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.
Stop 1: Bear Statue
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 Gardens
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.
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
Stop 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 Statue
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
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.
Stop 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.”
Stop 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 Exhibition
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 Memorial
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.