HAPPY NEW YEAR
GREEN PARK IS close to being a right-angled triangle in shape. Its longest edge is the southern side that runs along Constitution Hill and close to the grounds of Buckingham Palace. The next longest edge runs alongside Piccadilly, and the shortest, the eastern edge runs south east from the Ritz Hotel to The Mall. The park slopes downhill from Piccadilly, but not uniformly. The slope has undulations in the form of small hillocks, each a few feet high. Unlike many other Central London Parks, Green Park has no water features such as lakes or ponds, but this does not detract from its charm. Also, the park has no formal flower beds. One reason for this might be that:
“Rumour has it, back in the seventeenth century King Charles II’s wife demanded all the flowers be removed from The Green Park after she caught him picking flowers there for another woman.” (www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/green-park).
One of the attractions of the park for me is the line of buildings that face the Queens Walk, a pathway that runs along its eastern edge. But first, here is a little history.
In mediaeval times what is now Green Park was a swampy burial ground for lepers from the nearby St James Hospital. It was enclosed in the 16th century when it became part of the Poulteney Estate. Then and maybe earlier sand was excavated from the area for use in building materials. Maybe, these excavations account for the undulations and hillocks that characterise the park today. In 1668, the land now occupied by the park was surrendered to King Charles II, who:
“ …wanted to be able to walk all the way from Hyde Park to St James’s without leaving royal soil, so he acquired land between the two established parks, put a brick wall around it and called it Upper St James’s Park.” (www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/green-park/about-green-park/landscape-history).
The King also stocked deer in it.
In 1746, Upper St James’s Park was given its present name, Green Park. The Queen’s Walk (planted in 1730), of which I will write more shortly, was so named after the wife of George II, Queen Caroline (1683-1737), for whom the Serpentine lake was created in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. The walkway led from a reservoir called ‘The Queen’s Basin’ (created in the 1720s), which supplied water from Tyburn Pool to St James Palace and Buckingham House. Both the Basin and the Pool were demolished by 1855, as was Buckingham house. After its creation, The Queens Walk became highly fashionable, which is why it became lined with elegant mansions, some of which can be seen today. By 1826, when Green Park was opened to the public, many of the buildings, including a ‘Rangers House’ and a library, had already been demolished. The park (and its network of paths) as seen today was laid out afresh in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The western side of the Ritz Hotel overlooks the northern end of the Queens Walk and the nearby southern entrance to Green Park Underground Station. The hotel, opened in 1906 by the Swiss hotelier César Ritz (1850-1918), was designed in the French ‘Louis XVI’ style by Charles Mewès and Arthur Davis. If you cannot afford a hot beverage at the Ritz, help is at hand nearby in the form of an elegantly designed wood-clad park kiosk where decent coffee is available. Near this and facing the park entrance to the Underground station, there is a drinking fountain surmounted by a sculpture depicting the goddess Diana, naked with a hound. This was sculpted by Estcourt J Clack (1906-1973) and completed in about 1952. Until 2011 when it was moved to its present location, the statue and the fountain beneath it stood in the centre of the park. It was relocated to position it near the new entrance to the Underground Station, which was opened in 2011. While considering sculpture, there is an abstract work in the western half of the park, ‘Watering Holes’ created by Mark Titman and Robin Menotti Architects in 2012. It adorns a drinking fountain. Now, let us return to Queen’s Walk, but noticing on our way a pair of ornamental cast-iron gates on the park side of Piccadilly. These were made in about 1735 in the Palladian style for the now long-since demolished house at Turnham Green belonging to Lord Heathfield (1717-1790), Governor of Londonderry and then of Gibraltar. The gate’s stone piers are surmounted by sphinxes, similar to those found in many 18th century settings including the Robert Adam bridge at Compton Verney in Warwickshire. The gates arrived in their present position in 1921.
The Ritz towers above its southern neighbour, a brick-built house called Wimborne House as well as William Kent House. It was designed for Henry Pelham (1694-1754) by William Kent (1685-1748) and then after Kent died by Stephen Wright. The house is now part of the Ritz Hotel. It was completed in 1754. Pelham, a Whig, was Prime Minister from 1743 to 1754. Amongst his many achievements was the passing of the Jewish Naturalisation Act 1753, which permitted Jewish people to be naturalized by applying to Parliament. This was a step towards the emancipation of Jewish people in Britain.
