1902 Encyclopedia > London > London - Royal Parks; Other Parks; Public Commons

(Part 9)


Royal Parks. Other Parks. Public Commons.

London owes the possession of its finest parks rather to accident than to intention. Eastwards and northwards no effort was made to preserve any part of the "delightful plain of meadow land interspersed with flowing streams" mentioned by Fitzstephen, or of the "immense forest of densely wooded thickets," or of the "common fields" in the great fen, notwithstanding the riot of the citizens in the reign of Henry VIII. against the invasion of their rights by enclosure. Westward, however, the inroads of the builder were interrupted by the royal parks, which, lying adjacent to each other, cover an area of about 900 acres. St James’s Park, 80 acres, transformed from a swamp into a deer park, bowling green, and tennis court by Henry VIII., extended and laid out as a pleasure ground by Charles II., and rearranged by Nash (1827-29), possesses beautiful combinations of water and foliage. Green Park, 70 acres, lying between St James’s Park and Piccadilly, is unadorned except by rows of trees and by parterres of flowers bordering Piccadilly. Hyde Park, 390 acres, stretches westward from the district of Mayfair to Kensington Gardens. Originally forming part of the manor of Hyde, which was attached to Westminster Abbey, Hyde Park at the dissolution of the monasteries was taken possession of by Henry VIII. In 1652 the park, which then included a large portion of the ground now joined to Kensington Gardens and extended to 621 acres, was sold for £17,068, 6s 8d., but in 1660 it was rebought by the Crown, having some time before this become the great "rendezvous of fashion and beauty." It possess nine principal gateways, of which that at Hyde Park Corner on the south-east and the Marble-Arch on the north-east present the most striking features. The former, designed by Decimus Burton and erected in 1828 at a cost of £17,000, consists of three imposing arches adorned with rilievos copied from the Elgin marbles. The marble Arch, originally intended as a monument to Nelson, was first erected at a cost of £80,000 in front of Buckingham Palace, and was placed in its present position in 1851. with its fine expanse of grass, its bright flower beds and clumps of shrubbery, its noble old trees, its beautiful ornamental lake the Serpentine, its broad avenues crowded with equipages, its Rotten Row alive with equestrians, its walks lined with thousands of loungers of very various nationalities, professions, and grades of social position, Hyde Park in the height of the season presents a scene which in the brilliancy of its tout ensemble and its peculiarly mingled, contrasts can probably be paralleled nowhere else. In the 17th and 18th centuries Hyde Park was a favorite meeting place for duelists, and in the present century has been frequently the scene of great political gatherings. To the west are Kensington Gardens, 360 acres, originally attached to Kensington Palace, and enlarged in the reign of George II. by the addition of nearly 300 acres taken from Hyde Park. They are more thickly planted than the "Park," and also contain an avenue of rare plants and shrubs, and several walks lined with flowering trees. Regent’s Park in the north-west, 470 acres, occupying the site of Marylebone Park, which in the time of Elizabeth was used as a hunting ground, owes its preservation to the intention of George III. to erect within it a royal palace. It contains the gardens of the Zoological Society and of the Royal Botanic Society, as well as the grounds of a few private villas. The northern half of the park is in summer devoted to cricket; in the south-east corner there is a flower garden of rather antique design; and in the south-west a portion bounded on the north by an artificial lake is let to private householders. To the north of Regent’s Park there are about 12 acres of open ground surrounding Primrose Hill, 220 feet, commanding an extensive view of London. Battersea Park 180 acres, formed (1852-58) at a cost of £312,890, on the south side of the Thames, besides a fine promenade along the banks of the river, several walks and carriage drives bordered with parterres, and a wide expanse for cricket and other amusements, contains a subtropical garden, which during August and September possesses much of the witchery of an ideal fairy-land. East London, after the enclosure of Finsbury Fields, had no special recreation ground until the opening of Victoria Park, which was sanctioned by an Act of Parliament in 1842, and was in 1872 increased to about 300 acres. Finsbury Park, 115 acres, formed by the Metropolitan Board of Works from the grounds of Hornsey Wood House at a cost of 112,000 pounds, Southwark Park, Rotherhithe, 63 acres, formed at a cost of £111,000; West Ham Park in the extreme east, partly purchased by the City corporation; Greenwich Park (see Greenwich); and the gardens on the Thames Embarkment, with various squares and semi-private gardens, sum up the other ornamental open spaces of London.

The Metropolitan Board, under various Acts of Parliament, have secured the exclusive right of the public in several commons and open spaces, which with the parks under their care comprise together an area of 1698 acres, giving with the royal parks and Battersea Park, Victoria Park, and West Ham Park a total of over 3000 acres, or about a twenty-fifth part of he whole metropolitan area. The principal public commons are Hampstead Health, a wild hilly region now encroached on by buildings on all sides except the north and north-west, commanding fine views both of London and the country; and, with its clear bracing air and its unkempt and rugged beauty, breaking on the visitor with all the effect of a sudden surprise; Blackheath Common, 267 acres, a bare sandy expanse to the south of Greenwich Park, containing a good golfing course; Clapham Common, 220 acres; Wormwood Scrubs, 194 acres; the Tooting Commons, 207 acres; and Plumstead Common, 110 acres. The total sum expended by the Board of Works in the purchase, preservation, and adornment of parks and open spaces up to 31st December 1881 was 436,760 pounds. All the parks and open space already mentioned are included in the Metropolitan Board district, but outside this area there is in the neighborhood of London a large number of uncultivated spaces to which the public have various rights, some of them of an obscure and undefined character. A return made to the House of Commons in 1865 gives the area of public commons within radii of 25 miles and of 15 miles of the metropolis, the area of those within the smaller circuit being 13,301 acres. Of Epping Forest 5600 acres have been secured to the public by the corporation of the City, and in 1871 an Act was passed for the preservation of Putney Heath and Wimbledon Common, but Hounslow Heath, of old the favorite resort of highwaymen, and at one time over 4000 acres in extent, is now nearly all under cultivation. Richmond Park, the grounds of Hampton Couirt Palace, the gardens at Kew, the fine surroundings of the Crystal and Alexandra Palaces, the cricket grounds at the Oval and Lord’s, may practically be also reckoned among the public parks of London. In addition to this the river Thames itself supplies facilities for recreation which are safe from the inroads of the builder; and all round the metropolis there are numerous footpaths through the open fields.

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