Whatever your opinion of England’s royal families, their penchant for living on estates surrounded by forested hunting grounds has made modern London a greener and happier place.
There are more than 5,000 acres of parks that were once private royal hunting grounds but now are open to the public. (By comparison, New York’s lauded Central Park is only 800 acres, less than one-fifth the size of the London’s royal lands.)
As London has grown, these once-remote estates are now smack in the middle of the city action. Buckingham Palace’s 42-acre garden remains private except for the weeks when the palace state rooms are open for touring, and when there are events such as garden parties held. But others now provide green space, walking paths, and quirky delights: pelicans for the plebeians, anyone?
While we did get out to Greenwich and the royal park there (more on that in a future post), the rest of our trip found us frequently traversing four of the official eight royal parks: Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Green Park, and St. James’s Park.
This was the park closest to where we were staying: the largest of the royal parks, first acquired by King Henry VIII, it is now mostly green space, paths, and trees, with sporting grounds, some statuary and memorials, the chaotic rabble of Speakers’ Corner (more like a “speakers’ pathway strip”), two well-regarded art galleries, and chairs: reams of green-and-white-striped lounge chairs you can lease if you want to lounge. No trace remains of the famous Crystal Palace, built to house the 1851 Great Exhibition; in our times, the park hosts large-scale concerts where the needed infrastructure mounted is also temporary. Running through the greenery is The Serpentine, a small lake created through 18th-century human intervention.
Portions of this 235-acre park are more formal / manicured than Hyde Park, which it abuts. Our walk took us through the Italian Gardens – a gift to Queen Victoria from her husband, Albert – and by The Arch, described by the Royal Parks brochure as a “six-metre high Roman travertine sculpture [by artist Henry Moore] positioned on the north bank of the Long Water” (the extension of the Serpentine). It was in place from 1980 to 1996, when it was removed due to deterioration: it’s been reinstalled since 2012, following a restoration. The Arch perfectly frames a view of Kensington Palace in the distance.
They’re right. It’s almost all green (or, in autumnal weather, green and golden). Expanses of mature trees and grass connect Buckingham Palace with St. James’s Park. There’s little in the way of whiz-bang here, although there were patches in the lawns of pretty mauve Colchicum, known as meadow crocus or autumn crocus.
St. James’s Park
A delightful green space, it’s home to the aforementioned pelicans and a spate of swans. St. James’s is a lovely mix of spots to hang out, walking paths, flower borders, cafés, and incredible views, whether of Buckingham Palace, the Australia Gate at the palace, or the London Eye and Horse Grounds Parade that border the park.
Main photo: From the Blue Bridge in St. James’s Park with a view west toward Buckingham Palace, by Kelley Teahen.