The Garden Guide

Book: History of Garden Design and Gardening
Chapter: Chapter 4: British Gardens (1100-1830)

London public parks and public gardens

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History of public parks in England 692. Public parks and gardens in London. England was for many years considered greatly inferior to the Continent in public parks and gardens. It was even asserted that amusements in the open air were not suited either to the climate or to the genius of the people. After the fall of Napoleon, however, when the Continent was thrown open to the English, a partial assimilation took place between English and continental manners; and, among other things, a taste for amusements in the open air gradually sprung up. In consequence of this change, the parks and gardens of the metropolis were improved, and others established in different parts of England. St. James's Park is the oldest in London, as it was enclosed by Henry VIII. to serve as pleasure-grounds to the palace of St. James's, having been originally a morass. It did not, however, assume its present shape till the time of Charles II., who employed the celebrated Le Notre to lay it out, and had the walk now called the Mall planted with a straight avenue of trees for the purpose of playing at the then favourite game called pall mall, and which game required a smooth hollow walk, with an iron hoop at one extremity, through which a ball was forced to pass. The Birdcage Walk in the time of Charles II. was hung with cages of foreign birds. About 1832 a portion of the ground, in the centre of the park, was enclosed and laid out as a garden, having in the centre a lake, on which are a great variety of waterfowl; and in 1842 a fountain was erected. The Green Park is very small, and consists chiefly of a narrow road leading up an ascent on the north of Buckingham Palace, called Constitution Hill, and a square pond, forming the reservoir of the Chelsea waterworks. Hyde Park was so called from having originally belonged to the monastery of Hide, from whom it was taken by Henry VIII. It contains nearly four hundred acres, and is laid out in walks, some of which are bordered by trees. There is a large straight lake in it, called by a curious misnomer the Serpentine River. In 1816 a bridge was erected on the side next Kensington Gardens, and the park was generally improved. In 1834 some plantations of various kinds of trees were made, and about 1838, an avenue of elms was planted, and lodges with ornamental gardens were erected at the principal gates for the keepers. About 1840 a broad walk was made across the park, and numerous trees and shrubs were planted. The Regent's Park contains about three hundred and fifty-seven acres. It lies on the north of Oxford Street towards Primrose Hill and Highgate, and was formed partly of what were called Marylebone Gardens, and partly of some adjoining fields; the gardens having originally belonged to a palace which existed in the time of Elizabeth. This park was first laid out in 1812 or 1815, but it has been greatly improved since that time, and it now contains the Zoological and the Royal Botanic Gardens, the latter occupying the ring or inner circle. There is also an enclosed garden for the use of the inhabitants of the adjoining houses; but the greater part of the park is laid out in broad gravel walks, which are planted with trees, and which are open to the public. On the south side of the park is an ornamental piece of water, and on the north, what is called the Regent's Canal. The Victoria Park is near Bethnal Green. An act passed, in 1841, for purchasing the ground, about 280 acres; but in 1846 scarcely more than a quarter of it was formed, though it had been for some time open to the public. The whole of the 280 acres were then enclosed by a temporary wooden fence, and the principal entrance was by a bridge thrown over the Regent's Canal, close to Bethnal Green church, where a handsome gate and porter's lodge had been erected. After passing along the bridge a carriage drive, of about twenty-two feet in width, branches off right and left in a straight line nearly as far as Grove Road in one direction, and to the eastern boundary on the other. It is planted on either side with limes and elms, which are about twenty feet apart, and ten feet from the road. A strip of grass, twenty feet in width, divides the carriage road from a walk ten feet wide; and this kind of border it is proposed to carry round the park. Kensington Gardens may fairly be classed among the London parks, as they have very little the character of garden scenery. They were laid out by William and Mary, and at first their extent was only thirty-six acres; but Queen Anne added thirty acres, which were laid out by London and Wise, in the formal style of parterres, and with high yew hedges, some of which remained till the year 1838. A few of the trees are even still in existence, on the west side of the gardens, bordering what is called the 'winter walk.' Caroline, the Queen of George II., was very partial to these gardens, and added to them three hundred acres, taken from Hyde Park. This addition was laid out by Bridgeman, and it comprises all the portion of the gardens which lies south of the palace, and all that is east of the broad walk from Bayswater to Knightsbridge. The piece of water to the east of the palace was among the additions made by Bridgeman. The gardens, in their present stute, are three miles and a half in circumference. For many years after the death of Queen Caroline very little was done to them, and the trees, not being thinned in the plantations, were drawn up so as to become unnaturally tall and slender. In 1832 they were partially thinned; and about 1838, several having been blown down in a violent storm, they were again thinned, and a new plantation made so as to form a belt extending nearly the whole length of the garden on the southern boundary, and about half the length on the northern side. In 1842 the trees and shrubs in these gardens were named by labels, made of cast and wrought iron, being affixed to each. The name is printed in black letters on a white ground, on a cast-iron plate, 14 inches by 7 inches, nearly half an inch thick, with the corners rounded off, and the edges turned up. The plate is riveted to a wrought-iron shank two feet in length, so that when the shaft is stuck into the ground, the label is so placed as to be easily read by any passer by. It is no small gratification to us to reflect that we first suggested the idea of naming these plants, though no notice was taken of the suggestion, till Lord Lincoln was placed at the head of this department of the government. It is also a source of satisfaction, and, we trust, one which will be considered laudable, that the names adopted are those of the Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum. The names have been selected and applied by Mr. George Don, F. L. S., than whom a more fit person could not have been employed for this purpose. (See Gard. Mag. for 1842, p. 664.) In 1842 a drooping fountain was erected in that part of Kensington Gardens which adjoins Hyde Park. This fountain, which is placed in the middle of the river, consists of a series of circular cast-iron basins, arranged on a vertical axis one above another, exactly like an old-fashioned dumb-waiter. The cast-iron axis rises abruptly from the water; and the whole, which may be ten or twelve feet high, is painted white. Anything less in accordance with the surrounding scenery it is difficult to imagine. We have often, when passing this fountain, asked ourselves whether it be possible that the Commissioners of Woods and Forests can approve of it; and, if they do not approve of it, how it happens that such a hideous object, or, indeed, any object intended to be ornamental, could be put up without their knowledge and approbation. If this fountain had risen out of a base of rock-work it would have been less hideous, but still liable to the objection of being altogether incongruous to the scene in which it is placed. A single bold jet from a mass of rock in such a scene we hold to be admissible, but by no meant either a jet or a drooping fountain from sculpture or regular architecture. The most appropriate fountain which could be introduced in this part of the water in Kensington Gardens would be one consisting of huge masses of rock in the form of a source, placed where the mock bridge now stands, from which the water might trickle down in streamlets. We say this kind of fountain would have been the most appropriate; because, being at the upper end or commencement of the river, or, rather, lake, it would have indicated how it was supplied, while no violence would have been done to the character of the scenery. Instead of exhibiting a source of this kind and disguising the termination of the lake by one or two islands, an attempt is made to keep up the character of a river by building three arches as a termination, the commonplace resource in places of this kind is the infancy of the natural style of laying out grounds, but long since rejected by artists of cultivated taste. The fountain at present only plays occasionally; but if a rocky source were substituted, the supply of water might be easily so regulated as to flow throughout the whole of that portion of every day during which the gardens are open to the public. (Gard. Mag. for 1842, p. 382.) Another park is now (1849) being laid out on the Surrey side of the Thames, near Battersea Bridge.