Some of my most satisfying memories about visiting London feel like it was just yesterday; in part because it kinda was yesterday … and kinda not. Nearly every trip to England that includes any downtime in London seems to have included time I spent in Hyde Park, the major public park near Central London that is the equivalent to NYC’s Central Park. When combined with the Kensington Gardens (which basically is continuous to the point where you can’t tell where one starts and one ends) the 625 acre greenspace is a massive location deep in the heart of one of the busiest cities in the world. Yet it is this juxtaposition of the metro and the quiet that is the lure to many; and the start of what can be what turns a good day into a great day in London.
I say that it seems like I spend time in Hyde Park on every visit, because I am no longer quite sure when I haven’t visited Hyde Park on a London stay. It seems as well that all those stays begin to run together to the point where I can’t quite tell if what I experience in my visit in 2011 was any different than the one in 2005 or the one in 2002 or the one in 2016. The park changes, but it’s not something I particularly look for – or for that matter care about. It is a place I just experience.
What does seem to happen is there is a typical approach I take; mostly because I only seem to remember a couple tube stops that lets you out at the park by name (I mean, how can I not remember ‘Hyde Park Corner’ is where I go for ‘Hyde Park’, right?). From there, it is a mix of beauty, serenity, and life itself experienced as you cross the place. The variety is part of what makes it so outstanding. There are the rose gardens that flourish in one corner of the park. The Serpentine Lake full of boats and lined with runners, walkers, and skaters. There are the horse paths with rides going by slowly on their four-legged beasts. Artwork and statues popping up in different places, including the famous Peter Pan statue to commemorate that this place was part of the inspiration for the stories. There are the old trees, some old as England itself, with their knowing branches overlooking generations of royalty. And of course a lawn so grand that it’s name “Grand Lawn” couldn’t be more apt as it takes up nearly half the length of the park up to Kensington Palace, home to members of the royal family still today.
This park is as such because of it’s connections to the royalty. First purchased in 1536 by Henry VIII for hunting, it was slowly over the generations opened up more and more to the public. Because it was so tied to the royalty, keeping it intact was a priority even against the challenges of the public. In fact, it’s just as well known for public debate as anything. One place called “Speakers Corner” has been the site designated since 1872 as a place for anyone to have a ‘Right to Speak’. Since that time, every Sunday, people wanting to speak out on something came to the corner where they presented their case (including names like Karl Marx, Lenin, and George Orwell just to name a few). Speakers chose to find platforms that would allow them to stand above the people to be heard (and in case they felt they could be damning, to make sure they were not standing directly on ‘Royal soil”); and because they were cheap and easily available and nearby shops the main choice was boxes that soap was shipped in — or in other words, to make a point they would “Get Up on a Soapbox”.
For me, there is something meditative about this place. I tend to arrive and walk, just walk, and wander about the different paths and sidewalks. Occasionally I will stop and sit on a bench or on the grass or on a hill. Usually, I would have my headphones on and listen to some music – there are some albums I love that this was the place of my first deep listen too, and I still use to go back to that ‘meditative’ feeling Hyde Park gives me. I also found this place to be rich with life – and catch myself people watching. Yesterday, I spent an hour watching families playing in an oval shaped fountain dedicated to Princess Diana. Once I spent just as long watching someone practice their in-line skating next to Serpentine Lake, and as I sat in that memory yesterday, there was someone doing that exact same thing in the same place – right next to another giving a lesson to four kids who were skating for the first time. On a sunny day like yesterday, you can see people throughout the park with lunches on blankets, laying out having a nap, or just in a space playing with their dog. Trees were hiding places. Squirrels were well fed. Feet dangled in ponds. Yet with the thousands if not tens of thousands of people who were visiting the park on this day – it remained immaculately clean, and as natural, well managed, and lush as if it was still a private estate for the King.
From that first time I spent an afternoon on English soil walking among the green grass of Hyde Park in 2002, up until yesterday, this place still remains one of my favorite places to be – a place where I can just put all the world behind me for a walk in the park.