Being in London, with all it has to offer, and having only a few hours to spare, remembering that luggage has to be collected before journeying on, how was I going to spend those few hours?
Eventually, I narrowed it down to either the National Gallery, or a picnic in St James’s Park, and in the end I decided that if I got carried away in the National Gallery I might miss the train, and as it was quite warm and sunny St James’s Park seemed like a fine idea.
It was. The trees were resplendent, the day was calm and bright, and, considering it was half term, the park was lively but not crowded. It certainly was much quieter than the last time I saw it in April, when the London Marathon was taking place all around it. Back then it was all pinks and yellows and bridal whites, last week it was all golds and reds and every shade of green. If there was a contest between Autumn and Spring it would have to be a tie. They both dress the park magnificently.
Strolling around the park, it was hard to imagine that this was all once marshy wasteland, hard to imagine any sort of countryside here in the heart of London, which, along with Paris, seems to me to have always been citified, however pretty parts of it may be. It wasn’t until 1536 that Henry the Vlll decided to create a deer park on land that had, up until then, housed a leper hospital. Not that it was for public use, it was fenced off for the pleasure of the king’s hunting, and the hunting lodge which was built is now St James’s Palace, so I suppose things have improved a bit since then!
“Our Scottish cousin” (James l of England, 6th of Scotland for you furriners) who came to the throne in 1603 was, apparently not so much of a hunting man, and he had the parkland landscaped, and had what amounted to a private zoo, which was home to crocodiles, camels, an elephant and a collection of exotic birds in aviaries along one side – which is, as you’ve already guessed, now Birdcage Walk.
Fast forward through a Civil War and a depressing Puritan dictatorship and we find Charles l on the throne. He’s been almost ten years living in elegant France, and has become a fan of the formal gardens there, so he commissions a redesign, probably by a French architect, but that seems uncertain. The main feature is not the pretty lake which is there now, but a long, straight canal.
Charles being dedicated to pleasure (Nell Gwyn, nudge, nudge, wink, wink), it seems he was also more in touch with his subjects (or better at marketing the monarchy, my but he must be turning in his grave these days!) because he opened the park to the public. He introduced a game called pelle melle, which he had also picked up in France, which, it appears was akin to croquet, and a court was constructed in the park, and thus the name of the other main road, flanking the park took shape – Pall Mall, The Mall.
The park began to take its present form in the early 19th century, when the canal was done away with and the lake created. The designer was famous architect John Nash, and since then there have been few major changes. Buckingham Palace, which sits at the opposite end of the park from Horseguards’ Parade was enlarged and became the official, royal residence, and Marble Arch, which used to be sited outside the palace was moved to its present position, at the end of Oxford street. Now the palace looks out at the Victoria Memorial, and thence to St James’s Park, which still has the title “royal park,” and that’s my potted history of the same.
Certainly on this mid-Autumn day it was giving a lot of pleasure to the masses. There were lots of people taking in the last of the sunshine on deck chairs or just lolling on the grass. They won’t be able to hire those chairs again now until the Spring, October is the end of the “season”. I found a sunny bench, and happily opened my paper bag containing lunch I’d picked up at the Camden Food Co, a succulent and healthy sandwich and a luscious fruit juice. Honestly, it was so nice to be able to enjoy something healthy, and to be able to pick it up so easily. Fast food in the UK all looked delicious. It seemed like the days of curled up, corned beef sarnies have gone forever, even on the smallest station caff, but they have been replaced with way too much temptation. American muffins, caramel slices, cookies, carrot cake and brownies all pleaded with me, and sandwiches bulged with chicken tikka, salmon with caramelized onions, falafel, humous and goats cheese, all wonderful, imaginative fillings, at least they appeared so to this backwater dweller.
I thought I might read for a while, but it was far more fun people watching. I was sitting just behind where you can see that group of people in the photo above. They are all gathered there because, unlike me, they saved some of their lunches to feed the numerous varieties of birds which make their homes in the park. Countless numbers, I imagine, are totally “uninvited”, but the Royal ornithological Society presented the first “official” birds to the park in 1837, so I guess there are some with historic lineage too :=) It was then that the pretty Birdkeeper’s cottage (below) was built. It is an absolute gem, like something out of a children’s story book. The garden is so typically English country style that you wonder if the plants are real. There is even a vegetable patch. The post of Birdkeeper still exists, but I’m not clear on whether the cottage is still his home.
It’s odd how I felt, strolling around. It’s many years since I lived in England, and I never lived in the South, but there was a certain sense of comfort about being there. I’ve always said Fall is my favorite month, and I don’t budge on that!
Maybe it’s because I grew up just about in the countryside, on the very edge of town, where the houses petered out and gave way to fields, and the seasons were important. The first time I saw the movies “You Got Mail” (and there have been many, I blush to add) I totally identified with this quote:
Joe (Tom Hanks): “Don’t you love New York in the fall? It makes me wanna buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address………….”
Maybe it’s because the school year began in September, but I can’t get the idea out of my head that Fall rather than Spring is a sense of renewal. Does anyone else remember the exciting smell of newly-varnished desks, and the pleasure of seeing friends we’d missed all Summer?
So, I strolled, and remembered, and imagined, and, all of a sudden, I realized that the shadows were growing longer, despite it not being 4 o’clock yet, but it was time to pick up the luggage and take the train North. Maybe next year I should try the park in Summer and Winter for an old-round impression of it.