As flagged up in the last post, we’re now finally done with the City of London so for a complete change of scene we switch back over to the west side of our target area and swap the skyscrapers, livery halls and 17th century churches for green expanses, embassies and temples of consumerist excess. Starting out from Hyde Park Corner today’s walk takes us on a circuit of the south-eastern corner of the park before heading down through Knightsbridge to Belgravia and back.
We enter the park through Apsley Gate, built in 1826-29 from Portland stone and designed by a then 25 year old Decimus Burton (who, if we assume the Jacob Rees-Mogg scoring system must have been at least the tenth child to emerge from his poor mother). We then head north up Lovers Walk which takes us almost immediately past the statue of Achilles. This was installed in 1822 by order of King George III in commemoration of the Duke of Wellington and was made using 33 tonnes of bronze from captured French cannons. Initially the statue was fully nude but a public outcry soon led to the addition of a strategic fig leaf. A short way further on is the memorial to the victims of the 7 July 2005 London bombings, comprised of 52 stainless steel stelae each representing one of those who died. At the Joy of Life fountain (which was the southernmost point of our previous foray into Hyde Park, what seems like eons ago now) we about-face and head back down Broad Walk. What struck me most about the park on this visit was the sheer number of squirrels around; they were always fairly plentiful but these days they’re giving the pigeons a run for their money in the proliferation stakes.
At the end of Broad Walk we turn right along Serpentine Road past the bandstand which has stood on the north side here since 1886 when it was relocated from Kensington Gardens seventeen years after it was built. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers’s performance of “Isn’t it a Lovely Day to be Caught in the Rain” from the 1935 film Top Hat was supposedly set on the Hyde Park bandstand but, sadly, was actually filmed on a soundstage at RKO’s Hollywood studios.
The Serpentine lake in Hyde Park, 11.34 hectares in size, was created in 1727-31 at the instigation of Queen Caroline, wife of George II. It was formed by damming the Westbourne stream and was one of the first artificial lakes allowed to settle into a natural shape. There is a small memorial to Caroline at the eastern end of the lake that was unveiled by HM in 1990. The Serpentine is a big magnet for wildfowl and for visitors willing to feed them. On the other side of the path running along the eastern edge of the lake is another small monument, erected in 1870, with a plaque the first line of which reads “A supply of water by conduit from this spot was granted to the Abbey of Westminster with the Manor of Hyde by King Edward the Confessor.” The spring this refers to supplied water to the precincts of Westminster until it was cut off by drainage work in 1861.
Skirting the eastern end of the Serpentine takes us down onto Rotten Row which is a corruption of the French ‘Route de Roi’. After just a few yards we head off the road up by the side of the small garden known as the Dell and continue east through the Holocaust Memorial Garden to the Rose Garden. The Rose Garden incorporates two fountains : one with a statue of Diana the Huntress which was sculpted by (the wonderfully-named) Lady Feodora Gleichen in 1899 and the other dating from 1862 with a statue of a Boy and Dolphin by Alexander Munro. En route to the garden we pass a strange looking tree populated by a flock of the much maligned Green Parakeets. Somewhat lazily I was just going to refer to this as a runner bean tree (for obvious reasons) but having bothered to look it up I find it’s called an Indian Bean Tree (though it originates from the US). I like to think it’s related to the runner bean plant anyway; and if I had an allotment I’d stick one of these in there just to freak out the neighbours.
On reaching the end of Rotten Row we turn west again and follow South Carriage Drive down to Albert Gate. This short stretch of road leading onto Knightsbridge houses two embassies; France on the east side and Kuwait on the west.
On Knightsbridge itself we turn right and pass in front of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The building was originally constructed in 1889 as an exclusive ‘Gentleman’s Club’ and was the tallest building in the capital, outraging local residents who petitioned unsuccessfully to have the number of floors reduced. Ten years after it opened a fire caused extensive damage and following restoration it re-opened in 1902 as the Hyde Park Hotel, considered the grandest in London at the time. Tradition has it that Queen Victoria wouldn’t allow any form of advertising within the Park, and therefore insisted that the main entrance, with the hotel’s name above it, be moved from the Park side to Knightsbridge. As a corollary she decreed that the original entrance be preserved for Royal use, unless permission is otherwise granted by the Royal Household, a practice which has been upheld ever since. The Mandarin Oriental Group took over the property in 1996 and gave it a £57m makeover.
