The London parks certainly do not deserve the epithet “unnoticed,” but I have met few people who knew anything about their story. Foreigners coming to London for the first time always exclaim at their beauty, but the Londoners take them as a matter of course, and hardly anyone stops to inquire their history or even the reason for their names. Yet much of the city’s history is bound up with that of the parks, and their story is a mirror of the changing fashions of London.
Hyde Park, for instance-that vast space of 390 acres in the very heart of the city, enjoyed by prince and plutocrat and pauper with equal freedom so long as they keep on their feet, for the rule of the roadway is not so democraticwhat a tale it could tell of the brave sights it has seen since it was first enclosed in 1592! Before Charles L’s time the park, that took its name from the Manor of Hyde, was only to be enjoyed by the king and court, who hunted and hawked there; but in Stuart days there were foot and horse races and drives and merrymaking. It has always been a favourite haunt of Mayfair. Evelyn used to ” take the aire in Hide Park,” very annoyed at having to pay one shilling and sixpence for the privilege, and so did Pepys, obviously gratified that his wife attracted attention. De Gramont, the witty observer of Charles IL’s court, is quoted as saying: ” Hyde Park everyone knows is the promenade of London-the promenade of beauty and fashion.”
In the days of Charles II. all the world went to the Ring, a circular course of about 350 yards laid out by the Merry Monarch, between the Ranger’s Cottage and the present tea-house. How fashionable the drive was Pepys tells us when he says: ” Took up my wife and Deb and to the park, where being in a hackney and they undressed, was ashamed to go into the Tour but went round the park and so with pleasure home.”
In those days there was a cake-house, where cheese-cakes, syllabub and tarts were soldrefreshments probably more attractive than those of today.
Places of refreshment might so easily add enormously to the amenities of the London parks and gardens if good food, attractively and quickly provided, could be obtained. Nature has furnished an exquisite background for a sylvan meal, but anyone who has ordered tea at one of these places carries away a regret for what might have been. Perhaps that is why it has never been fashionable to take tea in the park since the Georgian days when people stood on chairs to see the beautiful Miss Gunnings pass by.
The latest fashions were always worn first in Hyde Park. The daring of any Paris mannequin at the Grand Prix pales before the effect made by the Lady Caroline Campbell of George III’s reign, who ” displayed in Hyde Park the other day a feather four feet higher than her bonnet.”
In Victorian days the smart world strolled on the south walk between Hyde Park Corner and Alexandra Gate, but today that is given over to the curious strata of society, vomited up from a volcanic war, that now fill the stalls in the theatres and the restaurants that used to call themselves exclusive.
Fashion is slowly retiring-first to the part of the park opposite Park Lane and then to the northern side opposite Lancaster Gate. Perhaps it is making the tour, and when the profiteer and his family have discovered that they are in sole possession of this south-east part of the park, they will move off and the wheel will turn once more.
Why the big statue close to Hyde Park Corner is called the Achilles Statue is one of London’s mysteries for which there is no more reason than the nursemaid had when she familiarly designated Watts’ ‘° Physical Energy ” in Kensington Gardens as ” The Galloping Major.” “Achilles ” is a copy of one of the horse trainers of the Monte Cavallo in Rome. The Pope gave the cast, the Ordnance Department gave the metal of the cannon taken in the battles of Salamanca, Vittoria, Toulouse and Waterloo, and the women of England subscribed L10,000 to this memorial of the Iron Duke and his comrades-in-arms. Where Achilles comes in, I do not know.
Each of the great London parks is associated with some special English sovereign. Charles II. is the godfather of St. James’s Park; Regent’s Park, like Regent Street, was planned for the glorification of the man who was afterwards George IV.; Battersea is associated with Prince Albert the Good, and we owe Kew to the Princess Augusta, mother of George III.
Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens owe their allegiance to Queen Caroline, George IL’s queen. It was she who converted the ponds and the Westbourne stream into the fifty acres of water of the Serpentine which, now derived from the Thames, feeds the ornamental water in Buckingham Palace Gardens and St. James’s Park. The king thought she was doing it all out of her own purse and smiled at all her schemes, little dreaming that with Walpole’s aid she was letting him in for some L20,000 fact he only discovered after her death.
Unfortunate Parisians, who are obliged to skirt the Tuileries gardens, closed inexorably at seven o’clock on a summer evening, envy the Londoner who may enjoy the leafy cool of his parks till long after dark, the carriage entrances not being closed till midnight.
You may see an extraordinary number of quite different phases of English life in Hyde Park. There are the loafers, including the errand boys and that mysterious class of people who seem to have nothing to do in life but ” invite their soul ” at eleven o’clock of a fine morning. Unless they are content with a bench, the peace has made this feat more expensive than it used to be, for when the price of everything else was happily falling, the rusty individual who was wont to interrupt true lovers’ conversations by heartlessly demanding a penny, was suddenly inspired to double the price of the chairs that have been hired in the park for the last hundred years.
Then there is the gallant sight of Rotten Row, named from the Route du Roi that William III. used when he rode from Whitehall to Kensington. The present Rotten Row was made by George I. when he wanted a shorter cut through the park. The best time to see the riders is the early morning, and the bathers have to get up still earlier if they want to plunge into the Serpentine, for the bathing is over at 8.3o a.m.
In the afternoon the Hyde Park orator comes into his own and the whole of the Marble Arch corner turns into a factory for letting off steam. It is let off by the partisans of different religions who vociferate side by side, each demonstrating that his particular set of tenets is the only means to salvation. It is let off by socialists and communists and bolsheviks, and everyone who fancies he can alter the existing conditions to his own advantage,-and behind all these fierytongued speechmakers stand the placid goodnatured policemen who look on with all the indulgence of a kindly nurse towards a fractious child, answering an amused inquiry with a paternal: ” It don’t ‘urt anyone and it does them a power of good to get it off their chests! ”
Among the phases to be noticed are the picnic parties who come to the park ‘prepared to make a day of it, and the children of every class of society, and the nursemaids whose very name reminds one of his Majesty’s forces both military and naval, who are also ardent patrons of the park.
There are many minor points of interest,the queer little dogs’ cemetery near the Victoria Gate on the north side, the dell, a sub-tropical garden near the east end of the Serpentine not far from the fountain with the charming Artemis statue-but the most delightful way to see the park at its very best is to go there in the early morning carrying a picnic breakfast and take a boat at the boathouse south of the rangers’ lodge. I have always envied the park ranger who lives in this mansion. The first of his race was appointed by Henry VIII. at the princely salary of sixpence a day, but when this was objected to by the Government economy enthusiasts of that time, it was reduced to fourpence. The tiny stone cottages of the keepers, with the classic architecture that makes them look so ridiculously important, are not really the smallest houses in London. I think that honour must surely belong to the porter’s lodge at the Fetter Lane entrance to the Record Office, unless you count as a house No. 10, Hyde Park Place. Though it certainly has a street door all to itself, it has only one room.
The park authority, so careless when it is a matter of eating and drinking, is careful to provide more artistic pleasures for the Hyde Park crowds. Bands play there on many summer evenings-the announcements are made in the Press-and now and then the League of Arts arranges an entertainment, when thousands of people flock to see the Morris dancing or some old play performed with a background of green trees.