Kensington Gardens in London
Kensington Gardens is just your normal 260-acre royal backyard. Once restricted to royalty and then to the “respectably dressed,” Kensington Gardens is now open to all who want to stroll along its beautiful paths. Complete with a palace, an art gallery, and formal gardens, Kensington Gardens is the smarter-looking sibling to the larger and contiguous Hyde Park.
William III and Mary II acquired a private country house on the property in 1689. (William was an asthmatic, who needed fresher air than Whitehall could offer.) The royal couple commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to transform it into a palace. For the next 70 years—through the reign of George II—Britain’s monarchs called Kensington Palace home. The future Queen Victoria was born and grew up there.
If Hyde Park owes its preservation to the monarchy’s love of hunting, then Kensington Gardens owes its existence to another British trait—a passion for gardening. Queen Anne put in the Palace’s Orangery and also hired gardener and landscape architect Henry Wise to lay out the formal garden (Wise would later be named Royal Gardener).
Queen Caroline, wife of George II, would truly transform Kensington Gardens. Together with Charles Bridgeman, Wise’s protégé and the man who succeeded him as Royal Gardener, they dammed the Westbourne River to create the Serpentine Lake. Bridgeman also built the Round Pond and used trees and grand walkways to shape the focus of the gardens. The designs and handiwork of the Queen and her landscaper are enjoyed by all who stroll through the beautiful grounds, which became a public park in 1841.
Kensington Palace still contains royal apartments (Princess Diana lived there until her death in 1997), but half of the Palace is open to the public. Visitors can walk through the state rooms and view the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection. Audio guides, included in the ticket price, provide good commentary for these mostly unlabeled rooms.
The Orangery Café and Restaurant is a bit pricey,but how often can one say that one has had tea and scones in a royal greenhouse? Admission is free though to the nearby Serpentine Gallery, which displays modern and contemporary art. The Gallery is open daily.
J. M. Barrie, who lived nearby, was a regular visitor to Kensington Gardens. In 1912, Barrie secretly commissioned sculptor George Frampton to create a bronze statue of his best-loved character. To provide a little “magic,” the statue of Peter Pan was installed in Kensington Gardens in the dead of night. This little boy who wouldn’t grew up stands there still. Peter would no doubt enjoy the pirate ship that forms the centerpiece of the Diana Memorial Playground. Opened in June 2000, the playground has plenty of places to climb, hide, and romp around—just what may be needed by the younger set after a morning of sight-seeing.
While strolling through Kensington Gardens you may come upon these interesting and historic sites. The Italian Gardens—also known as the Italian Fountains and not far from the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens—were constructed under instruction from Prince Albert in 1860–61. A statue by the fountains of Edward Jenner, developer of the smallpox vaccine, was relocated here from Trafalgar Square.
Physical Energy, a sculpture by George Frederick Watts RA near the center of Kensington Gardens and visible from the Albert Memorial, is one of three castings. The other two are in Cape Town, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Watts, an important Victorian artist who has been called ‘the Victorian Michaelangelo’, was better known as a painter than a sculptor because he had an allergy to plaster.
Speke’s Monument is made from red granite quarried in Aberdeen, Scotland. The monument was designed by Philip Hardwick, R.A. and was erected in 1866.
John Hanning Speke was the first European to discover Lake Victoria-while on vacation with Richard Burton to East Africa in 1858. He confirmed its northern outlet as the source of the Nile on a subsequent journey with James Grant in 1862.
by Katie Calvert