Kensington Gardens

London Portrait Magazine 00-11-1983

What would property developers pay for 800 acres of the most valuable real estate in London? Fortunately we'll never know because Kensington Gardens, Green Park and St James's Park have been given to Londoners by a succession of monarchs and can only be valued by the pleasure they give to millions each year. CHRISTOPHER LONG tells the story of Kensington Gardens.

Next time you take a stroll through Kensington Gardens spare a thought for three unsung heroes. Without William of Orange and his attacks of asthma, Kensington Palace would never have been created. Without Queen Caroline the gardens would never have been developed and opened to the public. Without the now lost River Westbourne, the gardens would have had little of their present appeal.

William of Orange was a dull but worthy monarch, respected but unloved by his people, and it was his asthma which led him to take the Royal Court to Kensington which was much healthier than the damp, misty environment of Whitehall and St James's Palace, which he and his wife Mary never liked anyway. They bought the original house from the Earl of Nottingham in about 1690 and Christopher Wren was immediately asked to start modernising and enlarging Nottingham House to create the present palace which was then in the countryside more than two miles from Westminster.

It was a good thing he did because the Palace created a natural back-stop at the end of the former royal hunting grounds and explains why two miles and 800 acres of parkland remained undeveloped in the heart of the capital.

While Wren busied himself with ambitious rebuilding, completed in six months, a new road was being built from Westminster to the new palace – a road which started out as the Route du Roi and has now ended up as Rotten Row.

Today's picnickers, joggers, sunbathers and dog-walkers can have little idea how necessary this road was. Long before we coined the the word 'mugger' the open space between St James's and Kensington was the most lawless and treacherous area in the land. Footpads, highwaymen and outlaws infested the woods and heathland. Even George 11 was robbed of his watch, purse and buckles years after the road was built and throughout the C18th travellers needed armed escorts. The appalling crime levels in the park led in part to the creation of London's police force and explains why a special Royal Parks Police division was necessary even in Victorian times and still exists to this day.

So, William of Orange established the park and has a monument to record the fact in front of Wren's south-facing facade given to Edward V111 by the Kaiser. Queen Anne, another dull but worthy monarch, succeeded him in 1702. Her main claim to fame, as far as Kensington is concerned, was the creation of the Orangery (again designed by Wren) – perhaps the most stylish building among the conglomerate of rabbit-warren buildings and additions which make up the present palace. She also had grand plans for the gardens.

Early pictures show elaborate, formal gardens in the Dutch and French styles stretching from what is now Kensington Gore right up to Bayswater Road. They extended east too and it was Anne who saw the possibilities of using the River Westbourne to create a series of lakes and ponds through the formal layout of avenues, box hedges and geometric flower beds.

All that remains of her plans are the now slightly altered Round Pond, Queen Anne's Alcove near the fountains at the head of the Serpentine, and the curious little pavilion that was only recently rediscovered hidden inside a Victorian gardener's cottage due east of the round pond. The pavilion was restored when the cottage and its private garden were cleared away.

But it is to dear old Queen Caroline that Londoners owe the greatest debt. She shines like a beacon after the dreary former residents of Kensington Palace. Her husband, George 11, came to the throne in 1727 and she was a wise and altogether delightful queen. Caroline not only continued with Anne's plans for the gardens, she improved on them. She too saw the potential value of the River Westbourne and created the Serpentine – a broad, sweeping curve of water held back by a dam at the eastern end of what is now Hyde Park.

Clearly Caroline was a keen gardener on a grand scale. It was she who established the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and it is largely to her that we owe the present landscaping of Kensington Gardens. More importantly still, she was the one who first allowed the public to enjoy the gardens she had created – on Saturdays when the court moved to the hunting lodge at Richmond. Historical accounts vary, but it seems that everyone except soldiers, sailors and liveried servants were allowed in at that time. The public access was extended on a daily basis during Queen Victoria's reign. There are, to say the least, some curious monuments in Kensington Gardens but it seems a pity that no one has thought of putting up a memorial to Queen Caroline.

Worse still has been the fate of the River Westbourne. There is surely no river in the world that provides so much pleasure and yet has been treated so badly !

It rises near Kensington Palace on the high ground of Notting Hill (where the court picked its nuts?). It fills the Round Pond and then goes underground to feed the Serpentine. Again it has been buried underground and only surfaces to feed the lake at Buckingham Palace. The overflow from Buckingham Palace fills the lake in St James's Park while the river is ignominiously piped underground and across the platforms of Sloane Square tube station (where it leaks in protest) before emptying itself into the Thames.

The Round Pond and The Serpentine are the two greatest assets in the Gardens and probably have done most to preserve the area from development. Generations of children have sailed their boats on the Pond, watched the ducklings appear each Spring and learnt to have a healthy respect for swans. There have been many tragic shipwrecks there when children learnt that the elements are no respecters of property – just as their nannies were no respecters of individual liberty. Many a statesman suffered his first cuts and grazes on the paths that crisscross the 200 acres of Kensington Gardens itself and, to each one, those acres are a natural and personal extension of a small London garden, square or even window-box.

Down on the edges of The Serpentine the wildlife is still more abundant. Rabbits, squirrels, ducks, geese, moorhens, coots and swans are common. Some people have even seen the grey-coated urban fox among the dustbins behind the restaurants, it is claimed. Boating is not allowed on the northern arm of The Serpentine, known as the Long Water in Kensington Gardens which has resulted in a unique nature preserve along its banks. Queen Caroline had two yachts on the lake in the C18th and this tradition lives on in the much more common and urbane part of the lake which lies in Hyde Park. It's a strange fact that although there is only a road and a bridge separating the two parks, the character of each is quite distinct and separate.

