Friday, April 27, 2012

Things You Don't Expect to See in Hyde Park

After penning more than 20 books set in early nineteenth century England, I can safely say that I’ve written about Hyde Park more than the average person. I’ve described riding scenes, walking scenes, and scenes in carriages. I’ve covered shivering in February and fluttering of fans in June. I’ve spun the tale of that favored time, two to five in the afternoon, when pedestrians, equipages, and riders thronged the park. And for this blog, we’ve shared military spectacles and mentioned balloon ascensions. So recently, when faced with writing another scene in Hyde Park, I wanted to do something different. Naturally, I decided to do some research. (Oh, lovely, lovely research!) That research confirmed the favored time (particularly on Sunday, apparently) and the various paths I’ve written about so many times: the sandy riding track that was Rotten Row, the pebbled paths around the glittering waters of the Serpentine, the longer amble across the lawns toward Kensington Palace. However, I discovered a few things I didn’t expect to find in Hyde Park.
  • Cheesecake: Apparently eating cheesecake in Hyde Park has been a treat since the time of Elizabeth I. The main location to purchase it was a little house near the Serpentine. You’d buy a bit for you and your sweetie and either sit and munch while watching the crowds stroll by or take it with you on your own stroll or drive.
  • Ancient glory, gone to seed: In the 1600s and 1700s, the aristocracy still thronged Hyde Park, but their favorite location was “The Ring,” a circle of track surrounded by tall elm trees. Compared with the stretches of ground used in the 1800s, the place was tiny. Not surprisingly, one of the ladies who frequented it called it a “dry, dusty horse circle.” Picture those horsey rides at state fairs, where the ponies plod in circles, and you won’t be far off, except the vehicles carrying the riders would have been far more gilded. Early mornings, the Ring was also the favored place for duels. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the stately elms, some as old as 300 years, had mostly been cut down and burned, the track grassed over. But as late as 1837 people still pointed it out as they drove through the park.
  • Reservoir: Near Park Lane, the Chelsea Water Works erected a stone basin with a diameter for 200 feet. The water, pumped from the Thames, helped supply Kensington Palace. The reservoir must have presented a lovely site, situated in the center of a grand Walnut-Walk, now also gone. However, it was capped with Portland stone to prevent suicides. Ug!
  • Powder magazine: This surprised me the most. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Army actually mixed and stored gunpowder in Hyde Park. According to one source, the powder magazine stored more than one million balls and blank ammunition, ready for use at a moment’s notice. I suppose having such a store close at hand was a comfort to those who feared Napoleon would come storming across the Channel, and it was also probably handy for all those military reviews in the park. Then too, I would think the danger of accidental explosions was less among the green lawns and towering trees than in crowded stone buildings of the metropolis. But given the unstable nature of the powder back then, I still shudder.
I think I’ll head back for more cheesecake.


J.Grace said...

Once again another informative post. I would never have thought cheesecake was something eaten at Hyde Park. The gun powder storing was interesting but then with the Napolenic war and the War of 1812, it makes sense.

Regina Scott said...

Thanks, J. Grace! I'm still trying to imagine how one ate cheesecake in the park at a time without disposable anything. Gosh, an excuse for more research! :-)