Friday, 19 January 2018

Sorry to report that I have hurt my ankle and will be off my feet for some time. This is the first time I've missed a visit to the park and a blog entry about it in almost six years. I've kept blogging with flu and with a broken shoulder, but not being able to walk more than a few yards is a definite stopper.

I hope to keep the blog going while I recover, with the help of readers and other friends. Please, if you have interesting news about the park or pictures of birds, not necessarily in the park, send them to me. I have set up a new email address for the purpose, Of course if you know my private address -- which I don't publish to avoid attracting spammers and crazies -- you can send them to that too.

Virginia has just come to my rescue with two fine pictures, one of a Cormorant attacking a Mute Swan on the raft at the east end of the Serpentine, where they both like to sit. It tried to push the swan out of the way but couldn't shift the heavy bird, so bit it instead.

The other is of the female Little Owl near the Albert Memorial looking out of her hole in the oak tree.

While I'm waiting for more contributions, I'll write about the Long Water and the Serpentine, which I have been walking around every day in rain and shine. This was a rainstorm in 2016, so heavy that even the swans were flattened.

They are in fact a single lake, and the fact that it has two names is a historical accident. Until the 16th century the area currently occupied by Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens was an estate called the Manor of Hyde, and it was the property of the monks of Westminster Abbey. In 1536, following his schism with the Catholic Church, King Henry VIII dissolved all the monasteries in England and Wales and seized their lands, a theft which brought him a huge amount of money that he promptly wasted on a pointless war with France. He turned the Manor of Hyde into a private park for himself, in which he could hunt deer. Traces of this use survive in the name Buck Hill, the hill at the north edge of the park just to the east of the lake.

At this time there was a small river flowing through the park from northwest to southeast. It didn't have a definite name: at its south end it was called the Bourne (which just means 'stream'), but where it flows through Bayswater it seems to have been called the Brook. This river still flows but is now paved over and mostly invisible.

In the 19th century a housing development was built north of the park and west of the river, so it was given the name Westbourne. This name has now been attached to the river istelf.

The source of the river is traditionally said to be the Whitestone Pond, oddly situated on top of the steep hill above Hampstead, the highest point in London, but actually it is probably a short way off in the Branch Hill Bowl. As it flows south it is joined by another river, the Kill Burn (which means 'stream stream' in the languages of successive inhabitants), after which the district of Kilburn is named. Where it flowed through the east end of Hyde Park it meandered over a flat valley floor, in which the monks had dug fishponds to provide their Friday meals.

Below Hyde Park the river flowed down what is now Kinnerton Street and the east side of Sloane Street. It crosses the platform of Sloane Square Underground station in a large square metal tube which you can see over your head, before flowing away through Chelsea and into the gardens of the Royal Hospital, finally discharging into the Thames through a large arch in the Embankment just upstream of Chelsea Bridge.

You can see more images of the Westbourne on the Londonist's excellent web site here. There is also an annotated Google map showing the course of the buried rivers of London north of the Thames here.

In 1688 the 'Glorious Revolution', a bloodless coup, deposed the last Stuart King, James II, and he was replaced by the joint monarchs King William III, brought over from the Netherlands, and his wife Queen Mary II, who was a Stuart and thus gave the throne some legitimate continuity. They didn't want to live in the old Whitehall Palace, a rambling and filthy warren associated with the old monarchy, so they had a new palace built at Kensington, then well outside London. They took the west part of Hyde Park as their private garden, which is why this area is still called Kensington Gardens. Hyde Park was open to the public, and was separated from the private park by a ha-ha (a sunken wall and ditch) running along the west edge of what is now the West Carriage Drive. Traces of this are still visible.

Later Kensington Gardens was revamped for Queen Caroline, wife of George II, for whom among other things the Queen's Temple was built. In 1727 work began on damming the Westbourne to make a lake to beautify the park. The dam was built at the east end of Hyde Park. Its middle section has been made to look like a little bridge, and the water flows out through the central arch.

The new lake drains over it to flow away through the Dell, in a little stream which is the only place where the Westbourne flows in the open before it vanishes underground again.

The upper part of the lake in Kensington Gardens was named the Long Water, and the lower part in Hyde Park was called the Serpentine, reflecting the theory of the artist William Hogarth that a curved 'serpentine line' was the most elegant shape. Not that the Serpentine is particularly curvaceous -- it's more of a slack L shape.

The Westbourne originally flowed into the Long Water through three stone arches faced with knapped flints. Here they are in a mid-19th century print.

The upper reaches of the Westbourne were still partly open at this time, and all kinds of rubbish and filth were thrown into it, so that it was very smelly and made the lake foul. Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert, fresh from his triumphant organisation of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, determined to remedy this, and had the river diverted around the north edge of the park in a pipe, no small undertaking as the pipe had to be dug into the steep upslope where Buck Hill meets the north edge of the park. A borehole was dug to provide the lake with clean water.

On the spot shown in the print above, he had the Italian Gardens constructed in 1860, with fountains of the newly clean water powered by a steam engine in the back of the loggia.

The three stone arches are still there, hard up against the north side of the loggia in the Italian Garden, but nothing flows through them now.