Kensington Gardens are somehow personal, private and intimate. There is still a distinctly English and family atmosphere there even if, as now, its visitors are made up of a large proportion of Arabs escaping from cramped holiday-let flats nearby. Perhaps it's because Queen Victoria still sits on a stone plinth overlooking the gardens where she grew up that visitors still feel they ought to behave themselves in a way which they might not in Hyde Park.

Hyde Park is where the demonstrators meet; where the discontented air their views at Speakers' Corner; where the world gathered to see the Great Exhibition in 1851; where people strip off into bikinis at the Lido and where the looming presence of a huge police station was necessary to maintain security at Knightsbridge Barracks, deter sex offenders and flush the prostitutes out of the bushes. Such things don't happen in Kensington Gardens!

If they did, one feels, Nanny would have something to say about it. No one captured Kensington Gardens so well as J.M. Barrie and perhaps nothing could have better captured both Barrie and the Gardens than Frampton's statue of Peter Pan overlooking the Long Water. There is a strange erotic and enchanted innocence about Peter Pan – a statue that exactly reflects the erotic and enchanted innocence in the relationship between Barrie and the Llewelyn-Davies family that ultimately emerged in his play.

Barrie knew that within the bounds of Kensington Gardens is the raw material of every thrilling, terrifying and bewitching fantasy a child could want – where imagination wings you away to Never Land. For many adults that door to Pirates, Redskins, Crocodiles and Wendy Birds is still open if we can make the leap back to our childhoods with child-like imaginations – if we remember that Kensington Gardens was all we had apart from the strictures of the nursery across Bayswater Road and that flying a kite, sailing a boat and playing hide-and-seek was all we needed to escape until it was time for tea.

If the magic of Kensington Gardens is really based on the appeal to the child in all of us then there's something very appropriate in the fact that Queen Victoria led her own very sheltered childhood there and never returned to the palace after the third week of her reign at the age of eighteen.

She was only 11 years old when someone thought to warn her she would one day be Queen. Just before 6 a.m. on 20 June 1837, the Archbishop and Lord Chamberlain told her that William 1V was dead. On 18 July she records in her diary: "... it is not without a feeling of regret that I shall bid adieu for ever to this my birth-place, where I was born and bred, and to which I am really attached ..."

Seldom can innocence have vanished so suddenly and irrevocably and there is something rather inappropriate in the fact that her very worthy, serious but totally un-enchanting Consort should have his memorial in Kensington Gardens. Although Albert's memorial opposite the Albert Hall has been unfairly described as the most misbegotten monument of all time (even a precursor of modern rocket design), it would perhaps have been better sited in Hyde Park near to where his Crystal Palace once stood, the profits of which – £186,000 – paid for so many of London's museums and colleges around Exhibition Road.

In fact, as the Victorian era turned into the C20th, the variety of strange and inappropriate memorials in Kensington Gardens grew odder.

Close among the fountains is a memorial to the first vaccinator, for reasons unknown, moved from Trafalgar Square to Kensington Gardens. Nearby at Victoria Gate is the extraordinary dog cemetery. A smallish area, packed solid with the tiny graves and memorials of countless canine 'dearly beloved', go a long way to prove to foreign visitors that everything they've heard about the English and their dogs is quite true. And so it is – enchantingly so, as you'd expect in Kensington Gardens.

Further south is a quite unremarkable column which reminds us of the life and death of the Victorian explorer John Speke. While it was arguable whether he had found the true source of the Nile before he died, it is quite undeniable that he succeeded in shooting himself dead by accident on a partridge shoot. His ghost must surely be wondering what on earth his monument is doing 300 yards away from the source of the River Westbourne.

Two hundred yards south of Speke is one of the most uncomfortable sculptures in London. As the summer sun gently threads its way through leafy trees, contented couples are brought up with a sharp shock as they see the violently arrested tension in both horse and rider as portrayed in Watts's Physical Energy. The only explanation for the frenetic appearance of the man and his horse is that they have both taken one look at Henry Moore's sculpture on the other side of the Long Water and are heading off in the opposite direction as fast as possible.

Dotted around the Gardens are several other mysterious stones which often puzzle visitors. These bear lettering which marks the boundaries between such parishes as Kensington and Paddington.

Inevitably there are Victorian drinking fountains for humans and animals at various spots and just in case foreigners still have doubts about the English and their dogs there is a special dog fountain supervised by a bronze terrier near the Palace Gate entrance to the Broad Walk.

The park's monuments are quaintly eccentric but the only blot on the landscape is the Elfin Oak in the north-west corner of the Gardens. Little-minded municipal men have clearly decided that children can no longer find magic in Kensington Gardens out of their own imaginations. The authorities have filled every nook and cranny in a dead oak tree with luridly painted elves, gnomes and goblins.

Presumably it is only the wary eye of Queen Victoria overlooking the Round Pond that stops the real nymphs and dryads from committing murderous night-time attacks on these municipal monstrosities.

Kensington Gardens in World Magazine

St James's Park

Regent's Park

This article was re-printed in World Magazine in 1987 with photography by André Cooke.

© (1983/1987) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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