If you are staying around Kensington on your next London visit, why not pay Kensington Gardens a visit? There are a wide number of things to do and see within the confines of this 242 acre park, one of eight Royal Parks in the capital. Bought by William III in 1689 from what was originally part of Hyde Park, he commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to design the redbrick building that is Kensington Palace. Queen Anne enlarged the Palace Gardens by ‘transferring’ 30 acres from Hyde Park and was responsible for the creation of the Orangery in 1704. It was Queen Caroline, wife of George II, who in 1728 moulded the gardens to their present form by creating the Serpentine and the Long Water from the Westbourne stream. Queen Victoria was born in Kensington Palace and lived there until she became queen in 1837.
For most of the 18th century the gardens were closed to the public. They were opened gradually but only to the respectably dressed!
Originally built for William III and Mary II at the end of the 17th century, Kensington Palace has been a museum, a barracks and a private residence. It is perhaps best known today as the London home of Diana, Princess of Wales and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. There are a great many rooms to see – the Queen’s and The Kings Apartment’s as well as the room where Queen Victoria was born. Temporary exhibitions are a constant draw and at present, it’s all about The First Georgians, celebrating 300 years of Hanoverian rule.
These accompanying Palace gardens really enhance the setting of the Palace as well as being a lovely spot to sit and take in the magnificent planting. The cafe by the way is well priced and a good place to fuel up for further expeditions in the Gardens. Entrance starts at GBP16.50 for adults or GBP15.40 if booked online. It is free for Historic Royal Palaces members.
Located at the end of one of the longest uninterrupted avenue vistas in London lies Henry Moore’s glorious Arch, opposite Kensington Palace and overlooking the lake. It is inspired by life and natural objects (a bone in this case) but evokes comparisons with other monumental structures such as Stonehenge. This mammoth sculpture, crafted from Travertine marble, was originally created for Kensington Gardens following a major retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in 1978. It was restored in 1996 and repositioned in its original site.
Commissioned by the author himself – Sir James Barrie – from artist George Frampton RA, the statue appeared overnight on 1st May 1912 and caused something of a sensation after an announcement made about it in The Times that morning advising “there is a surprise in store for the children who go to Kensington Gardens to feed the ducks in the Serpentine this morning”. In the book, The Little White Bird, Peter flies out of his nursery and lands beside the Long Water and this is exactly where the statue is located.
Barrie had apparently met a family – the Llewellyn Davies – in Kensington Gardens and based the Darling Family from the book on them. Indeed the statue is said to be based on young Michael Llewellyn Davies.
I didn’t know that The Italian Gardens even existed before I perused the website for Kensington Gardens. The Italian Gardens are situated on the north side of Kensington Gardens, near Lancaster Gate and are effectively an 150-year-old ornamental water garden.
It is said that the gardens were created by a love-sick Prince Albert for his bride Queen Victoria and it consists of four main basins with central rosettes and a stunning white marble Tazza Fountain – all surrounded by intricately carved stone statues and urns. Located at the head of The Long Water, the river which flows through Kensington Gardens into Hyde Park where it becomes The Serpentine, these gardens were restored in 2011 with help from the Tiffany & Co Foundation of NYC. They are now protected by English Heritage who have listed them Grade II as a site of particular importance.
Even the ducks have ladders to help them in and out of the water safely – sweet!
The most extravagant, the most recognisable and perhaps the most poignant statue in London for me has to be Queen Victoria’s memorial to her late lamented husband, Prince Albert, opposite the Royal Albert Hall, Kensington, London in Kensington Gardens. It commemorates the life and work of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha – a life cut short at just 42 when he died of typhoid fever. He left behind him a grief-stricken widow who would wear her mournful weeds for the rest of her life.
This memorial to her husband took eight years to complete, was designed in the gothic manner by Sir George Gilbert Scott (architect of St Pancras) and involved an army of artists and craftsmen in its complex design. For some, and it is rumoured The Queen is among them, it is a little too ornate but it certainly helps you keep to your bearings in the park. For the record – I love it.
There are obviously many features I have missed out entirely – the beautiful plantings, The Serpentine Gallery, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery (new wing by Zaha Hadid), the Isis Statue, the Serpentine itself, the various Diana memorials – but I wanted to give you my personal favourite five reasons to visit – I didn’t mean to infer that there were not many more reasons to stroll around this wonderful parkland!
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Contributor & photographer: Sue Lowry
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