If you stand at the eastern end of the Serpentine in Hyde Park you will see an elegant memorial among the trees dedicated to Queen Caroline. Wife of George II, a powerful, beautiful and much-loved queen, her 18th century ideas have profoundly influenced what we see as Hyde Park today.
In 1728, with her gardener Charles Bridgeman and under the supervision of Charles Wither, Surveyor General of His Majesty’s Woods, she designed the layout of the lake we now know as the Serpentine. Its winding, naturalistic shape became a first in England, a precursor to the parks of Capability Brown. Before this, artificial lakes were designed along formal, Italianate principles, with straight lines and paved edges.
Queen Caroline’s grand plans included taking almost 300 acres from Hyde Park to form Kensington Gardens, separating the two parks with a long ditch or ha-ha. Her avenues of trees are still reflected in the park’s layout today.
Bridgeman created the Serpentine by damming the eastern outflow of the River Westbourne, which is a tributary of the Thames River. Once a series of monastery fishing ponds, 105 oaks, elms and willows were removed and the site further excavated to create the shape of the lake we know today. Since that time, the lake has become a focal point for many momentous occasions in London, from housing the 1851 Great Exhibition on its southern shore, to hosting the open water swim and triathlon during the 2012 Summer Olympics, and bringing Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Mastaba to the masses in 2018.
The name, Serpentine, actually only refers to the eastern half of the water body. The portion of the lake in Kensington Gardens is called Long Water.
Queen Caroline’s motivations for claiming 300 acres of Hyde Park to develop a more landscaped garden were a bit selfish. At the time, Hyde Park, a former hunting ground, was open to the public and she wanted to extend the ground around Kensington Palace and keep the public out. She created many of the beautiful features that now everyone can enjoy today, including the Round Pond and two summerhouses, one of which still stands today (the Queen’s Temple).
But Caroline was also known for her progressive political beliefs and was championed by the people. She politically supported Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first de facto prime minister, persuading her husband to keep him on. During George II’s four absences from the country during his reign, Caroline was appointed Regent, ruling in his absence – and many believed it was her who ruled even in his presence. She was greatly mourned on her death and the king refused to remarry, despite her deathbed request that he do so.
She was a remarkable woman who used her status to improve the lives of the British people, as well as leaving us with one of the most iconic views in London: the Serpentine.