For my ‘culture’ blog this week, my London Shoes led me to one of London’s popular tourist attractions.
I tend to deliberately steer clear of the main tourist attractions when doing my walkabouts, but this particular place is a personal favourite of mine as it has been around for a number of centuries and has a wealth of drama and interesting history connected to it – and is well worth a visit at any time of the year.The location in question is “St. James’s Park”.
The location in question is “St. James’s Park”.
St. James’s Park is the oldest of the 8 Royal Parks scattered across the ‘smoke’ – and because of their wide open spaces within a bustling metropolis – these parks are collectively known as “London’s Lungs”.
The history of St. James’s park is both fascinating and diverse, and summarised below are 12 key ‘facts’ about St. James’s Park – that walks you through the ever changing London life throughout the past centuries:-
1. Way back in the 13th Century, the area that is now the Park was a remote, boggy, marshy and useless water meadow. Because of its remoteness, it was designated as a site of a ‘women only’ leper colony – on which a hospital names St. James’s, was built to contain these female sufferers and keep them away from the general public.
2. In 1532 – Henry VIII acquired the site and converted it into his own private deer park, so that he could conduct his favourite pastime of hunting. At that time his built the St. James hunting lodge.
3. When Henry’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne in the late 1500’s – she would use the land for Royal pageantry, pomp and fete events that she was particularly fond of.
4. When James I was monarch (1603-1625) he did a lot of work to improve the drainage and landscape – and he designated the area a ‘Royal Park’.
James I also ordered the construction of 2 roadways to flank the Park – one roadway was what would later become ‘The Mall’ – and the other roadway was known as ‘Bird Cage Walk’, which was constructed specifically to act as a promenade for James I to display his collection of exotic birds.
At that time, it was not only birds that could be found on display in the area – the king also introduced animals such elephants, crocodiles and even camels – all of whom roamed freely throughout the parkland.
5. The site remained as a Royal Park when inherited by the next monarch Charles I (1625 – 1649)
He loved the place so much that when he was sentenced to be executed by Oliver Cromwell – it was his wish that he walk through the park one last time, when on his way to his execution site at Banqueting Hall in Whitehall.
6. Following Charles I execution Oliver Cromwell declared all the trees in the park to be accessible to the general public for them to cut down and used as firewood – and as a result, the entire area of the parkland fell into total disrepair and became just a baron wasteland, that then led to it becoming the most notorious red-light district of London.
The area was alleged to be the ‘home-turf’ of the infamous “Mohock” street gangs that roamed the streets of London throughout the early 1700’s – who would inflict gratuitous violence on innocent people – not for robbery, but simply for the pleasure of it. For example – the Mohock’s would hang out in St. James’s Park and would randomly select sedan chairs that were travelling along The Mall or Bird Cage Walk – and then ‘spear’ the passenger cabs with lances or swords, just for the pleasure of it.
The ‘Mohock’ gangs based themselves on the Mohawk Red Indians, who had recently been brought across to London from the ‘new world’, to be paraded before politicians and the gentry. (The story of the ‘Mohock’ gangs is a separate blog in its own right, which I will cover-off soon)
7. When Charles II (1660 – 1685) was brought back to be monarch from his exile in France, he decided to make some massive changes to the Park – which completely rejuvenated it – transforming it to very much what it looks like today.
He brought over technicians and designers from the Palace of Versailles, to completely re-landscape the area – creating new pathways and avenues, along with the planting of hundreds of new trees and shrubs.
He also ordered the lake area to be re-sculptured, so that it contained 2 islands – the West Island and Duck Island, and he also ordered the construction of the ‘Blue Bridge’ across the lake.
An addition to the varied waterfowl found on the lake, at that time, were ‘Pelicans’ that were given to the king as a present from Russia. The descendants to these original pelicans are still resident at the park to this day.
However, the most significant change Charles II introduced was to open the park up to the public – and it remains that way today.
8. Horse Guards Parade, (which flanks the park) has always been part of the park area – it was built during the reign of George II (1727 – 1760) – and has always been used for the pomp and regalia of the historical Trooping of the Colour.
9. In the early 1800’s the ‘Ornithological Society of London’ were commissioned to introduce more varied waterfowl from around the world – and a little cottage was erected right next to the lake, which housed full-time bird keepers.
This cottage remains today and is now Grade II listed protected.
10. Clarence House, (which also flanks the park) – was built in 1837 for the Duke of Clarence, who later became William IV.
For 50 years, Clarence House was the residence of the late Queen Elizabeth-the Queen Mother – and is currently the official residence of Charles & Camilla.
11. Today, St. James’s Park is surrounded by 3 ‘Palaces’ – (1) St. James’s Palace (2) Buckingham Palace & (3) The Palace of Westminster (e.g. the Houses of Parliament)
12. In 2011 a skeleton was found in the undergrowth on the lake’s West Island (spitting distance from Buckingham Palace). The body was identified as that of Robert Moore – an American with an uncomfortable obsession with Queen Elizabeth II. It was determined that Robert Moore’s body had been on this small island for some years, prior to its discovery.
During the time of my visit to St. James’s Park the weather was cold, damp and grey – typical for this time of year – however, despite this, the Park is and hopefully always will be a great place to go to spend a few enjoyable hours.
On my way back home I popped in to The Old Star pub, directly opposite St. James’s Park tube station – for a quick ‘cheeky’ beer.
This early 20th century pub building was once known as “The Cab House” because it was a well-known watering hole for the old hansom cab drivers. However, today it is known for its ‘fish & chip’ meals and real ale.
Hope you enjoy this little wander around St. James’s Park and its accompanying photos.