They are also echoed in the headdress of the river god of the Westbourne which forms the keystone of the central arch of the loggia. He looks miserable. His river has been taken away from him.

The pipe containing the Westbourne joins a tiny tributary stream at the north side of the park above the Ranger's Lodge, and the two flow underground together into the Serpentine near the island (which is an artificial island heaped up when the lake was created). This stream was called the Tyburn Brook. This is not the same as the larger Tyburn river which flows a mile to the east. In very wet weather the Tyburn Brook bursts out of its culvert and forms a small temporary lake in the Meadow, the part of the park west of the Parade Ground.

As the Westbourne flows out of the lake it goes down a waterfall, refinding its original level.

It turns south and leaves the park between what are now the French and Kuwaiti embassies. This is what it looked like in the early 19th century. In the background is Knight's Bridge, which originally was the only crossing of the river for some way in either direction. It was therefore a place where highwaymen lay in wait for travellers.

This is the same place today, with the river buried and the original crossing now the streeet called Knightsbridge, where the only highway robbery consists in the prices charged by the smart shops that line it.

Too much history -- let's have a video I shot a few days ago of a Robin singing in the Rose Garden .

I hope to have some more pictures of birds for you tomorrow.


  1. So sorry to hear of your misadventure Ralph. Here’s wishing you a speedy recovery .

  2. So very sorry to read that you've hurt yourself. The only important thing now is that you rest and heal. We'll try to do our part as best we can.

    Perhaps some of your previously unpublished pictures can be used as well? Or perhaps even reposts from the archives. There are so many wonderful pictures going six years back that may deserve to be brought to the fore again.

    The history lesson was excellent and very entertaining; I didn't know many things. I've only been once to the Park in my life, but reading about it daily for so long makes it feel more home to me than many of my local parks.

    1. Thank you both. Glad someone has managed to get to the end of the historical stuff.

  3. Whilst, of course, wishing you a very speedy recovery. I did enjoy the history lesson. Maybe, as you're recovering from your injury you could instruct us on the geography of the parks. I think I know where the "leaf yard" is, but would very much appreciate an annotated map delinated by your good self.

    1. Have never even tried to annotate a Google map, as those balloons are a poor way of conveying information. And there seem not to be any good existing drawn maps I could use as a starting point. Will see what I can find.

  4. Hope you get better soon Ralph. It has recently been bandied about that Whitestone Pond is the source of the Westbourne but this appears to be a misreading. The river rises not far off in the Branch Hill bowl. The overflow from the Whitestone Pond probably goes into a surface water sewer, if not it would likely just sink into the sand bed. Whitestone Pond was originally a dew pond hence its position at the summit of old roads. Jim.

  5. Sorry very sorry you have experience these illnesses. Please heal as soon as possible. Your days are so important and special for me. All best, best wishes,
    Sanderson Topham

  6. Very sorry to hear about your injury Ralph. It must be very frustrating not to be able to visit the park. I wish you a quick recovery! Africa

  7. Sorry to hear this Ralph, I wish you a speedy recovery!

  8. Get well soon! We will do our best to supply information in the meantime. I too support the idea of revisiting some of your favourite photos.

  9. Me too: gute & schnelle Besserung! And don't get too bored sitting at home.

  10. Replies
    1. Thank you all very much for your good wishes.

  11. I am sorry to hear the news Ralph and wish you a swift recovery.

  12. Very sorry to hear of your injury Ralph. how frustrating it must be for you? i hope it isnt too painful & you heal quickly. the history lesson the park & the westbourne is wonderful. the Westbourne is a very mysterious river. having lived in the Westbourne Grove area for three decades i never understand what the westbourne referred to was. now it's all becoming clear. but the concenpt of 'Westbourne Park' eludes me. there is nor ever has been such a thing as far as i know. it is a mythical place. maybe a properrty developer making things up as they do now? and the difference between Tyburn Brook & Tyburn River was helpful. it has always intrigued me why the little rd leading into Victoria Gate is called Brook St yet far away from Brook ST Mayfair.i like Tinuviel's idea of 're-issuing' some of the notable post of the past - unusual visitors and events maybe. if not i fear all of us may start to go slightly mad without our daily fix of Park Life. best of health. Mark W2

    1. Westbourne Park was the original name of the area now simply known as Westbourne. It was given this name to make the new development sound attractive, I suppose. There is a park of sorts, where the Harrow Road diverges from the Westway, but it's now called Westbourne Green. The buried river flows right through the middle of it.

      There are an Upbrook Mews and a Brook Mews on either side of Craven Road west of Paddington Station, and the flows along both of them. You can see the large circular cast-iron vents in the cobbled roadway, though they are now blocked with debris and you can't see the river below. As far as I know, the only place north of the park where you can see flowing water is in the car park at the back of the Soroptimists' club in the Bayswater Road just east of the Swan pub. Go up Elms Mews and look for the characteristic big cast-iron vent that differentiates a buried river from the ordinary drains, which have smaller vents.

  13. So sorry to hear about the ankle! Enjoyed the history lesson though and everyone's amazing photos.

    1. Pictures continue to come in from all kinds of people and places. It's been wonderful to see how readers have responded.