“If you could only go to one London park, which would it be?” clients often ask. Well, it depends on my mood – they are all so different that each caters to different frames of mind.
St James’s Park tops my list because in a small space, the grounds offer a little bit of everything. While you won’t get the spectacular floral displays of Regents Park or the oh-so-royal tree avenues of Kensington Gardens, St James's offers small-scale perfection. Its 57 acres are easy to traverse in a short time span.
And then there’s location, location, location. St James's Park is smack in the middle of Westminster, where royal and government interests meet. So it’s a perfect place to combine a relaxing stroll in conjunction with visits to Westminster
Abbey, Churchill War Rooms, Palace of
Westminster, or even the shops of Piccadilly.
St James’s is arguably the most royal of the royal parks. In the 1500s it was surrounded by three palaces: St James; Buckingham and Whitehall. Whitehall burned down in 1698 but St James and Buckingham Palaces stand solid. You can’t help but feel giddy knowing that you are walking where kings and queens of the past have strolled. Henry VIII undoubtedly surveyed this land when he purchased it as fields to raise deer for hunting and his daughter, Elizabeth I, held extravagant royal fetes and banquets here. In the 1600s, James I tended his menagerie, including crocodiles and an elephant in this same space; and perhaps most famously, Charles I walked here on his way to his execution at Whitehall Palace in 1649.
EVERYDAY ROYAL PAGEANTRY
Even today, pomp and pageantry abounds. London’s only ceremonial route, The Mall, lines the north side. Grand parades pass here on special occasions like Commonwealth Day; the State Opening of Parliament and the Queen’s birthday celebrations. If you are here on the right day, there is a good chance you’ll see the Queen.
But it doesn’t have to be a special day. The Queen’s Cavalry parades along the Mall on their way to the guard change at Horse Guards every day. They march along the Mall towards Horse Guards at about 10:45 am (an hour earlier on Sundays) and return at about 11:30. I think this is even better than watching the formal ceremony of changing the guard because even if you know their timings, you still feel as if you just stumbled upon them. It shows how integral the pomp and ceremony is to British life.
You’re also surrounded by the Queen’s Guard when in St James Park. (These are the foot soldiers who guard the Queen’s palaces and wear red tunics and bearskin hats.) In normal times, the guard changes roughly every other day at Buckingham Palace (every day in summer). If you want to avoid the crowds, you can just stay in St James Park and you’ll hear the music if that day’s ceremony includes a band.
BIRDS, BIRDS, BIRDS
Birds are still an important part of life at St James Park. There are some 17 species of waterfowl living on Duck Island, located at the easternmost portion of the park opposite Horse Guards Parade. Most noticeable are the pelicans. Pelicans have been here since the reign of Charles II, who received three of these non-native birds from the Russian ambassador in 1664. Charles liked to sail his gondola – a gift from the Italian ambassador along the central canal, perhaps admiring his pelicans as he drifted.
Today there are six birds: three of whom arrived just a few years ago as a gift from the Prague Zoo. These incongruous birds are easy to spot. They love to sun themselves on Pelican Rock, on the south side of Duck Island. But they regularly venture onto land near the pedestrian paths on the south side to strut and pose for photos. You are very likely to see them each day between 2:30-3pm when they are fed outside of Duck Cottage.
PHOTO OPS ABOUND
About half-way along the waterway, is the Blue Bridge, one of the best locations in all of London for a photo of Buckingham Palace. Be sure to face the other direction as well, for there you will see the turrets and pinnacles of Horse Guards, along with the London Eye. From this vantage point the horizon looks like a fairytale setting and makes for a gorgeous photo. (Unfortunately at the moment, the view is slightly overshadowed by construction cranes but it is still picturesque.)