Kensington Gardens began life as a King's playground but it was three royal women who created the elegant landscape we still enjoy today.
For over 100 years, the gardens were part of Hyde Park, Henry VIII's huge deer chase. But in 1689, the new King and Queen, William and Mary, took the first step to creating a separate park. They bought Nottingham House, on the western edge of Hyde Park, renamed it Kensington Palace and made it their main home in London. Queen Mary began to create a palace garden of formal flower beds and box hedges. The style was Dutch and designed to make William, who came from Holland, feel at home.
The garden got bigger when Mary's sister, Anne, became Queen in 1702. She took 30 acres from Hyde Park and asked her landscape designers, Henry Wise and George Loudon, to create an English-style garden. Anne also added the Orangery next the palace.
The diarist, John Evelyn, described the gardens as "very delicious". On September 2 1705 he wrote:
"I was able to go take the aire, as far as Kensington, where I saw that house... & the plantation about it, to my great admiration and Refreshment..."
The biggest changes came in 1728 when Queen Caroline, the wife of George II, began to transform Kensington Gardens into the park we know today. She took another 300 acres from Hyde Park and employed Charles Bridgeman to produce a new design.
The focus of the new garden was Kensington Palace and the Round Pond that Bridgeman dug in front of it. Avenues of trees radiated out from the pond like spokes on a wheel. Each avenue gave a different view of the palace. As the vista changed, you could catch a glimpse of classical-style buildings like the Queen's Temple.
Bridgeman and Queen Caroline also dammed the Westbourne Stream to create a natural-looking lake called the Long Water. And they made landscape history by using a ditch, rather than a fence, to separate Kensington Gardens from Hyde Park. The ditch became known as a ha-ha, (possibly because people were surprised when they came across it) and it was copied all over the country.
The gardens were open on Saturdays to anyone who was 'respectably dressed'. The main path, the Broad Walk, became as fashionable as the Mall in St James's Park had been during the reign of King Charles II.
But fashions are fickle and in 1837 Kensington Gardens lost its spot in the limelight when Queen Victoria moved the court to Buckingham Palace. Apparently, no-one felt that the gardens should be updated and only a few changes were made during the 19th and 20th centuries. Most of the ha-ha was filled in and West Carriage Drive became the new boundary of Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. The Italian Gardens were added in 1860 and in 1909 a new sunken garden was made outside Kensington Palace.
The gardens also became a place of remembrance. The spectacular Albert Memorial for Queen Victoria's husband is on the edge of the gardens. There are statues of John Hanning Speke, the explorer who discovered the Nile; Edward Jenner, who developed a vaccine for smallpox; and even Peter Pan. Most recently, in 2000, a children's playground opened in memory of Diana, Princess of Wales.