Tour 10 Hyde Park
Take the bus, underground or walk from Victoria Station to Marble Arch which once itself travelled a similar route, brick by brick, from its original site at Buckingham Palace when the latter was expanded in 1851. It stands incongruously on a traffic island north of Hyde Park the largest of four Royal Parks that form a chain from the entrance of Kensington Palace through Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and Green Park to St James’s Park. Our tenth tour takes in Speaker’s Corner and Reformers’ Tree, both linked to Britain’s tradition of free speech, descends to the Serpentine lake turning right then left by the Serpentine Sackler Gallery to cross the bridge, then left to view Princess Diana Memorial Fountain continuing alongside Rotten Row to The Dell.
‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ is a saying attributed to Voltaire. Across the road from Marble Arch there’s a public space that gets crowded on Sundays where you can hear loud arguments linked to politics and religion. Anyone can turn up unannounced at Speaker’s Corner, bringing a small step ladder as platform, and talk on almost any subject though at the risk of being heckled by regulars. In the 19th century this was about the only place socialism could be aired publicly in Britain as it was here by both Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. Some think the speaking tradition here goes back further given its proximity to Tyburn gallows where many a condemned Roman Catholic was given leave to speak before being hanged.
From Speaker’s Corner follow the footpath by the southern railings to a junction of paths where a circular mosaic of black and white pebbles marks the site of the original Reformers’ Tree. This was in fact a charred stump. It’s history is linked to the rise of socialism during the late nineteenth century when Hyde Park became a favoured place for political protest about workers’ rights and voting laws. During one protest in 1866 it is said that the Reform League stormed into Hyde Park. In the chaos an oak tree was set alight to be transformed overnight into a charred stump. This quickly became a symbol of discontent and became a rallying point for Reform League meetings. Later on it disappeared but the mosaic unveiled by Prime Minister Callaghan commemorates it.
Continue down to the Serpentine lake from the Reformers’ Tree path junction. Hyde Park originally belonged to Westminster Abbey. It was taken from the Abbey by Henry VIII at the Reformation. The 40 acre Serpentine replaced monastic ponds in 1730 when Queen Caroline requested a recreational lake. The name implies a snakelike shape though there’s only one bend. The Serpentine is a major feature of Hyde Park used for boating and swimming as in the London 2012 Olympics when it was venue for the men's and women's triathlon and marathon swimming events. The area north of the lake is used for commercial events and the occasional free concert. The Rolling Stones and Queen have performed here. Pope Benedict XVI held a prayer service here in 2010.
Head right along the north bank of the Serpentine to the road bridge. On the right is the first of two free galleries associated with Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. The Serpentine Sackler Gallery was opened to the public in 2013, giving new life to The Magazine, a Grade II listed former gunpowder store built in 1805. The original Serpentine Gallery opened in 1970 is a short walk across the Serpentine Bridge which divides the Serpentine from Long Water in Kensington Gardens. Free entry to both galleries is granted Tue-Sun 10am-6pm. Their exhibitions and educational programmes attract over 1 million visitors a year. The larger Serpentine Sackler Gallery has 900 square metres of gallery space with a restaurant, shop and social space.
Princess Diana Memorial Fountain
Cross the Serpentine Bridge and descend to the left onto the Serpentine footpath which passes a large bronze Ibis situated before the gates into The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain. Opened by the Queen in 2004 in the presence of Diana’s ex-husband Prince Charles and Diana’s younger brother Charles Spencer this consists of swirling streams descending into a calm pool. It was constructed to symbolise the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, mother of Princes William and Harry, who died in a car crash in 1997. With paddling access it was designed also to express Diana's love of children. Resident in Kensington Palace the former Princess of Wales would frequent a walking route now dedicated to her which passes this memorial.
Head back to the road crossing the Serpentine, turn left and left again onto the public footpath and cycleway that runs the length of Hyde Park. It parallels the famous sand-covered bridleway established by King William III in 1690, ‘Route du Roi’ corrupted to ‘Rotten Row’. Lit initially with 300 oil lamps as a precaution against highwaymen it became the first artificially lit highway in Britain. In the 18th and 19th century Rotten Row was a popular resort among London’s high society who took carriage drives here to show off their finery. Today the Household Cavalry ride their horses here from their barracks that can be seen across the south boundary of Hyde Park where the accommodation includes a remarkable multi-story ‘horse-park’!
Continue along the pathway parallel to Rotten Row to the end of the Serpentine with its bridge to the Dell Restaurant above the Dell which can be viewed if you ignore the bridge turning, continue along the side of it and turn left to follow the enclosure. A dell is a term for small valleys with trees and streams and such a dell is evident here in the heart of London alongside the artificial lake of the Serpentine which it predates. Above ‘The Dell’ across from the Restaurant a tablet evidences the ancient spring below: ‘A supply of water by conduit from this spot was granted to the Abbey of Westminster with the Manor of Hyde by King Edward the Confessor. The Manor was resumed by the Crown in 1536’. The latter is a euphemism for Henry VIII’s seizure of the Abbey!