This is my account of an ill-conceived journey around Hyde Park. I hesitate to call it a journey, however, since my destination was none other than my starting location, the entrance to Kensington palace, though some ten hours later. This was done with some vague motivation of meeting a friend there when she finished working at the venue, at around 12:30 am. My journey was therefore less one of distance than of time, from the day to the night, and through the transformations that London undertakes within that period.
My journey begins at the rather uninspiringly named ‘Round Pond’ opposite the palace, just one of many additions to Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park for which we have Queen Caroline (wife of George II) to thank. Though, unbeknownst to him until after her death, it was the king’s wallet we have to thank (Davies: p.49). I sit here to read, with the sunlight glaring off the water into my eyes, for an hour or so before moving on.
I take the Broad Walk to Bayswater Road, turning right at the gates and following the length of the road to Marble Arch. This road will become very familiar to me over the course of the evening. I shall hardly be the first person acquainted with this street however, since it dates back to Roman Britain and has heard the footsteps of countless notables, as well as the last breath of many criminals. The Tyburn ‘tree’ (once an actual tree, replaced with a 24 noose gallows) was, from as far back as 1196, used for public executions. Finally moved in 1783, it was not the principal of execution that caused the now affluent surrounding households to push for its removal, but the noisy crowds of unseemly spectators that it drew (Davies: pp. 35-6). I pass a pub. I want to sit there and read, but there are a number of customers and I decide against it.
I accidentally miss Speaker’s Corner. Even since before it was brought to law in 1872 (due to the many riots ensuing as police attempted to dismantle meetings), it was a popular place for people to voice themselves (Davies: p. 36). Nowadays it is a platform for the criers of doom to yell at tourists. I don’t turn back for it, continuing down to Hyde Park Corner. I try to find a suitable place to read but none takes my fancy. The pub then, is the only logical choice, and there I head. I follow Grosvenor place to Victoria station; Wetherspoons is packed with people, I head back to the park in disappointment.
The sun begins to set, it becomes too dark to read so I head once more to Victoria. Here I settle in to eat, and after two hours, emerge into darkness. My phone (my only means to tell the time) is out of battery. I walk back to Hyde Park on the same route as before but now the streets are filled with merrymakers and the pubs are full to the point of bursting. All the stone-faced businessmen of the afternoon have smiles on their faces now.
The park is illuminated by strings of street lights, bright enough for the path but not to light any further than it. Still, it must be an improvement on the 300 oil lamps put up along Carriage Drive by William III after he bought what is now Kensington Palace. By this time, Hyde Park was a notorious spot for footpads, with walkers waiting for groups to form before crossing it at night so they might defend themselves (Jennett: p. 24). Even the well-guarded Kensington Gardens was not immune, with a highwayman scaling the walls and robbing King George II on one occasion (Davies: p. 49). Walking now, I don’t get the same feeling of danger, but the night changes my interactions with the people of the park. The cyclists, the pedestrians, they all now move with a little more haste, and a far less welcoming expression. There are no more spontaneous conversations as earlier in the day.
Coming to the bandstand, I hear music, and see it illuminated. A group of people dance and play instruments. It is a beautiful sight. I sit down on a bench to observe. Perhaps because they can’t see me until up close, the passers-by, few though they are, stare far more intently at this lone figure on the bench, holding their gaze upon me until the angle of their neck no longer allows it as they pass by. Am I really such a strange sight; a feared highwayman? I suppose at this hour they can only speculate as to my reason for being here, doing nothing at all, though I should hardly think the same behaviour would have raised any eyebrows in the light.
I follow a path along the Serpentine, past the many couples adorning its benches (all startled by my presence, clearly unaware of each other’s), cross the 9Serpentine Bridge, and find that Kensington Gardens is now closed. I need to find the entrance that will be opened for the event if I am to meet my friend. I follow the road round, past the Albert hall, until I reach Palace Avenue. Here a police officer directs me to walk up Kensington Palace Gardens, turning right, past the Russian embassy, back on to Bayswater Road. Following this down a short while, I come to the entrance to the Gardens which will be used.
The guard is immediately suspicious of me and quickly sends me away. Wandering down Queensway, a man standing in a shop doorway offers to sell me drugs. Further down, drunks steal chairs from a pub. I turn back. I walk up and down Bayswater Road, having used the clock in Queensway station to work out it is a 20 minute circuit. I stop at Tyburn Convent, seeing the drug dealer walk by. Inside, for over a century, the nuns have been up in shifts all night, to pray for the souls of Londoners (Sandhu: p. 130).
Hyde Park has always had two sides. By day, it is a place of community. By night, a darker side (no pun intended) reveals itself. Though less violent now, present mostly in a hostile atmosphere and drugs, legal and illicit, it has persisted since its very foundation. The dual nature of this area, divided by day and night, is not unique in London though. I would suggest it is merely illustrative of a larger, city-wide phenomena.
Seàn Jennett, Official Guide to the Royal Parks of London, (London: HMSO, 1979)
Hunter Davies, A Walk Round London’s Parks, (London: Hamish Hamilton ltd, 1983)
Sukhdev Sandhu, Night Haunts: A Journey Through London at Night, (London: Verso, 2007)