I pick up a coffee at the Serpentine Cafe
. This is where I left off my last visit to Hyde Park in March, when I explored the east and south of the park (see Sticks in the Smoke 10
, where you can read about Hyde Park’s hunting park origins).
I can’t believe that it’s 7 months since my daughter Millie and I were here. Huddled and trying to keep warm with hot chocolates as I made my drawing across the lake. Today there’s sunshine and still a fragile warmth which belies the fast approaching end of October. As much as I can, I’m planning to roam the west and north of the Park today. I wander along and across the park road. Cyclists and joggers dodging geese along the lakeside. A stand of limes are flaming gold beacons on the leaf strewn grass. Their branches gently reaching to the ground, brushing the already fallen litter, forming pointillist speckled circular mats of ochre and yellow around their bases. I walk around and through this little grove and find a view to
draw between the trees, towards a shimmer of the Serpentine and the jagged Edwardian roofline of the Hyde Park Hotel (now the Manadrin Oriental. Originally opened in 1899 as an exclusive gentleman’s club
As I draw a squirrel keeps jumping out of the closest tree and hops in circles, flicking its tail aggressively, with quivery shakes. I think it owns the tree and resents my presence. Then I feel something small and hard land on my head. I brush it off and it lands on my sketchbook- a ladybird! Then I see a couple on my sleeve. And another lands on the back of my neck. And they keep arriving like mini helicopters! Looking up, the air above me is freckled with flying dots. They’re everywhere! On the move to find hibernation quarters. I just don’t think my shirt pocket is the best place for them to see through the winter!
Many people are in the park: picnic groups, half term families on London day trips, a kid’s sports club is taking place nearby: excited yelling and enthusiastic cries. From behind me, the sound of construction: drilling and hammering – a long wall of hoardings conceals the site for Hyde Park Winter Wonderland. Coming soon: skating rink, funfair and Christmas Market! This its 10th year, due to open in mid November. Hyde Park has a history of hosting big events, from The Great Exhibition of 1851 (housed in Joseph Paxton‘s extraordinary Crystal Palace, which would have been visible from here, just on the other side of the Serpentine, sunshine sparkling from its glass roofs), to events in the 2012 Olympics (triathlon and marathon swimming in the Serpentine), to big concerts such as British Summer Time, which this July, hosted Carole King‘s first concert in London for nearly 30 years, where she performed the whole of her 1971 album ‘Tapestry‘ live for the first time.
Drawing finished, I follow the path behind me, alongside the hoardings. It leads up towards the Reformer’s Tree mosaic, a rounded mound with image of an oak tree, created from black pebbles on a white pebbled background. It was designed by Harry Gray and Roz Flint of Colvin and Moggridge Landscape Architects and was unveiled in 2000 by Tony Benn. The inscription engraved in the surrounding sandstone circle describes its significance: “THIS MOSAIC HAS BEEN DESIGNED TO COMMEMORATE THE ‘REFORMERS TREE’, A VENERABLE TREE WHICH WAS BURNT DOWN DURING THE REFORM LEAGUE RIOTS IN 1866. THE REMAINING STUMP BECAME A NOTICEBOARD FOR THE POLITICAL DEMONSTRATION AND A GATHERING POINT FOR REFORM LEAGUE MEETINGS. A NEW OAK TREE WAS PLANTED BY THE THEN PRIME MINISTER JAMES CALLAGHAN ON 7 NOVEMBER 1977 ON THE SPOT WHERE ‘REFORMERS TREE’ WAS THOUGHT TO HAVE STOOD”
This feels like the hub of Hyde Park. A landmark; runners and cyclists use it as a pivotal point on their routes. Two children stand on top of the mosaic and thrust their arms out like tree branches for their Dad’s photo. From this point, 9 footpaths lead off, straight as spokes to all parts of the park. I take the path out to the west. As I walk the sun streams through autumnal foliage. Big cutout leaves of a red oak are ablaze against a maple’s lucent yellow. The path leads me past the Old Police House, which is now the HQ of The Royal Parks
I carry on and arrive at the Hudson Bird Sanctuary Memorial
, a relief sculpture by Jacob Epstein,
, the jungle girl from William Hudson
‘s novel, Green Mansions,
spreading her arms as wings. It commemorates W H Hudson as 19th century naturalist and campaigner for wild areas in parks to attract and protect birds. This part of the park is still a refuge for birds such as robins, wrens, goldcrests and mistle thrushes, although all I see today are a couple of magpies drinking from the long rectangular pond. This is the second week in a row that I’ve encountered an Epstein (see ‘Sticks in the Smoke’35 Roper’s Gardens
). This more highly finished, but still the strong, broad and primal forms.
Behind here is the site of the Hyde Park nurseries
. Currently being demolished for reconstruction as a £5million ‘super nursery’
to be opened in 2017, where flowers, shrubs and trees will be grown to supply all the Royal Parks. As I walk its perimeter, I glimpse through the bushes and trees at a scene of rubble, dust and JCBs. And then wander back towards the east along the latticework of paths which carve the north part of Hyde Park into little untamed pastoral pieces: many many trees in stunning shades of gold and
russet and cherry violet. I join the North Carriage Drive and march on to Speakers Corner
Following the Reform League riots of 1866 and further protests in 1867, campaigners agitated for the “right to speak” in Hyde Park. The government saw this as a way of ‘relieving the pressure’ and avoiding further confrontation. So the Parks Regulation Act was passed in 1872, which allowed public speaking in the northeast half of the park. Although, since then, this paved area, where Hyde Park meets the heaving confluence of Park Lane with Edgware Road and Bayswater Road, has been the traditional point for soapbox speakers, and Sunday the traditional day. Anyone can turn up and hold forth on almost any subject, but they need the guts and staying power to contend with hecklers and arguments from the crowd! Speakers Corner is a powerful symbol of freedom of speech in the UK. A recent court ruling stated that freedom of speech should not be limited to the inoffensive but extended also to “the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome, and the provocative, as long as such speech did not provoke violence.”
I draw a view across to Marble Arch
and the white stone Art Deco facade of the Cumberland Hotel
, rising behind. It’s a lively corner, a continual back and forth circus of joggers, cyclists, dog walkers, skaters, ice cream licking meanderers. A crossblader speeds by, propelling himself with ski sticks. No speakers here today, but lots of talkers, wanting to see and ask about my drawing. A little girl points to my scribble of tree branches and says she likes the ‘spider’s web’
. A smiling man pushing a bike, goes up to everyone he passes and says “Jesus London!”
. He wheels over and looks at me and then down at my drawing and hesitates. But then says “Jesus London!”
enthusiastically. I’m not entirely sure what he’s getting at, but that’s ok; if you can’t say what you want here, where can you?
(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
Google earth view here