Wednesday 31 January 2024

The Westminster conduit

The Coal Tit in the yew tree at the bridge stayed still for long enough to be photographed. This only happens occasionally.

The Robin perched on a spike at the railings as Great Tits flocked down for pine nuts.

It will come to the hand in due course, after seeing their example. There is no way to encourage it, it needs to make up its own mind. But once a Robin has attached itself to you it's unstoppable, like the Robin in the Flower Walk who now thinks of me as an all-you-can-eat buffet. The Chaffinch here is equally demanding and follows me for hundreds of yards expecting pine nuts to be thrown into the air for him to catch.

On cold days fifteen or twenty Great Tits collect in bushes in the Flower Walk to be fed -- you can't count them as they constantly come back for more.

The Rose-Ringed Parakeets which now infest the Flower Walk thanks to ignorant feeders have not yet stripped the myrtle bush of fruit as you might expect. I think they find the flavour too astringent and really want incautious humans to give them something tastier.

Starlings also flock in when they see any other bird being fed. They are genuinely native, beautiful and in decline nationally as the countryside is more and more poisoned by agricultural chemicals, but feeding them is a mistake as they will never leave you alone if you give in to their demands. They are perfectly able to look after themselves. Here is one hunting wireworms in the grass at the leaf yard.

A Carrion Crow on the Parade Ground was hauling bits of loose turf around to check if there were any worms in them.

There are still only a few distant Redwings here.

A Wood Pigeon flew into the arbutus tree in the Dell to see if there was any fruit left.

There wasn't. It went down to the stream and washed its face for no particular reason. It wasn't drinking, something that all pigeons can do with greater ease than other birds, I think by rolling up their tongue and pressing it against their bill to make a kind of drinking straw. Most birds drink by taking a beakful of water and tossing their head back to swallow it.

The male Peregrine was on the tower. His mate flew in to join him.

The Black-Headed Gull at the landing stage was back at his post in undisputed ownership of his territory.

The Black Swan had made a brief expedition to the Serpentine and may have had another run-in with the killer Mute Swan, as today he was back on the Round Pond. Someone was feeding the swans and he barged his way to the front as usual. Virginia tells me that he's broken up with his girlfriend.

A squirrel poked around in the sprouting daffodils along the edge of the Serpentine Road. Squirrels eat bulbs but dislike daffodil bulbs, so it would have been looking for something more appetising.

However, only one kind of bulb is planted here, a hundred thousand of them put in by schoolchildren a few years ago. These are not yet in bloom, but there is a large patch of a different variety flowering beside Rotten Row.

Mention of the swampy patch east of the Dell yesterday started a train of thought. There seems to be no reason why this area, which is halfway down a shallow slope, should be so wet. But it is on the course of the old water conduit to Westminster, and the remains of this might be causing the upwelling of water.

The conduit ran from a spring at the north end of the Dell and led down to Westminster Abbey. This spring emerged considerably higher than the old course of the Westbourne river as it crossed what is now the southeast corner of the Serpentine and ran away through the area now called Belgravia. The pipe carrying the water would have been made from the trunks of elm trees hollowed out and fitted together with the top of one trunk inserted into the bottom of another and the joint sealed with pitch. The joints would not have been able to resist pressure, so the conduit would have had to have a steady continuous downslope. Here is a view from the site of the spring down the hill towards Westminster. The waterlogged lawn is in the background beyond the two people on the path.

The urn in this picture is a memorial to the old conduit. A bronze notice on the west side of its plinth gives some information. Until 1536 the area that is now Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens was the Manor of Hyde, farmland belonging to the monks of Westminster Abbey. In that year it was stolen by King Henry -- the wonderfully respectful word on the plaque is 'resumed' -- when he dissolved the monasteries in a fit of pique and greed after the Pope wouldn't annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

There is another notice incised into the stone on the east side of the plinth. It is now badly eroded and the last line is completely gone, but the rest of it can just be read:

On this site stood a Conduit House which supplied the Precinct of Westminster with water till the spring was cut off by drainage in 1861. The building was removed in 1868 and this memorial erected in 1870 to mark the place where it stood ...

Evidently the spring was from an aquifer running down what is now the Parade Ground from the general area of Marble Arch. There is now an underground reservoir on the western edge of the Parade Ground under the public lavatories, probably filled from the same source, but it seems that some water is still getting through beyond that.

I can't find any illustration of the old Conduit House. But here is a view drawn around 1660 by the great topographical artist Wenceslaus Hollar of the lower end of the conduit, with another little house probably covering some kind of sluice. St James's Palace is on the right and Westminster Abbey on the left.


  1. For me, feeding the starlings is one of the best parts of a visit to The Gardens :)

  2. On Tuesday afternoon I saw the black swan following a mute swan up the Serpentine, under the bridge and on to the Long Water opposite the Henry Moore statue - no sign of any other swans in the area at that time. Shortly afterwards the mute swan took off and flew towards the Italian Gardens. It turned round, flew a complete circuit of the Long Water/Serpentine and then headed off towards the Round Pond. All the while the black swan was calling out and watching for the mute swan's return. I felt very sorry for it.
    SueT (W2)

  3. An interesting take on the Wood Pigeons drinking technique. I have also wondered to how and why they differ to other birds on this. They can be looked down upon at times, but there is more to them than meets the eye. Unlike the Feral's.

  4. Hello Ralph... the Black Swan was on thr Serpentine yesterday on its own so we hoped that it was temporarily separated from its female. Today he was back at the Round Pond reunited with her....shoeing all the early courting signs with lots of his unmistakable foghorn sounds!

  5. Sorry spelling errors! Not shoeing but showing...

  6. Thank you for the history of the conduit - very interesting

    1. Wish I could have found a picture of the old Conduit House. It must have been illustrated somewhere, perhaps even photographed.

  7. You could become the Park's official historian. I very much doubt there is anyone else in GB who knows more of its buildings, plan and features than you do. The breath of your knowledge is astonishing.

  8. Watt an interesting post. I wonder if that water was drunk without further treatment or whether it was always made into small beer (see Pepys) beautiful photo of starlings

    1. I suppose there will always have been poor people who didn't have the domestic arrangements for brewing small beer, and had to drink the water as it came. But actually it looks as if this conduit supplied pretty good water, from an aquifer safelyout of the city straight into the pipe, and also that it supplied it to the privileged few at the rich abbey of Westminster. Ordinary inhabitants will have depended on wells, maybe quite polluted.