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Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Travelling Suitcase: How I found peace in London’s St James Park

The oldest and most ornamental of Central London’s royal parks, it had been opened to the public by Charles II who would use it to entertain his guests and mistresses, most notably, the actress Nell Gwynn. It was at this time that the park also became notorious as a site of sexual assignations.

Written by Pooja Pillai | Updated: February 14, 2020 7:11:19 pm
St James Park lake, london Still Waters: St James Park lake in central London (Photo: Pooja Pillai)

The moorhen watched me with beady eyes as I sat on a bench, eating a sandwich and feeling a warm glow that was not entirely due to the glorious weather with which London had embraced me. Signs leading to the St James Park Lake had warned me not to feed the waterfowl, so I felt no twinges of conscience, even as the moorhen was joined by a friend, and the two proceeded to peck at the empty patch of stone near my feet, trying to guilt me into throwing them a few crumbs. But I was at peace with the world, having finally given up trying to justify to myself the decision to spend the bulk of my London week relaxing in St James Park.

It had been a struggle, though. When a trip to this city, my first, materialised in October 2018, I instantly prepared a long must-experience list which included visits to museums and art galleries, literary pilgrimages to Baker Street, Limehouse and Bloomsbury, eating in Soho’s trendiest restaurants and attending an Evensong service in at least one of the city’s historical cathedrals. Except for some museum and gallery-hopping and a stroll through Bloomsbury, I did nothing else. This was because I fell in love with St James Park. The park has a hectic – and fairly unsavoury – history. The oldest and most ornamental of Central London’s royal parks, St James Park had been created during the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547) by draining the marshland adjoining a leper hospital (which was replaced by St James Palace). Originally meant to be just a royal hunting ground for deer and duck, it became the site of fests and jousts under Elizabeth I (1533-1603). The park was landscaped in the highly formal French style during the reign of Charles II (1660-85), who had been impressed by the imperial gardens of Versailles. The more natural appearance of the park today owes itself to another makeover in 1828 by the leading architect of the time, John Nash.

St James Park had been opened to the public by Charles II who, according to diarist Samuel Pepys, would use it to entertain his guests and mistresses, most notably, the actress Nell Gwynn. It was at this time that the park also became notorious as a site of sexual assignations. This side of the park was immortalised in explicit verse by John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, as A Ramble in St. James Park (1672). Compared to this, the park’s most recent controversy – the eating of a moorhen by one of the resident pelicans – seems rather tame. Indeed, it’s hard to square the intrigue-filled park of Rochester’s poem with the tranquil space of today.

None of the parks that form Central London’s famous green lung had been on my radar when I arrived in the city, although I had, at least, heard of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. But St James Park, with its quiet charms, quickly became the nucleus around which my week in London formed. I’d spend every morning at a gallery or a museum, then head to St James Park at lunchtime, having picked up a sandwich along the way. I’d spend hours here, eating on a bench and then strolling around the lake. Sometimes, I’d stop to watch the waterfowl, or sit under a tree to read my book. I never spoke to anyone and no one spoke to me. It was the most peaceful I’ve felt in a busy city.

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