skip to main content
The Royal Parks web site uses cookies. By browsing you are agreeing to our use of cookies. Read our cookie policy

As winter takes hold, the thought of spending time outside might be less appealing. But the bare trees give us a chance to notice things that may be overlooked when we are busy having picnics, soaking up the sunshine or admiring autumn leaves. Expanses of water welcome winter birds, attracted to the moderate weather of our temperate climate. And it is a good time to focus on the water itself.

Hyde Park has always been a green open space. Acquired by Henry VIII from the monks of Westminster during the 16th century, large parts of its 350 acres have never been built on and its water courses have provided an important water source for local people.

In modern Britain we take water for granted but still in much of the world the collection and purification of water is a necessity and takes up hours each day. And it used to be the same in London. Clean water was hard to come by, especially in a city, and water sources in open areas were highly valued in days gone by.

London's lost waterways

Two rivers once crossed the area now known as Hyde Park; the Westbourne and one of its tributaries, Tyburn Brook. Both have long since ceased to exist as rivers. People have stamped their mark on natural topography with public need and Royal plans creating what we know as the park today. But evidence of a different time is still visible, if you know where to look.

Today, the biggest water feature in Hyde Park is the Serpentine, a sinuous lake that snakes its way from west to east through the centre of the Park. West of the bridge at West Carriage Drive the lake is officially known as The Long Water but to most it is known just as the Serpentine. This large body of water is not natural but a creation of Queen Caroline and her gardener Charles Bridgeman between the years of 1726 and 1730.

Course of the Westbourne River c.1790

The Serpentine at dawn, 2013

The creation of a new lake

Formerly a series of monastic ponds, providing water and fish for the monks of Westminster, Caroline felled trees and dug out the water course to create the lake as we know it today. It was a revolutionary, naturalistic design predating the more famous gardens of Capability Brown. Previously, artificial lakes on aristocratic property were almost always built in a formal Italianate style of straight lines and right angles. Over the years the lake has been edged and its banks paved but it still follows the shape created by Queen Caroline’s design almost three hundred years ago.

Nowadays in winter the Serpentine is full of birds. In days gone by when winters were colder and health and safety regulations were fewer, the lake would be packed with ice skaters. Roast chestnut sellers and other purveyors of hot refreshments were dotted along the shore and the park would be full of people enjoying some winter sport. It was popular to skate at night or after dark in the afternoon. Skaters would carry flaming torches to light their way and it must have been quite a spectacle There were accidents too when the ice broke and police patrolled the ice to try and keep everyone safe. January 1940 was the coldest month on record since 1895 and once again people flocked to the ice for some respite from the war. The photograph below shows skaters taking part in a production called The Ballet of Youth. It was taken for the Daily Herald by one of the Saidman brothers. Nowadays in winter the Serpentine is far more likely to be full of birds than skaters. But every winter there are still usually a few days when it freezes.

Ice skating on The Serpentine

By the second half of the 18th century summer bathers and winter skaters could be counted in the hundreds of thousands and accidents were common. Most people could not swim and drownings were not unknown. This led to the establishment of a receiving house on the north bank of the Serpentine, built in 1794 on land granted to the Royal Humane Society by King George III.

The receiving house was essentially a hospital, treating people rescued from the lake. The Society employed men who were good swimmers to rescue those in trouble and there was one reported incident when 25 people were submerged after ice broke while they were skating and all were rescued. Nothing remains of the building today but the boat houses on the edge of the Serpentine near Bird Island are reminders of its existence. Houses similar to these were there to receive the bodies of drowning victims and those rescued so that they could be offloaded from boats with dignity.

Royal Humane Society receiving house, north bank of the Serpentine, 1844

Medieval beginnings

The story of water in Hyde Park goes back much further than that and predates the existence of the Serpentine. At the northern end of Dell Bridge (essentially the lake’s dam wall) is located a small monument marking the spot of a conduit house. These were medieval structures built over water sources to cover collecting and settling tanks, keeping the water clean and pure. An unassuming urn on a plinth, the monument marks the spot where a conduit house covered a spring which fed water through a series of elm pipes and channels to Westminster Palace. The water supply was granted to the Abbey of Westminster with the Manor of Hyde by King Edward the Confessor who ruled between 1042 and 1066. The license was renewed over the centuries but in 1861 the conduit was cut during drainage works for the burgeoning railway system. The memorial was erected in 1868.

Pieces of the ancient pipework were unearthed during construction of a car park in 1972 for Members of Parliament, evidence that the system stretched all the way to Westminster.

Let’s return to those two rivers. Tyburn Brook is often confused with the Tyburn River, a much larger watercourse that ran further east through Marylebone and Victoria before reaching the Thames.

Despite its smaller size, the brook seems to have lent its name to the junction of two major Roman roads that once intersected at what is now Marble Arch. Here also was once located the infamous Tyburn Tree, a gallows large enough to hang 18 people at once. The first recorded public hanging was in 1196 from a tree on the banks of the Tyburn. And the Brook, although long gone, is immortalised in the poet William Blake’s Jerusalem.

They groan’d aloud on London Stone,

They groan’s aloud on Tyburn’s Brook:

Albion gave his deadly groan,

And all the Atlantic mountains shook.

The Rangers House, Hyde Park, 1823

Hidden history

Tyburn Brook may have disappeared entirely but there is still a secret place where what remains of the Westbourne can tantalisingly be heard, if not seen. This river used to form the watercourse that led to the creation of the Serpentine and can clearly be seen on the 1790 map above. Rising in Hampstead, it flowed south before entering Hyde Park at what is now Bayswater then left at the southeast edge at Knightsbridge, formerly known as Knights’ Bridge – the point where the Knights of Westminster crossed the Westbourne.

