Landscape History


Hyde Park - Park of pleasure

Hyde Park was created to satisfy a royal passion for hunting. But over the years it became a place where people have pursued many other pleasures.

Hyde Park - A map of Hyde Park 1746 showing the newly created Serpentine and the reservoir to the right. Courtesy of the Public Records Office.

Around the time of the Domesday Book, about 900 years ago, the area that became Hyde Park was part of the Manor of Eia and belonged to monks from Westminster Abbey. There were meadows dotted with trees. You would have seen roaming deer, boar and wild bulls. The Westbourne Stream, which now flows underground, crossed the area on its way between Hampstead and the Thames.

In 1536, King Henry VIII seized the manor from the monks. He sold some of the land but turned the rest into a vast hunting park that stretched from Kensington to Westminster.

Henry put a fence round his new park and dammed the Westbourne Stream to make drinking ponds for the deer. He organised royal hunts to entertain ambassadors and dignitaries. Visitors watched from grandstands then enjoyed great feasts in temporary banqueting houses. The hunting tradition continued with Queen Elizabeth I. She also reviewed her troops in Hyde Park on the parade ground - a flat area next to Park Lane.

Hyde Park - Engraving from 1772 'A Macarony taking his morning ride in Hyde Park'. Courtesy of Westminster City Archives

The appearance of the park remained very much the same until 1625 when Charles l became king. He created a circular track called the Ring where members of the royal court could drive their carriages. The park was opened to the public in 1637 and it soon became a fashionable place to visit, particularly on May Day.

During the civil war (1642-9), parliamentary troops built forts in the park. They dug defensive earthworks on the east side to help defend the city of Westminster from royalist attacks. And you can see evidence of the earthworks today in the raised bank next to Park Lane.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Hyde became a royal park again and the new King Charles II replaced the wooden fence with a brick wall. He restocked the park with deer and organised great carriage parades.

Bigger changes happened when William and Mary became king and queen in 1689. They bought Nottingham House on the western edge of the park. They renamed it Kensington Palace and made it their main home in London. To get from Kensington to Westminster, they created a processional route through Hyde Park. It was lit by 300 oil lamps and was the first road in England to be lit at night. The road was called route de roi or King's Road but the name became corrupted to Rotten Row.

Many of the striking features you see today in Hyde Park were created in the 18th century by a keen royal gardener, Queen Caroline. In 1728, she took almost 300 acres from Hyde Park to form Kensington Gardens and she separated the two parks with a long ditch or ha-ha. She also established a new landscape fashion. Queen Caroline made a large lake called the Serpentine by damming the Westbourne Stream. At that time, artificial lakes were usually long and straight. The Serpentine was one of the first created lakes in England that was designed to look natural. It was soon copied in parks and gardens all over the country. And it was the centrepiece of celebrations in 1814 for the British victory at the sea battle of Trafalgar.

Hyde Park - Decimus Burton's Triumphal Screen and The Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner 1857

Hyde Park remained the same for almost 100 years until the 1820s when King George IV ordered a makeover. He employed Decimus Burton to create a monumental entrance at Hyde Park Corner. It comprised the Triumphal Screen you can still see today and the Wellington Arch, which was later moved to the middle of roundabout at Hyde Park Corner. Burton also replaced the park's walls with railings and designed several new lodges and gates. At around the same time, John Rennie built a bridge across the Serpentine and Hyde Park was formally split from Kensington Gardens by a new road called West Carriage Drive.

Another upheaval came in 1851 when Joseph Paxton built his Crystal Palace alongside Rotten Row to house the Great Exhibition. But this time the change was temporary. The palace was moved piece by piece to Sydenham in south London when the exhibition closed. Some of Burton's lodges were later demolished and roads on the south edge were widened. More recently, in 2004, the memorial fountain to Diana, Princess of Wales, was built in the park. Apart from these changes, what you see in Hyde Park is largely how Decimus Burton left it.