Hyde Park: London’s Glorious Green Lung
London is known for its elegant green spaces such as Regent’s Park, St. James’ Park and Kensington Gardens, but none is as impressive as the sprawling Hyde Park, which extends more than 300 acres from Bayswater Road in the north to Knightsbridge in the south. This royal park features an artificial body of water known as the Serpentine Lake, the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, and Speakers’ Corner.
On a sunny day in London, there are few better places to spend your time. Hyde Park may not be as elegant as St. James’ Park near Buckingham Palace, or as regal as Kensington Gardens, but it is nonetheless London’s majestic answer to Central Park, and is one of the world’s largest city parks.
After serving as a hunting ground for the Tudor monarch, Henry VIII, it was opened to the public early in the 17th century by James I, although he insisted that visitors should be dressed respectably. The park grew in popularity when the 41-acre artificial body of water known as the Serpentine Lake was made available for outdoor activities such as boating.
In summer, visitors can hire rowing and pedal boats to make full use of the lake. But boating isn’t the only activity on offer – the Serpentine Lido on the south bank is an ideal place to swim when the weather is hot. The upper section of the lake, known as the Long Water, culminates in a group of Italianate fountains designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who redesigned much of London after the Great Fire of 1666.
Speakers’ Corner, in the north-east of the park, attracts budding orators with strong views on everything from government to religion and society. This allows people to bellow from their soapboxes about whatever is on their minds, and usually attracts an equally raucous crowd of onlookers on Sunday mornings.
The tradition of Speakers’ Corner was born in 1855 when 150,000 people gathered to demonstrate against a Sunday Trading Bill, despite the fact that there was no legal right to assembly. However, demonstrations continued until, eventually, the right of assembly was recognised in 1872. Since then, the area has been a popular spot for orators to let off steam without disturbing the peace.
For those who enjoy horse-riding, Hyde Park is the best destination in London; horses can be rented and ridden in the park, and lessons are also available. Riders can follow the sandy path of Rotten Row, a corruption of route du roi, the road built by William III in the 1690s. It was the first street in England to be illuminated at night when William had 300 lights hung along its length to deter duellists and highwaymen.
Another landmark in the park is the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, which was unveiled by the Queen in July 2004, and is on the south bank of the Serpentine, near the Serpentine Gallery. It was designed by American architect Kathryn Gustafson in the shape of an oval stone ring, and cost nearly £4m.
The memorial was criticised by members of parliament who felt that it was too expensive, and by some members of the public who dismissed it as a concrete slab unworthy of Diana’s memory. Elton John, Diana’s close friend, described the fountain as ‘hideous’ and likened it to a sewer.
Nonetheless, it remains one of Hyde Park’s most prominent – albeit controversial – landmarks.
The park is sometimes host to flamboyant concerts, such as the one for Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday, but it has also seen some horrific incidents. On 20 July 1982, for instance, two bombs – blamed on the Provisional Irish Republican Army – killed eight soldiers of the Household Cavalry.
Today, however, the park is the picture of peaceful tranquillity, and should feature prominently on any visitor’s must-see list of London.