By the mid 19th century the Westbourne had become a fetid sewer as new-fangled water cleared toilets drained directly into the river. Far from being a source of fresh, clean water it now brought disease and a foul smell so was culverted and diverted underground. And it remains so today. Behind the small cottage that is Serpentine Lodge there is a grille nestling in the grass and if you kneel down and put your ear to it the flow of water can still be heard. This is the Ranelagh Storm Relief Sewer into which the Westbourne was diverted. After heavy rain you may even catch a glimpse of it if the sun is shining from above. Or drop a stone and listen for the splash – it’s a long way down!

After leaving the park on its journey to the Thames, the Westbourne flows south through the Ranelagh sewer and even passes over the platform at Sloane Square underground station in a pipe running through old cast iron housing.

Children listening to the Westbourne

Ranelagh sewer, constructed 1860-1862

The Victorian sanitation revolution

From the mid 19th century calls became more frequent for the draining and cleaning of the Serpentine itself. In the summer months thousands of people would use it daily as the nearest water in which to wash themselves and their clothes. Parliament was petitioned to do something about the foul smelling and dangerous water and a letter to The Times, June 28, 1848 included the following description:

At the present time the Serpentine is truly a water-hole - a stagnant pond - the recipient of delinquent or unfortunate dogs and cats - the outlet for much other indescribable filth, and the reservoir of sickening and putrefying fish…… London, the first city in the world, has one bath - a stagnant pool - the receptacle of extensive sewerage - the grave of every unnecessary domestic quadruped - the nucleus of malaria - the disgrace of this vast metropolis.

Victorian technology gradually caught up with the increasing need for better sanitation and drainage by the fast-growing London population. The Serpentine was gradually cleaned up by draining it and removing the accumulated debris, and by changing the source of its water. As the availability of clean running water was increased around the city so the need for a large body of public water decreased.

By the end early 20th century the lake was largely used for pleasure and recreation and in 1930 the lido opened as a swimming pool. It is still open today and famously hosts the annual Christmas Day swim when members of the Serpentine Swimming Club compete for the Peter Pan Cup by swimming 100 yards. They will even crack the ice to go for a chilly dip!

Heading underground

The Westbourne ceased to be the source of water for the Serpentine in 1834 when it was diverted underground and became a sewer. For a time water was pumped from the Thames but nowadays the lake is fed by three boreholes in Hyde Park, the latest created to provide clean water for the Diana Memorial Fountain located on the south bank of the Serpentine just west of the Lido.

Subterranean water in Hyde Park is not restricted to rivers. Beneath The LookOut, which houses the Discovery Centre, there is a Victorian reservoir built in 1882 with impressive vaulted brickwork similar to that found below the Albert Memorial. Great chunks of iron work from the original valves van still be seen in the LookOut’s garden.

There are records of water on this site back to the time of Charles II and it is from here that water was historically pumped to St James’s Park and the Buckingham Palace gardens. Nowadays the water is still used to flush the LookOut and public toilets, irrigate the gardens and to keep the centre’s pond topped up. It is also used to irrigate the new turf laid most years after the sparkle and lights of Winter Wonderland have left for another year. The reservoir itself is now supplied by borehole water piped all the way from south of the Serpentine and from near the Italian Gardens in Kensington Gardens. Like something from a television detective series, during the 1980s and 1990s the underground and pitch black waters were also used to train police divers.

Reservoir beneath Hyde Park’s LookOut. Picture taken when empty during its last restoration. Usual water level is clearly visible on pillars

Victorian brickwork of a water closet, or WC, from the world’s first paying flush toilets at the Great Exhibition of 1851

With all this talk of sewers and drains there is one other recent discovery that deserves a mention. While new drainage was being done on the south sports pitches, excavations unearthed the remains of a Victorian water closet or WC. It is believed to be one constructed for workers during the building of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851, as it is situated just outside the exhibition site. It is very similar to the toilets installed for the millions of visitors to the Crystal Palace and these were the world’s first paying flush public toilets. The entry fee was one penny and led to the phrase ‘spend a penny’ being used as a euphemism for going to the toilet! For their penny visitors could experience a clean toilet seat, a flushing toilet, a towel, a comb and shoe shine. Records show that 675,000 pennies were spent. When the exhibition finished the toilets were due to be closed down but their inventor, Brighton plumber George Jennings, persuaded the organisers to keep them open. They ended up making over £1000 a year - the equivalent of 250 000 visits to the toilet.

Wildlife among the reeds

But let’s end on something a bit less lavatorial. The edges of the Serpentine are now dotted with reed beds, planted to help with water filtration and to provide a better habitat for wildlife. In the cold winter of 2012-2013 not long after the first reeds were planted two female bearded tits chose to spend the freeze in Hyde Park. It just goes to show that if the habitat is there, the wildlife will come. Bearded tits had never before been recording wintering in central London but they found enough seeds to sustain them in a small reed bed on the banks of the Serpentine. The planting of reeds has continued and along certain stretches of the lake a far more naturalistic shore line is encouraging water birds to breeds and giving their young shelter from the hungry gulls and other predators.

Female bearded tit on Hyde Park reed bed, winter 2012

Winter is a wonderful time to admire the beauty of bare branches against a wintry sky, or sheets of ice forming on a frozen lake. Try not to let the short days and colder temperatures put you off - a stroll in your local park can help beat the winter blues.

Support the Parks

We believe access to open green space is more important than ever, especially in cities like ours. It costs tens of millions of pounds every year to care for these beautiful and historic parks, and the impact of Covid has hit the charity hard as we face a significant drop in income.

If you value your Royal Parks, please consider making a gift. It will make all the difference to their future.

Donate to The Royal Parks

Help us improve our website by providing your feedback.