Love London: Hyde Park

This year I am leading the London walking tours for my international women’s group, AWBS. In the two years I’ve been a part of the group, this is one of my favorite activities as I’m always learning something new about the different neighborhoods in this amazing city. Luckily I’m being assisted by some world class Blue Badge tour guides who have an unbelievable wealth of knowledge.

Our first tour of the year was through Hyde Park. Actually, it was more Kensington Gardens as the two parks sit side by side, but are typically referred to as Hyde Park. The land originally belonged to the monks of Westminster Abbey, but during his reign, Henry VIII took them over as hunting grounds. In the late 17th century, William and Mary purchased Nottingham House – which later became known as Kensington Palace – as a means to escape the city of London for health reasons. George II’s wife, Queen Caroline, is the one primarily responsible for bringing the park together as we know it today. During the 1700’s the public started to be permitted access to the lands when the monarchy was not in town. It wasn’t until Queen Victoria’s reign in the 1800s when the public had full access to the grounds, as we do today.

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Stop 1: Bear StatueIMG_9247

Hyde Park is known for being a park for children with playgrounds, water features and statues all throughout the park. One of the first stops on our tour was at this drinking fountain of two bears hugging. It’s been stolen several times, and was just return from the most recent escapade two days ago.

Stop 2: Italian GardensIMG_9250

The Italian Gardens are most recently known for the fight scene in Bridget Jones 2 between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. They do, of course, have a much more historial significance in that they were a gift from Prince Albert to Queen Victoria and were designed after Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight.

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Stop 3: Peter Pan

The author of Peter Pan, JM Barrie, lived near Kensington Gardens and would frequently go for a casual stroll in the afternoon or evening. During these walks he befriended the Llewelyn-Davies family and became a pseudo guardian to the five boys, i.e. the lost boys, after their parents died tragically young. The one son, Michael, is who inspired Peter Pan for Barrie. The statue in the park was created by Sir George Frampton in 1912

 

IMG_9263Stop 4: Speke Monument

The sweet chestnut trees line the pathway in a 19th century addition to the park. The spire to the left is a tribute to Sir Henry Speke, the man credited with finding the source of the Nile, Lake Victoria Nyanza, in 1858. There was much debate on this topic at the time, but was validated by the Royal Geographical Society years later.

Stop 5: Physical Energy StatueIMG_9267

The Physical Energy statue is the work of the British artist George Frederic Watts. The statue represents the human need to find more and learn more, i.e. the “human need for new challenges – of our instinct to always be scanning the horizon, looking towards the future.” The statue was unveiled in 1907 after Watts’ death in 1904.

 

Stop 6: Isis Statue IMG_9273

The Isis statue sits on the banks of the Serpentine and is one of the most recent statues added to Hyde Park in 2009. It was part of a fundraising effort to raise money for children’s education center and is named after Isis the Egyptian goddess of motherhood.

IMG_9277Stop 7:  The Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Garden

The Princess Diana Memorial Fountain opened in 2004. It is a heart shaped water feature that is designed for children to be played in. It has calm and turbulant waters and was designed to represent the well known features of Diana’s life: “The design aims to reflect Diana’s life, water flows from the highest point in two directions as it cascades, swirls and bubbles before meeting in a calm pool at the bottom.”

IMG_9279Stop 8: Rotten Row

As often happens with language over time, Rotten Row is not the original name of this path horse path that traverses the south end of Hyde Park. Originally, it was known as “Route du Roi, which meant ‘King’s Road’ in French” as the path connected Kensington Palace all the way to Whitehall for the King.

Stop 9: The Site of the Great ExhibitionIMG_9280

For any fan of the TV series Victoria, the Great Exhibition of 1851 was a major plot point of the show. Originally designed as a showcase of art in industry, the Great Exhibition turned into a showcase of modern British manufacturing on a scale never seen before. The event was housed in a purpose built glass and steel structure known as Crystal Palace and sat on this site in Hyde Park. One third of the UK population attended the exhibition and the financial success of the event provided the foundation for all the museums that South Kensington is now famous for.

Stop 10: Prince Albert MemorialIMG_9287

Sitting across the street from Royal Albert Hall, the Prince Albert Memorial was designed by George Gilbert Scott to honor the impact that Prince Albert had on British society. Prince Albert died young in 1861 at the age of 42. Queen Victoria famously went into a deep mourning period after his death. The memorial celebrates Victorian achievement and Prince Albert’s passions and interests. It is an impressive structure standing at 176 feet in the air with gilded statues and world reknown freizes decorating the structure.

