It is now late May, when spring blooms across the Western Hemisphere, bringing lengthening days and celebrations in England such as the Chelsea Flower Show – an ideal time to visit Kensington Gardens, one of the Royal Parks.
Visitors who wind their way through the park today will find their walk shaded by hundreds of stately trees, spreading out over 242 acres of land. It was on a May day that Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent – later Queen Victoria —was born at Kensington Palace. Her rooms overlooked the green lawns of Kensington Gardens, which were laid out by Queen Caroline in 1728.
The land itself was originally part of Hyde Park, and was purchased by King William III and Mary II when they bought Kensington Palace for their London home. A century later, Queen Caroline shaped the gardens out of the western section of Hyde Park. Garden designer Charles Bridgeman dammed the River Westbourne for Queen Caroline, stopping the east-flowing water to create the Serpentine, a snake-like lake. Its western half lies within Kensington Gardens and is known as the Long Water.
During Queen Victoria’s reign, her husband Prince Albert established the Italian Gardens in Kensington Gardens. Albert’s first Italian Garden was at Osborne House, the summer home where Victoria and Albert spent many happy weeks with their children. In 1860, Albert created a second Italian Gardens near the Serpentine. These Italian Gardens are ornamental water gardens that lie at the head of the Long Water. They are composed of four main basins surrounded by carved statues and urns decorated with a swan’s breast, woman’s head, ram’s head, dolphin, and an oval. The Tazza Fountain also stands in the Italian Garden, frothing with water that splashes merrily from the basin into the shallow pool below.
After Prince Albert’s death, the gardens became home to the Albert Memorial and, much later, home to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground and a seven-mile Memorial Walk. The gardens also enfold the Serpentine Gallery, where Diana, Princess of Wales made her infamous appearance in a black cocktail dress on the same evening as the Prince of Wales’ Jonathan Dimbleby interview.
Besides being an archive of royal history, the Gardens are also the setting for a well-loved whimsical fantasy: It was above Kensington Gardens that Peter Pan and Tinkerbell flew, lighting up the garden paths in J.M. Barrie’s original Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. J.M. Barrie lived near Kensington Gardens, and they inspired his Peter Pan tales. In his first Peter Pan story, The Little White Bird, Peter flies out of his nursery window and lands beside the Long Water. Later, Peter uses a thrush’s nest as a boat to travel the Gardens through the Serpentine.
J.M. Barrie commissioned a statue of Peter Pan that he donated to Kensington Gardens in 1912. Carved squirrels, rabbits and mice climb up the pedestal of the bronze figure. Other fantastical figures also reside in the park: The hollow trunk of the Elfin Oak, donated by Lady Fortescue in 1930, is carved with brightly coloured fairies, elves, and animals that peek out from the recesses of the oak.
Fairies have long been part of Kensington folklore: In the story of Peter Pan, fairies emerge from their hiding places to fly about the park after “Lock-Out Time”, when the doors to the public are closed for the day. Even in 1722, Thomas Tickell’s poem ‘Kensington Gardens’ described its fairy inhabitants:
The landskip now so sweet we well may praise: But far far sweeter in its ancient days, “Far sweeter was it, when its peopled ground With Fairy domes and dazling tow’rs was crown’d.” – Thomas Tickell, Kensington Gardens, 17