Across the road is Harvey Nichols which traces its origins back to 1831 when one Benjamin Harvey opened a linen shop in a terraced house on this corner of Knightsbridge and Sloane Street. Over the next ten years it expanded into several adjoining properties and during this time James Nichols joined the business and eventually married Harvey’s niece. When Harvey died in 1850 his wife, Anne, went into partnership with Nichols and Harvey Nichols was formed. In 1889, by which time the Harveys’ son Benjamin Charles was the sole remaining partner, the block was demolished and a new purpose-built department store built over the next five years to the design of architect, CQ Stephens. In 1985 Harvey Nic’s was bought by the Burton Group who sold it six years later to Hong Kong magnate, Dickson Poon, who in turn floated it on the Stock Exchange after a further five years. I ventured in and had a look around for the first time in a very long while; Menswear is stuck down in the basement then it’s three floors of Ladies’ fashion and ‘beauty’ products before Homeware on Level 4 and the Café and Foodmarket on 5. Wasn’t especially busy but then I guess even round here there’s a ceiling on the number of women prepared to pay £250 for a pair of jeans that are not so much distressed as given the full Psycho shower-scene treatment.
We turn the corner into Sloane Street and almost immediately fork off right into Basil Street. At no.16 is the former Knightsbridge Fire Station which closed up in 2014 after 107 years of service and is now of course undergoing conversion into luxury residences.
Beyond the ex-Fire Station we veer left down Pavilion Road then fork right into Herbert Crescent before continuing south round Hans Place into Hans Street.
Turn east briefly then head north again up Sloane Street. A short way up on the west side is the Danish Embassy and the kindest description I can find for this building is “jarringly modernist”.
Three doors further up, at no.52, the Peruvian Embassy has a rather more typical home.
On its own website Sloane Street describes itself as being “internationally recognised as one of the world’s most exclusive and luxurious shopping destinations.” Difficult to argue with that based on the sheer number of brand names lining either side of the road – from Armani to Versace via Dior, Gucci and Prada (to name but a handful). Makes Bond Street seem almost low rent.
Half way up this parade of glamorous excess we turn off to the right down Harriet Street and then follow Harriet Walk round to the bottom of Seville Street. After a quick visit to the latter we head south round the western side of Lowndes Square then circle round to return north up the east side. This brings us face to face with the brutalist monstrosity that is the Park Tower Hotel. Still it’s what’s on the inside that counts we’re always told and this inside will still set you back £300+ a night.
William Street takes us back up to Knightsbridge where we turn eastward as far as Wilton Place. Go south for about 50m then head west into Kinnerton Street which quickly switches direction to continue southward. This is more of a mews than a street and has tried to cultivate a sort of urban village vibe (which makes a pleasant contrast to some of its neighbours) with a couple of bijou pubs and even a village store.
Kinnerton Street ends at Motcomb Street where a right turn takes us past what is almost certainly the poshest Waitrose in the country (if that’s not a tautology).
Continue west into Lowndes Street then venture south on Cadogan Place, east on Pont Street and north on another stretch of Lowndes Street. At the top we turn back east onto West Halkin Street before heading south down Belgrave Mews West. This takes us past the back of the Austrian Embassy and through the middle of the complex of old and new that is the German Embassy. This is the new bit which fronts onto Chesham Place.
The Embassy of Finland is opposite and Spain is on the corner with Belgrave Square.
Belgrave Square was created in the 1820’s for the 2nd Earl Grosvenor, later the Marquess of Westminster. The communal garden (from which the public are naturally excluded) is 2 hectares in size and has a Grade II listing in The Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. In the south western corner of the square is a bronze statue of Christopher Columbus, sculpted in 1992 and gifted by the people of Spain (yes every single one of them).
We’ve only time to visit the west side of the square this time out and we’ve already noted that the Spanish Embassy is at no.24 and the German at 21-23. The Austrians have had their embassy at no.18 since 1866 when it was actually attributable to the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Foreign Service.
Turning the corner at the top of the square we pass by the Embassy of Portugal before heading up Wilton Terrace.
In Wilton Terrace we have the first blue plaque we’ve come across in quite a while – commemorating the residence of Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma (1900 – 1979). Earl Mountbatten (born Prince Louis of Battenberg) was an uncle of Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth’s second cousin once removed. During the Second World War he was Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia Command. In 1947 he became the last Viceroy of India and from 1954 to 59 he served as First Sea Lord of the Admiralty. It is particularly sad therefore that for those of my generation he will probably always be best remembered for the manner of his death – blown up by a Provisional IRA bomb planted in his fishing boat in County Sligo, Ireland.
Well we’re just about at the end for today and we haven’t had a church yet so for those of you suffering withdrawal symptoms we’re going to finish at St Paul’s Church which we reach by cutting across Wilton Crescent and circling back up into Wilton Place. St Paul’s was consecrated in 1843 and was the first church in London to adopt the principles of the Oxford Movement, the so-called ‘Tractarians’ who wished to restore a sense of Catholic order and spirituality to the Anglican church. Accordingly the building is far more elaborately decorated and replete with Christian imagery and symbolism than your average C of E parish church. Perhaps unsurprising therefore that former-Catholic, the Revered Richard Coles (of the Communards, Radio 4 and now Strictly Come Dancing fame) was curate here in the mid-2000’s.