Between the neoclassical beauty of Buckingham Palace and the neo-Gothic spires of Westminster, it’s the Tudor spires of St James’s Palace that really stand out. With a gorgeous lake full of wildlife, St James’s Park is the patch of tranquillity that unites them all, just two minute’s walk from the chic suites of Hotel 41. Here, we take a look at the history behind its curves, and the centuries of love and care that have made it such a success-story.
Once little more than marshland (repeatedly flooded by the Tyburn stream), St James’s Park acquired its name from the leper hospital that once stood on its grounds. Still marshy when Henry VIII turned it into a deer park and built the palace, it wasn’t until the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I that the place was properly drained for ceremonial use. Later, it was Charles II who ensured the pretty park looks much as it does today thanks to his judicious designs, which involved planting trees, laying lawns and building paths.
One part that has dramatically changed since Charles’ day, however, is the Horse Guards Parade. Once belonging to a canal that ran through the park, it was filled in during the Hanoverian period and later redesigned (along with a lot of the park) by John Nash as a parade ground. Even today, it remains the official entrance to both St James’s and Buckingham Palace, hence the stationing of The Queen’s Life Guard. The Canal, meanwhile, found itself completely cut off and transformed into a lake.
For a while, it was a lake without too much life on it. Only Duck Island, built in 1665, boasted wildfowl alongside the pelicans that Charles II received from a Russian Ambassador (fed 2.30pm daily). That was until the Ornithological Society donated lots of birds in 1837 and erected a cottage for a bird-keeper to reside in.
Thankfully, nowadays the lake attracts lots of birds, from rare Tawny Owls to Great White Pelicans. No doubt they’ve flourished thanks to the feeding habits of passersby by, who’ve historically included countless monarchs.
A good tip is to explore the north part of the park on a Sunday. Traffic is banned along The Mall for 24 hours, making it perfect for a peaceful stroll. Then cross the Blue Bridge. Though no beauty itself, the views it offers of Buckingham Palace to the West and Big Ben (peeking over Whitehall) to the East fill many a photo album. When you’ve finished absorbing the beauty, there’s always the “Inn The Park” restaurant to enjoy. Built of a curved timber frame, with a turf roof, the restaurant’s menu uses ingredients plucked from the park where possible (like crab apples) and makes for the perfect place to rest weary legs.