Tuesday, 3 September 2019

The Streets of Old Westminster: "Strange Woods:" - St James's Park & Buckingham Palace

A visitor to London, having walked along the Victoria Embankment, can walk along the northern side of Parliament Square, and cut through Great George Street into St James's Park. One of the many things that I love about living in London, in comparison with other great World cities, is the expanses of green space and mature trees to be found even at the heart of the metropolis. St James's is just one of the eight Royal Parks of London (though there are many other green spaces), and covers an area of almost 57 acres, with a stretch of fresh water running down its centre.

St James's Park, looking east towards Whitehall. Photo: Colin, licensed under CCA.

Originally an area of marshland, on either side of the River Tyburn (a left-bank tributary of the Thames, now almost completely invisible), the land was purchased by Henry VIII, and drained during the reign of James I. In James's time, it housed a menagerie, through which camel, crocodiles, and an elephant roamed. "Birdcage Walk," which runs along the southern edge of the park, is named for the aviaries that once lined its route. It was through St Jame's Park that his son, Charles I, too his last walk, from St James's Palace to his execution at Whitehall, guarded by Oliver Cromwell's soldiers.

When Charles II came to the throne in 1660, he had the park redesigned by the French landscape architect, Andre Mollet (a contemporary of the more famous, and more expensive, Andre Le Notre), with a canal at its centre. Charles was known to promenade his mistresses here, and it soon became the custom that favoured gentlemen of the court were given keys  to the park, so that they might use it for similar assignations. It was the Russian Ambassador to the court of Charles II who first presented pelicans to live in the park, and there are still pelicans there today, although they may not be descended from the original birds.

Mollet's original drawing of the layout of St James's Park (Image is in the Public Domain).

St James's Park in c 1680, reproduced by F.T. Smith in 1804 (Image is in the Public Domain).

The courtier, libertine, and poet, John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, summed up the park's Seventeenth Century reputation in his poem, "A Ramble in St James's Park:"

"Much wine had passed, with grave discourse
Of who f****s who, and who does worse
(Such as you usually do hear
from those that diet at The Bear),
When I, who still take care to see
Drunkenness relieved by lechery,
Went out into St James's Park
To cool my head and fire my heart.
But though St James has th'honour on't,
Tis consecrate to p***k and c**t.
There, by a most incestuous birth,
Strange woods spring from the teeming earth ...
...Each imitative branch does twine
In some loved fold of Aretine,
And nightly, now, beneath their shade
Are buggeries, rapes, and incests made ..."

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, by Peter Lely, c 1677. Photo: Victoria & Albert Museum 491-1882 (Image is in the Public Domain).

In the Eighteenth Century, the eastern end of the canal was filled in to make way for Horse Guards' Parade; and the entire park was redesigned by the architect, John Nash, in the Nineteenth - the straight canal became a more sinuous "lake," and an ornamental bridge was added. The bridge was in the Oriental style popular at the time, and had a pagoda at its centre, which burned down when a fireworks display, to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon, went catastrophically wrong. 

St James's Park, by Joseph Nickolls, 1771-72. Photo: Royal Collections Trust (Image is in the Public Domain).

The Pagoda and Bridge in Saint James's Park (Image is in the Public Domain).

St James's Park in 1833, by W. Schmollinger (Image is in the Public Domain).

The Ornithological Society of London endowed the park with a much wider assortment of exotic wildfowl, as can be seen today, and also built the Birdkeeper's Cottage, which still stands.

The Birdkeeper's Cottage. Photo: Peter K. Burton (licensed under CCA).

At the western end of the park, a series of opulent Seventeenth Century residences were replaced, in 1703, by a single estate, known as Buckingham House. This was bought by George III, in 1761, as a retreat for his Queen, Charlotte. When George IV ascended the throne, he employed John Nash to convert it into a palace worthy of a King. Nash's works included the Marble Arch, which was moved to its present location (where the Tyburn gallows had once stood) in 1847, to make way for a new East Wing to the Palace, which is the main facade presented to the public today.

Buckingham House in 1710 (Image is in the Public Domain).

Buckingham Palace in 1837, by John Woods (Image is in the Public Domain).

Buckingham Palace from St James's Park. Photo: Pointillist (Image is in the Public Domain).

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books may be purchased from Amazon.