St James's Park

London Portrait Magazine – 03-1984

by Christopher Long

What makes St James's Park unique, special, really has very little to do with the park at all. As parks go it's a very pleasant, very ordinary little park – the sort of park you might expect to find in any English town or city. There are plenty of trees around an attractive lake with exotic water-fowl, a few monuments and a children's playground. What makes St James's Park special is all a question of where it is and what surrounds it.

Stand on the bridge, for example and look east.

Before you, just a few hundred yards away, is the heart of Britain: the buildings that run the nation, which once controlled the world's greatest empire and which sit on the foundations of buildings that have done so for almost a thousand years: the seat of Government, Parliament and the State.

Turn south and through the trees are the towers of Westminster Abbey, the focal point of the Church since the reign of Edward the Confessor, consecrated in 1065, and where kings and queens have been crowned since William of Normandy's annointment on Christmas Day 1066. In the same direction is Wellington Barracks, symbol of military might.

Turn west and the horizon is dominated by Buckingham Palace – a relatively modern but nonetheless potent symbol of the monarchy. Turn north and there, behind Carlton House Terrace is St James's itself, the area of streets and squares and clubs and shops that have been home to aristocrats and courtesans, the famous and the infamous, the rich and the poor, the good and the bad and which, for hundreds of years, has been the domain of the people.

In fact, St James's Park is the only place in London, or anyone else for that matter, where you can stand on one spot and be surrounded by the Church, the State, the Crown and the People.

While you throw bread to the ducks consider that this is where history was made and, one hopes, always will be made. And if all that sounds rather like the blurb on the back of a tourist guide, I make no apology. In the extraordinary tranquillity of a garden set in the heart of London, that's what makes St James's Park so special.

A thousand years ago, however, you would probably have been standing up to your waist in mud. The new Palace of Westminster and the abbey church of the monks of St Peter's were built on brambly Thorney Island, beside the Thames, surrounded by lakes and marshy ground from St James's to Chelsea.

All that now remains above ground of that original Palace is the vast Westminster Hall. Although it is nearly 240ft long, 40ft high and has walls almost seven feet thick – to support one of the most massive and superb hammer-beam roofs in Europe – William Rufus claimed that it was a "mere bedchamber" compared with what he had hoped to build.

All the same, the administration of the kingdom has been carried on from Westminster until the present day. Not until the building of St James's Palace by Henry Vlll did this marshy and unhealthy area begin to be tamed. This was just one of thirteen palaces owned by the King within a day's ride of the by then rather run-down Palace of Westminster.

St James's Palace had been a hospital for lepers and to Henry was never much more than a hunting lodge set in the fields and parkland that stretched away towards Kensington and beyond.

In the reign of James l the palace became more prominent with the building of the Queen's Chapel, designed by Inigo Jones. But the area was still largely a swamp and a combination of orchards and shanty slums around the abbey and what is now Parliament Square.

It was the Great Fire of London in 1666 that began the major change. St James's became a fashionable suburb of the City which Christopher Wren was rebuilding. Charles ll set about landscaping the park soon after he was restored to the throne in 1660 and a succession of palaces, villas, squares and rows of houses were built in the area in the style of Inigo Jones.

Apparently it was Louis XlV's garden designer, André Le Nôtre, who advised Charles to turn the park into an elegant and fashionable private garden. He suggested the lake, fruit trees, ducks, deer and romantic pathways where the King could wander with his friends and with his spaniels and where he could play the game of pell mell. The whole area of the park spread south from his pell mell alley (the game derives its name from the Italian palla a maglio – ball to mallet) which became the road we know today when he built a new alley further south to avoid the dust from passing carriages and carts.

To the north of Pall Mall the King granted leases on 45 acres of land which the wily Henry Jermyn decided to develop for housing for the aristocracy. This land, known as St James's Field is what we now know as 'St James's' – bounded by Piccadilly to the north, Pall Mall to the south, Haymarket to the east and St James's Street to the west.

There Jermyn laid out the imposing squares and fashionable streets that he named after himself, the King, the King's brother (Duke of York) and the King's servant, Baptist May (Babmaes Street).

[See Anthony Adolf's excellent biography of Henry Jermyn's extraordinary life.]

But the most exclusive area of all was along the south side of Pall Mall where people such as the Earl and Countess of Ranelagh had houses with gardens stretching down to the park – even if they also had to put up with the vulgar and rather tarty Nell Gwyn who lived in the only freehold house in the street (which it still is to this day). The King's favourite mistress explained away her freehold by saying that she had "always conveyed free under the Crown and always would".

From her garden and through her garden gate, Nell was able to keep in touch with Charles – much to the disgust of many, including the diarist John Evelyn.

Nearby lived the mother of six of the King's many illegitimate children, the Duchess of Cleveland, while beside St James's Palace the Duke of Marlborough's wife, Sarah, built the palatial house that bears her name and which later became the home of Edward Vll before he was king.

So, in the reign of Charles ll, the pattern and style of St James's was set. James ll who succeeded him enjoyed life there. But William & Mary did not because they considered the atmosphere damp and bad for the King's asthma – so they moved to Kensington Palace. From then on St James's Palace ceased to be an important centre for the court but had already become, unofficially at least, a public domain so far as the park was concerned.

Charles ll had always enjoyed meeting his people and had allowed some limited public access to the park. By the 18th Century some 6,500 people had official keys and thousands of others had duplicates. By the time John Nash had transformed the park with imposing developments [Carlton House] overlooking the gardens, it had become a favourite haunt of prostitutes and duellists.

