All winter long, I walked across the park.
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.
Because life is more than deals, and these views of sky, and green and blue go forwards with me.
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
That was a lovely post – and fascinating. I wish I knew London better but I’ve only been there on a few occasions. A very long time ago I went to a concert in Hyde Park for the Anti-Apartheid Movement after marching through the city (or rather, shuffling self-consciously – demonstrations aren’t really my thing)…I loved to learn that Rotten Row was a corruption of Route du Roi…
There are not many parks here in Grenoble but then I suppose we don’t need them – we’re surrounded by National Parks!
Thanks, Gigi. I don’t know Grenoble well, although I know the land around it.
I camped once beside a wonderfully pretty lake near Pierre-Chatel to the south of Vizille, and have wound my way several times along the Route Napoleon en route to holidays above Gap and Sisteron.
It’s amazing country that you have all around you there, and however much I love Hyde Park, I know I’d take a view of the Vercors to a sight of the Serpentine, just about any day.
But I guess we all just have to make do with what we have.
And let’s face it – far too many people miss the landscapes all around them anyway, wherever they are.
It’s my firm belief that there’s beauty almost everywhere, if people will only take the time to look.
I’m in a race in Hyde Park on Sunday, your post will give me something else to think as I’m gasping for breath. Thanks.
That’s great, Angela.
Here’s wishing you the very best of luck, and I look forward to reading all about your race.
How far are you running, and what’s the event ? I remember that the Serpentine Running Club organise a monthly 10 km race – so perhaps it’s one of theirs ?
I got to do a few joggling sessions in Hyde Park in April 2006. It was a great run and reminded me very much of some of the parks in Chicago. Of course, there were so many different crossing paths I nearly got lost.
Many thanks, Perry.
No wonder I had the feeling that I was walking in the footsteps of giants – a Consecutive Daily Joggling World Record Holder, no less.
I loved the parks in Chicago, too. I didn’t make it out to Hyde Park (is that really a park as well, or just a suburb ?) but I had a pretty close look at Grant Park for the start and finish of the Marathon, and I met Steve Cram there at the Buckingham Fountain when I was strolling on the Friday before that race.
The spectacular view from Grant Park of Michigan Avenue’s classic collection of early skyscrapers must be one of the iconic sights of any course in 20th Century architecture. My neighbour here in Guildford teaches design and he runs a trip for his students to Chicago for just that reason.
During my stay in Chicago, I also went to look around Lincoln Park, and greatly enjoyed the loop around it in the Marathon, at around miles 6 and 7, as I recall. That is just about the very best part of any race of that distance – loosened up, running well, a few miles safely behind you and feeling that anything at all is possible. Provided that you don’t think too much about the 20 miles still ahead of you.
Those Chicago parks really benefit from their outlook across the lake as well, although of course Lake Michigan is in a completely different category from the Serpentine. The view over the water from Chicago varied from Mediterranean to semi-Arctic just within the few days that I visited your city in October 2002.
I suspect that Lake Michigan is better for swimming, though, at least in summer. Nevertheless, there still are some hardy souls who swim in the Serpentine every single day, and there is also a very popular traditional group swim on Christmas Day.
I haven’t volunteered for that one, at least not yet.
A most entertaining and educational entry, Roads. One of my favorite urban parks is Vondel Park in Amsterdam. Of course, there’s also Central Park in New York City. Urban Parks…gotta love ’em!
Thanks very much, Jonas. Your travels have exceeded mine here since I’ve only a fleeting acquaintance with Amsterdam, and haven’t spent all that much time in the Big Apple, either.
That said, I did enjoy Central Park whilst visiting NYC as a student once, but I wasn’t a runner back then. It was the 1980s and I was travelling alone, so that I didn’t venture much off the busy tourist trail.
I’d love to go back to the city and find time to run in Central Park. Whether that might one day include the closing stretch of the New York Marathon, only time (and a presently unforeseen mad moment of commitment) will tell …
I have loved reading your blog as I have just returned from 10 days in London town! It was so lovely and I miss it. Seeing all the familiar images and reading your posts has made me miss it even more…
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