears worryingly shrunken to my adult eyes, it’s still there and it’s part of my history, all the same.
London has changed a lot since then, but these western parts of town have only grown more fashionable. An ugly concrete office block beside the park was pulled down recently, and new hoardings announce the imminent arrival of luxurious new apartments to replace them, handily close to the expensive shops of Kensington High Street and even Harrod’s in nearby Knightsbridge if you will.
‘One Hyde Park’ reads the address, and it must surely be a convenient and practical place place to live, although I’ll surely never be a resident there myself. The penthouses are now on sale from plan for a startling £ 84 mm each, making them the most expensive residential real estate in all the world.
It’s a pleasant spot to dream of Kensington living, but I’m heading a little further north to Paddington to earn my crust today, and so I take the right fork off Rotten Row, through the Rose Garden and around towards the Serpentine.
I like to walk here, beside the lake, and on my way back across the park this afternoon I’ll stop at the lakeside café to gather my thoughts on the day’s events. A view across the water can calm the spirit in tense and stressful times, and with trees lining the southern edge of the park beyond, it feels surprisingly rural here.
The sweeping bridge ahead, carrying Western Carriage Drive across the Serpentine, could grace the grounds of any splendid country house, and with the breeze still rippling the waters below this morning, there’s no traffic noise to mar the view.
Leaving the lake behind, the ground rises gently ahead, the park still stretching out far into the distance on my right. The grass is meadow-long here, in recent years left uncut all year round to offer a wider range of wildlife habitats.
There’s a more formal section of gardens just ahead, with a rectangular pond, an ornamental fountain and a statue or two, before I exit the park at Lancaster Gate. A hop across the road, a shimmy round the corner into Sussex Gardens, and finally I arrive at my Paddington meeting, back inside a working city day.
I worked all winter long upon that deal. It never happened. But every week I walked this route. Just thirty minutes, in the sunshine. I could have got there ten minutes faster, on the tube. Yet down there in the dark and bustle I’d have missed so much of all that London has to offer.
A few hours of calming exercise, and peace and quiet to think. A place to stretch the mind far beyond the heart of London – that’s what I found on my winter’s walks across Hyde Park.
85. A homage to London’s Gherkin
36. The Embankment, inspiration and reality
142. South Bank spring – Tate Modern, London
70. Livin’ on milk and alcohol
63. Henry VIII’s consumption and the rocky road to running ruin