A little way down the queens walk, the rear of the building housing the Royal Overseas League comes into sight. It is Vernon House with its street entrance on Park Place. Heavily modified, its basis was Rutland house built in 1735-36 to the design of James Gibb (1682-1754). One of its former residents was no stranger to being overseas. It was Lord William Bentinck (1774-1839), Governor-General of India from 1828 to 1835. Amongst his many actions in India were the abolition of sati (suicide of widows on the death of their husbands) and banning female infanticide.
After passing a narrow alleyway the leads to St James Place (see: https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2020/12/15/history-at-the-end-of-a-narrow-alley/), the garden facing façade of Spencer House can be admired. Its splendid neo-classical façade complete with pilasters topped with Doric capitals beneath a grand triangular pediment, is surmounted by three sculptures of human figures and two urns. Built between 1756 and 1766 for John Spencer, 1st Earl Spencer (1734-1783), its architects were a student of William Kent, John Vardy (1718-1756), and then James ‘Athenian’ Stuart (1713-1788), a Scottish archaeologist and architect. Spencer was a grandson of the First Duke of Marlborough. After gazing at this wonderful building, slip through a gateway and enter Cleveland Row that leads to Little St James’s Street.
The northern side of Cleveland Row is occupied by a large building, 9 Little St James’s Street, known as Bridgewater House, and built in the style of a Florentine palace in 1840 to the designs of Charles Barry (1795-1860) for the traveller and writer Francis Egerton, 1st Earl of Ellesmere (1800-1857), heir of the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, after whom Ellesmere Island is named. Since 1980, it has been owned by the Greek Latsis family, with whom my family have been friends since the mid-1960s. There are three brass bellpulls by the entrance on Little St James’s Street. One of them is labelled ‘coachman’, another ‘groom’, and a third ‘picture gallery’. The latter is a reminder that the building contained ‘Stafford Gallery’, which was formed by Marquess of Stafford to house a collection of paintings, his and his relatives’ possessions, now housed as the ‘Sutherland Loan’ in the National Gallery of Scotland.
Near Bridgewater House, you should look out for Selwyn House and Stornoway House, both of which have facades looking out on to Green Park. Selwyn House, built either in about 1897 or, according to the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, between 1850 and 1860, was designed by Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912) and built as a residence. It was the headquarters of the glassmakers Pilkington from the 1980s to 2010.
Stornoway House, with its lovely pediment decorated with vegetation sculpted in bas-relief, was designed by Samuel Wyatt (1737-1807), brother of the more widely known architect James Wyatt and an associate of Robert Adam. It was built between 1794 and 1796 for the Whig politician William Wyndham, Baron Grenville (1759-1834), Prime Minister from February 1806 until March 1807.
A private road, heavily guarded and leading to St James’s Palace, separates Stornoway House from its southern neighbour Lancaster House, an ochre-coloured Bath stone neo-classical edifice, that faces both Green Park and The Mall. Formerly known as ‘York House’ and then ‘Stafford House’, it was built between 1825 and 1840. Its architects included Robert Smirke, Dean Wyatt, and Charles Barry. Its first owner was King George II’s son Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (1763-1827). Next, it was owned by 2nd Marquess of Stafford (1758-1833), who became 1st Duke of Sutherland. The house gained its present name after it was bought in 1912 by the soap-maker William Hesketh Lever (1851-1925), who was born in Lancashire. Currently, the building is managed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and apart from being used for official functions it has also been used as a filming location in several films including one I particularly enjoyed, “The King’s Speech” that appeared in 2010.
After viewing the impressive mansions that line the Queen’s Walk, you could stare at Buckingham Palace (built from 1703 onwards), or, more interestingly, you could wander through the trees to the lovely and visually intriguing Canadian war memorial designed by the Canadian Pierre Granche (born 1948) and unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994. Not far from this and facing the Palace there is a stone gate pillar on which the word ‘Canada’ is carved, this is next to another one bearing the word ‘Newfoundland’. These pillars were erected in 1905 as part of a memorial to Queen Victoria, long before Newfoundland united with Canada in 1949.
I hope that what I have described has whet your appetite to visit what at first sight does not seem to be one of London’s more spectacular open spaces but, on closer examination, is very much in touch with history.