Stop 11: Kensington Palace

We wrapped up the tour at Kensington Palace. Its recent history is well known for being the modern royal residence of the extended Royal Family. It was the site of all the flowers that were laid upon the gardens after Princess Diana’s death in 1997. The Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, lived here until her death in 2002 and is the current London residence of William and Kate. Harry and Meghan recently departed the building to live full-time at Frogmore Cottage in Windsor.

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Christmas Already?

Christmas already? Well, all the big London department stores have opened their Christmas shops, so clearly I’m not the only one. Plus, starting June 25, my husband usually begins counting down the days making for plenty of Christmas discussion in our household. Finally, no other major city in the world does Christmas better than London, so it’s easy to get excited about the holidays early.

The festive season begins November 1, which for my American friends presents a bit of a quandry because we all know Christmas doesn’t really begin until after Thanksgiving. But given the lack of my favorite holiday in my new homeland, I’ll happily roll with it. London makes it easy, as the city becomes so festive with lights twinkling everywhere – a huge bonus when it’s dark by 4:00pm in December.

If you are planning a trip to London over the holiday season, what should you do? Here are a few of my favorite things:

Christmas Lights

The displays change from year to year, but without a doubt they will be bright and sparkly and you won’t be able to help but get into the Christmas spirit. The entire city lights up, but here is my suggested route for maximizing light viewing over a leisurely evening stroll.

  • From Green Park Tube Station walk down Berkley IMG_0132Street towards Berkley Square. On the western side of the square there is an exclusive member’s only club called Annabel‘s that decks out the front of their building in a massive light display. In 2018, it was an enormous Christmas Tree that took up the entire front of the building and then some.

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  • From there you can cut across to Bruton Street that takes you to New (and Old) Bond Street. The luxury stores spare no expense in decorating for the holidays and it’s a really fun way to window shop.

 

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  • Take a left onto Burlington Gardens and you can make your way past the Burlington Arcade. Lots of lovely boutiques, but more importantly the Christmas lights make the centuries old shopping street sparkle like snow shimmering on the tree branches.

 

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  • Keeping walking straight ahead to Regent Street. This and Oxford Street are at the heart of London’s Christmas light displays. They go up and down the entire street and the glow of the lights shimmers across the shoppers bringing home their shopping for the night.

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  • From Regent Street, take a right onto Beak Street and you start to come across the funky, festive nature of SoHo. Bars and restaurants line the streets throughout this entire part of town, but there is one final stop to make along this walk. On your left you’ll come to Carnaby Street which is always glowing with a fun and unique take on the Christmas theme. In 2018, it honoured the Bohemian Rhapsody movie with a full-on Queen and Freddie Mercury splash.

Kew Gardens

If you haven’t had enough of Christmas lights on the streets of London, then be sure to check out Kew Gardens. Tickets for this sell out EARLY, like it’s hard to find tickets by October 1. There are light and music displays all around the gardens, along with food trucks to get a bite to eat and a bit of hot cider or mulled wine to warm your hands in the cold air. It’s a great family activity and there is enough to keep young kids, teenagers, adults and grandparents entertained all at the same time.

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Theatre Shows

Each year there are performances of The Nutcracker put on by the English National Ballet. It’s a Christmas classic performed by one of the world’s pre-eminant ballet companies. Get tickets if you can.

Also, be sure to check out A Christmas Carol – after all, you are in the birthplace of Charles Dickens! There are different performances every year, so you’ll need to do a search to see who is putting on the show. Even if you have seen it many times before, you never know what you might experience. We caught the Old Vic’s performance a few years ago and it was by far the most uplifting version I had ever seen.

Finally, another not-to-be missed English Christmas tradition is a Pantomime performance. I’ll be honest, we haven’t tried one yet, but they are a tried and true family tradition for most of the British population. These are family-friendly, interactive, slapstick, over-the-top theatrical performances that have been happening for hundreds of years. Many are based on children’s folk tales, so the stories are familiar to everyone in the crowd. A good time will definitely be had by all.

Carols at The Royal Albert Hall

In the final run up to Christmas, Royal Albert Hall puts on a Christmas extravaganza like no other. It’s one giant sing-along Christmas carol experience that would put even Ebenezer Scrooge into the Christmas spirit. Join the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for two hours of pure holiday magic. We did this last year on Christmas Eve and then went to lunch afterwards. It was a wonderful way to celebrate the holiday.

Boxing Day Football Matches

If you have a football/soccer fan in your life, make sure they get to participate in the biggest day of the Premier League season. All 20 teams play on December 26 – Boxing Day – in matches up and down the country. The Premier League season goes into overdrive over the holidays, but the game to be at is a Boxing Day match. Tickets are hard to come by, but check out Viagogo (the UK’s version of StubHub) to see what is available for individual matches. The other alternative is to look at each club’s hospitality packages. You pay a bit more money, but are guaranteed a ticket along with a meal and a few other perks.