At 350 acres, this isn’t a park that I can easily sum up in a few paragraphs, or encapsulate in just one or two drawings. As I pass through the wide white Ionic Screen Gate at Hyde Park Corner, while dodging out of the path of oncoming cyclists, I quickly realise that I’ll have to tackle this great green space in manageable portions. So perhaps a return in the Autumn.
I decide to keep to the eastern edge, in sight and sound of Park Lane to my right. Up here, the giant statue of Achilles, sword at the ready and shield held round and black against the sky, was the first statue erected in Hyde Park, in 1822. It commemorates the Duke of Wellington and is made from bronze from cannons captured in his French campaign victories. After faints and complaints, the fig leaf was added later.
It’s a good spot to survey across the park, through the bare plane tree branches. This was all originally a vast tract of rural land which Henry VIII seized from the monks of Westminster Abbey in 1536, during the Dissolution. He turned it into his royal hunting park and it has remained a Royal park ever since. Well, apart from in the 1640s, during the Civil War, when forts and fortifications were built here by Parliamentary troops. There is a grassy bank running north for about 300 metres from here, which is believed by some to be the remains of these 17th Century defences. However, the less romantic truth is that it is just spoil, left over from the widening of Park Lane last century.
Further along, sheltering at the base of this bank from the horns and sirens of Park Lane, are the 52 silver grey steel columns of the 7/7 memorial. I walk between them and we brush shoulders. In this chill grey light, the day after the Brussels bombings, there is a poignant offering of white carnations lying at the victims‘ name plaque.
Ahead is the brightest thing on this overcast day: a butter gold slash of daffodils swathed over bank and amongst trees. They’re massing more as they encircle the ‘Joy of Life Fountain‘. Designed by T. B. Huxley-Jones in 1963. Exuberant figures of man, woman and children in blue bronze fly just high enough over gushing water.
I make my drawing across the massed yellow heads to the fountain and on to Park Lane, where coaches and red buses crawl. A pair of greylag geese march defiantly around the fountain edge, stabbing beaks and honking. Magpies swoop down every time someone leaves a bench and squabble over dropped crumbs, but are scattered by a woman in black and green striped top, who runs at a slow plod round and around the fountain. Overhead, incessant screeches are parakeets, exotic and wrongly vivid green for this murky day, but very much at home here. A photographer, with a thick cigar clenched in his teeth, half kneels to capture some good low- level shots of the daffodils.
I draw until my daughter Millie joins me (her University halls are 10 minutes away, just past Marble Arch). I pack my drawing things and we walk together back down Broad Walk. We buy coffee from a stall to warm up, and wander along the edge of Rotten Row. This wide sandy track was laid in the late 17th Century, during the reign of William and Mary, to link Kensington Palace, the royal court, with Westminster. Originally ‘Route du Roi’ (King’s Way), but over the years corrupted to ‘Rotten Row. To deter highwaymen, it was lined with 300 oil lamps, the first road in the country to be artificially lit. It became fashionable to be seen riding your horse here. It is still used by the Household Cavalry to exercise their horses, which are stabled here at Hyde Park Barracks.
We walk slowly up through the tranquil Holocaust Memorial Garden with its boulders and bright white birches and past the cascade at the foot of the Serpentine. Then thread our way through the outdoor tables of the Serpentine Bar and Kitchen to the lake end. I lay out my drawing things on a table and a heron glides down and perches on the rail, so close, waiting for thrown scraps. When it realises there aren’t any, it turns its long beak away and launches back up and across the water towards the Serpentine Bridge, far off and misty. Once, all this was just the ponds and meanders of the River Westbourne, flowing through pastures and meadows and providing water for the royal deer. In the early 18th Century, Queen Caroline ( wife of George II), decided to have it dammed and the present lake filled the contours of the Westbourne valley. This ‘natural’ look of artificial lakes was soon copied and became fashionable in parks and gardens all over the country (In 1739 Thomas Thynne, the 2nd Viscount Weymouth, was appointed as Ranger of Hyde Park and soon after ordered the creation of the serpentine lakes in the grounds of Longleat, his home in Wiltshire).
I work fast in the lake’s cold breeze, making my drawing of the lake across towards its southern bank. The reflection of Basil Spence‘s tall Hyde Park Barracks tower shivers down towards the fluttering dried reed stems and papery leaves, which are bedded into planting cages. A huddled figure paddles his red boat through the ripples. The call and cry of waterbirds seem plaintive as a rosy hue seeps into the light. Swans clap the water and a well- fed coot dabbles close by at the water’s edge, as black and round as a cannonball.
I finish my sketch and we head off, walking quickly to warm up, taking the long straight path through open fields, down to the South Carriage Drive and back to Hyde Park Corner.
(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )
Hyde Park, London W2 2UH
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