Enjoy the Freedom of the Great London Parks.
By Bob Lyons
Greater London, lying within the confines of the M25, is the largest city by far in Europe. It is a sprawling commercial conurbation generating untold wealth for the British gross domestic product. The population is around eight million people and most are contributing in so many ways to the economic process. London is a place where you need to stop and catch your breath now and again. London is a place where you need to stand still once in a while and savour a little fresh air and freedom. Everyone who is in the capital can whenever they want to. There are more fresh and green public parks in London than most major cities in the world. They are expertly maintained for all to enjoy and use as they wish, freely but legally, of course.
There are around 35 to 40 public parks in London plus many other green spaces for recreation that are always open and available. The principal parks are large and all have their own histories, characteristics and culture. Eight of them are known as the Royal Parks. These are comprised of land originally owned by the Royal Family. It was used for their sole recreation which was mostly hunting. They are now made available for general use by all people via a Royal agreement and maintained by the London borough councils.
Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens are two of the most prominent features of the city centre. They are both Royal Parks and provide a green and gracious setting associated with the Royal residence at Buckingham Palace.
Hyde Park principally contains the Serpentine. This is a very large area of water providing a wetland home for many species of wild birds. There are flocks of ducks, Canada geese, plovers and swans plus many others all enjoying a cosseted and secure life supported by the water. Every day, many people visit with bags of food to feed to the creatures. All the birds have learned to feel quite safe sharing their lives with human beings and have become completely tame and approachable.
The Serpentine also operates a public boating lake where you can skull around by pedal power to your heart’s content. Hyde Park is home to a lido which supports the oldest swimming club in Britain. The members meet each morning no matter how cold the weather to take a dip in the pool. On sunny days you can just visit the associated lido cafe bar on the terrace overlooking the Serpentine and watch the world go by.
The north east corner of Hyde Park is known as ‘speaker’s corner’. Anyone can take their soap box, stand up on it and loudly proclaim their views on any subject. Speakers will quickly be surrounded by a very cosmopolitan and attentive audience. You can talk about anything that you like as long as it is not vulgar or offensive to anyone. Such is the public freedom available to all in the London parks.
Kensington Gardens are adjacent to Hyde Park. The Peter Pan sculpture is there, a great favourite of Diana, Princess of Wales and Kensington Palace where she lived. Not far from the Palace in the parkland is a large memorial water feature to remember her by. This is an extensive and sweeping monument attracting many curious visitors. The gardens are also full of free ranging yet very tame squirrels sharing their lives happily with all the visitors. It is amusing to observe the delight on children’s faces as they chase the animals and birds and try to photograph them.
The Green Park and St. James Park, two of the other Royal Parks, also lie in central London. Both of these feature plenty of trees and green, well tendered plant life as well. The underground station at Green Park provides the easiest access for visiting Buckingham Palace and the summer views and ambiance here are exquisite. These two parks support many walkers, joggers, sports players and picnicking families. The perpetually painted ‘Blue Bridge’ in St. James Park is famous around the world. It has featured in many film sets. It crosses a wide lake once more providing a home to many species of birds and creatures who all feel quite at home in their salubrious surroundings.
To the east of St. James Park you can observe the grand spectacle of many famous and very stately government buildings. St. James is also the best spot for viewing the marching bands of the Coldstream and Grenadier Guards playing as they leave Wellington Barracks and proceed towards their duties at Buckingham Palace.
London maintains its parks as a way of presenting itself to the world but they all have a much more useful function for visitors as well. They provide a very carefully maintained place to go and rest for a while. They provide the freedom for all to sit down, take a picnic or play sport. They are a haven from the busy life of commercial London going on all around them. For many people, they provide sanity in a calamitous world and present the simple and permanent features of human experience.
To the north of the city centre is Regents Park. This really is a beautiful, well planned and maintained garden. It is large and constantly tendered to and upgraded. At the northern end you find London Zoo. This renowned institution houses vast numbers of animal species and attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world. Play a game on the tennis courts in Regents Park as well if you want and let the kids run around relentlessly trying to catch all the squirrels.
South of the Thames River close to the old power station, you can find Battersea Park. This is a 200 acre site in the London borough of Wandsworth and is close to the old bawdy Red House Tavern frequented by Charles Dickens. Battersea Park was the location for the Festival of Britain in the fifties. It also continues to support many birds and much wildlife amongst its large areas of water space. The park was the place where the first football match was played under the new rules of the football association in 1864.
As you walk or jog around Battersea Park you will encounter a number of interesting sculpture exhibits. There is an eye catching modern art figure piece by Henry Moore located in very peaceful surroundings. There was also once a sculpture that commemorated the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attack in New York against the World Trade Centre. The sculpture was presented in modern form and was constructed from some of the actual metal girders that the destroyed buildings were made of. The metal was highly polished and directed to reflect the images from the entry gates of the park as visitors arrived. Its message was to show how well cosmopolitan life works in London but failed so badly in New York. The sculpture is not there anymore. It was re-located to a scrap yard in Cambridgeshire, apparently. I live in that county and I have tried to locate this work of art. If I ever do, I shall give it a new home in my front garden. It was a gift to London by the United States but Boris Johnson, the Mayor, decided to throw it on a scrap heap.
Well to the east of the centre of London you can find two more great parks. Victoria Park at Bethnal Green in the borough of Tower Hamlets and Greenwich Park, south of the river, housing the Maritime Museum. Both of these places are large and open and have much to offer the visitor.
Victoria Park was provided as an amenity for the East End working classes in the 19th century. It had and still does provide a lido where children from the East End can be taught to swim. There is the ‘One o Clock’ club for the under fives to enjoy summer activities and the extensive play park and paddling pool. Victoria has Britain’s oldest model boating lake and club and the famous Community Cricket League. All visitors can take part in these activities. Victoria Park also supports its own ’Peoples Park’ rivalling the world famous speakers corner in the more glamorous location in Hyde Park. There are many pathways in Victoria providing the opportunity to stroll and enjoy the calm surroundings.
Greenwich Park, to the south of the river on the east side, is the home of the Naval Maritime Museum. There is much to see there of the seafaring world and naval military history. Go up the hill and visit the museum presenting the Greenwich prime meridian. At sunset each day, a powerful and green, pencil thin laser beam is switched on marking the location and orientation of the 0 degree line of longitude. The sight of the powerful light arching towards the north following the curvature of the earth is impressive. Sunset also allows the visitor to admire the intensely illuminated and very spectacular view of the financial centre at Canary Wharf just across the river. Greenwich Park was the venue for the equestrian contests in the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
There are many other less prominent places just like the ones that I have described for all to visit without any charge. London is envied by many countries for its park life offering complete freedom for all to do as they wish without interference. Personal freedom to enjoy all that life has to offer is engrained in the British culture and is not duplicated in quite the same way elsewhere in the world.
The London council authorities take much pride in the way they maintain and sustain the City park lands. You only need to visit the following morning after a raucous state or royal occasion in London to appreciate the perfect and unspoken clear up operation that has gone on overnight. The experience is back on again bright and early for all the residents and visitors to enjoy.