Christopher Hibbert in his superb book on London, The Biography of a City, claims that in Victorian times there were an estimated 80,000 prostitutes in addition to untold thousands of 'amateurs' known as dolly mops. St James's was the Mecca for girls at the top end of the market. Until quite recently this was still the case and, off the street, continues to be so.

This has its origins in the days of Charles ll and can be attributed almost entirely to the fact that the area remained a very male preserve for affluent, pleasure-loving men who found clubs, coffee houses, tailors, bachelor lodgings (such as Albany) and all the pleasure and necessities of life within a few streets of each other. If any of them had much work to do it was likely to be just a stroll way at The Admiralty, the War Office, one of the ministries in Whitehall, or across the park in Parliament, Church House or Westminster Abbey.

Not for nothing are those 45 acres developed by Jermyn still filled with clubs, shirt-makers, boot-makers, cigar merchants, hatters, gunsmiths, wine merchants – and the occasional night club too.

On the other hand, if the gentlemen were catered for by Kate Hamilton's young girls, an 18th Century lady was advised to find herself a lover in Duke Humphrey's Walk in the park itself. In fact, what we now see in and around the park is largely of the 18th and 19th Centuries but the ambience is from the Restoration – and the sophistication of the 17th Century.

During the last two centuries the landscape has changed almost entirely. To the east the Admiralty and Admiralty Screen were built by Thomas Ripley and Robert Adam respectively to overlook Horseguards, the most famous constitutional parade ground in the world.

Horseguards stretches down to the red-metalled road at the end of the lake and has been the scene of countless parades, military tattoos, reviews and Troopings of the Colour. Just across the road, within the park itself, are the large and monumental reminders of a grimmer aspect of military life – memorials to the Guards and other regiments whose men fell in war.

To the north runs The Mall itself with its wedding cake frieze of stucco-fronted buildings on the site of the former Carlton House. At the top of his column, [by Carlton Gardens] overlooking the park and St James's, is the statue of the Duke of York – the grand old man who marched his men to the top of the hill and marched them down again.

Heading west we find the present home of the Queen Mother, Clarence House, again built by John Nash, in 1825. Beside it is Lancaster House, presented to the nation by the first Viscount Leverhulme and now used as a venue for international conferences, receptions and state banquets.

Further to the west is Buckingham Palace. The facade we know today largely obscures the original Nash design for George lV. Gone too is the Marble Arch which was to have been the formal gateway to the palace and which was ignominiously despatched to the top of Park Lane when the Victoria Memorial was put up outside the palace gates by her son Edward Vll.

As a result we have lost the original scheme which was intended to make the formal approach to the palace down Constitution Hill from the impressive gates in Hyde Park (beside Apsley House), through the Corinthian arch at Hyde Park Corner (now slightly re-positioned) and down a sweeping drive past the head of St James's Park.

Instead we have The Mall itself which starts with Admiralty Arch, commemorating Edward Vll, and which ends with Edward's monument to his mother.

To the south is Wellington Barracks, the Guards Chapel and Queen Anne's Gate. The barracks are now nearing completion after several years of total reconstruction and restoration. This year we can expect to see the unveiling of a large statue there of Earl Alexander of Tunis, sculpted by James Butler, R.A.

The modern Guards Chapel not only houses the memorial to guardsmen who fell in the Falkland's War but is something of a memorial in itself. The original chapel was devastated by a Second World War bomb which killed or maimed many members of the congregation during a church service.

In Queen Anne's Gate are some of the finest rows of early 18th Century houses in London, overlooking Birdcage Walk and the park itself.

Perhaps most splendid of all is the massive Victorian conglomerate of the Treasury (built in 1847) and George Gilbert Scott's palatial, italianate Foreign Office, completed in 1873. So large and impressive is it that it dwarfs the equally famous and more modest houses in Downing Street.

If ever testimony were needed to the pride, prosperity and confidence of the British Empire one needs look no further than this rear view of Whitehall – the Admiralty, the Foreign Office, the Treasury and, beyond them, the towers of the mother of parliaments.

But what of the park itself? Well, it's a very pleasant, very ordinary little park. At one end is a sluice that can carry excess water from the lake in the Buckingham Palace gardens to fill the canal that Charles ll built and which Nash transformed into the naturalistic, rural lake we see today.

At the other end is a natural spring which reminds us of the park's boggy origins and which keeps the profusion of ducks, geese, coots and moorhens happy.

Quite unaccountably there are also the famous pelicans, and very understandably there are notices near the enchanting old wooden bridge and park keeper's cottage entreating us not to feed these voracious birds (many of whom have come to a sticky end trying to swallow plastic bags and other unsuitable offerings).

Halfway down the lake is the somewhat inappropriate bridge that links the children's swings and roundabouts in the southern half with hideous monstrosity that modern municipal man calls a cafeteria. It was, of course, inevitable that somebody would have the gall to try and improve the work of Charles ll and Le Nôtre by planting a concrete and glass mushroom just where it was most likely to offend the eye. Just as it was inevitable that vandals would destroy the rain, wind, temperature and barometer gauges housed in their little white boxes nearby.

Fortunately for us, however, it will take a lot more than amateur and professional vandals to harm the tranquillity and beauty of St James's Park.

What is remarkable is that it's there at all: a very pleasant, very ordinary little park that takes on a mantle of magic because it survives surrounded by the great cogs and gears of the nation – and that you can consider all this while throwing bread to the ducks.

Kensington Gardens

St James's Park

Regent's Park

© (1984) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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