My wife and I were in London this past summer for a few days. We had some scheduled work-related activities on the Sunday after we arrived, but our morning was free. The day was overcast, as so many are in London. We decided to spend the morning strolling through Hyde Park, one of eight Royal Parks in the city. Seized by Henry VIII from the monks of Westminster Abbey in 1536 as a private hunting grounds for the monarch, this 350-acre property was not made available to the general public until 1637. In the late 17th century, William and Mary purchased Nottingham House on the western edge of the park and renamed it Kensington Palace, which is where the royal family made its home. During the 18th century, the park began to take on many of the features that distinguish it today, thanks to the efforts and creativity of Queen Caroline. Two of the most striking landscape elements she introduced were Kensington Gardens and Serpentine Lake.
Through the centuries Hyde Park has been a site for national celebrations and a sanctuary of free speech, illustrated by the famous Speakers’ Corner, where anyone is allowed to stand up and openly speak on any subject, including grievances against the state. Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and George Orwell are among the most famous orators who have expressed their views at Speakers’ Corner. The park is also a haven for wildlife, and the Serpentine Lake offers a rich habitat for a wide variety of water fowl and other aquatic animals. Of course, maneuvering through a patchwork of goose poop is an issue if you choose to get too close to the water! As one might expect, the park is filled with statues, memorials, fountains, artwork, pavilions, walkways, and concessions.
On the morning of our stroll, we entered the park through the Marble Arch on the northeast, next to Speakers’ Corner. Immediately we were greeted with people taking advantage of the weekend with their exercise routines: running, walking, tai chi, yoga, martial arts, and more. A major portion of this section of the park was currently occupied by the British Summer Time festival of music, but we made our way around it toward the large section of Serpentine Lake, intersecting with West Carriage Drive and crossing Serpentine Bridge. We passed by the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain to reach the Lido Restaurant, where we bought some hot drinks to warm us up a bit — it was chilly morning for July. We continued leisurely along one of the walkways within view of the lake and headed back toward the southeast part of the park to the Serpentine Waterfall and the enchanting water garden just beyond it.
On the southeast corner of the park, we spent some time wandering through the Rose Garden, a spectacular oasis featuring roses mixed with herbaceous plants that were exploding with color while we were there. We were joined by parents carrying babies in strollers and older children asking a thousand questions. I have written on public gardens before, and this is absolutely one of the finest I have ever visited. I cannot begin to imagine how much money the city, and perhaps the Crown, invests in this amazing display of natural beauty. The vistas are breathtaking.
Like most of the major international cities, London is filled with attractions and history. It would be foolish to suggest bypassing all of those places to take a stroll through the park. You have to see the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, etc. At the same time, don’t cheat yourself by missing the opportunity to immerse yourself in the local environment, and public parks are a great place to do so. Sure, there are tourists wandering around in Hyde Park — we were among that category. But, there were also plenty of locals enjoying the simple pleasures of this treasured and historic resource. The conversations we overheard between couples and companions and among parents and children gave us a superficial but satisfying sense of being British just for a couple of hours. We never want to miss those kinds of opportunities when we travel.