Clumps of crocuses, snowdrops and nascent cow parsley clustered around ancient oaks are showing themselves in the early spring sunshine. Chaffinches are singing in a nearby dell. It is a place of solitude and quiet, an Arcadian landscape — and all just a quarter of a mile away from the traffic-choked, litter-strewn pavements of Oxford Street.
Hyde Park has been providing an Elysian Fields for all comers at the epicentre of London since 1851, when Queen Victoria gave all the Royal Parks to the nation. They are an astonishing gift, a jewel in the beloved “scepter’d isle”. These green spaces are so deeply ingrained into our history and national psyche that they are easy to take for granted — especially when, as now, they face insidious threat.
The truth is that discord and mayhem is blundering into the Royal Parks and denying great chunks of them to the public. Over the extended Christmas period, Hyde Park is now blighted by the Winter Wonderland theme park. It flashes, throbs and looms, with its beastly giant Ferris wheel, across this once peaceful landscape. Try a stroll this summer and your way will be barred by high fences. Behind them, Blur and Kylie Minogue will be grinding out pastoral songs at the British Summer Time rock concert series. Basic tickets cost from about £50; top price ones, with“amazing views”, are more than £200. These events are only for the well heeled, the very people who are least in need of a public park.
How are these activities supposed to sit with the gentle traditions, let alone the ethos, of the Royal Parks? Its own annual report says that “we seek to balance the enjoyment and inclusion that events in open spaces can bring . . . with the provision of spaces for quiet enjoyment and relaxation”.
Really? These spaces meant for the “quiet enjoyment” of Londoners have never been so desperately needed. This month the city’s population hit a postwar high of 8.6m. The eight Royal Parks offer residents and visitors the chance to enjoy thousands of acres of peace across the capital from Richmond Park to Primrose Hill.
They are also a living link to our history. The oldest is St James’s Park, once a marshy area where a leper colony grazed pigs; today it is a floriferous patch with views, framed by willows, to Buckingham Palace. Just across from the palace is Green Park, where in 1749 Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks premier had added oomph when part of a specially built pavilion went up in flames. The third central green space is 350-acre Hyde Park and its grand neighbour, Kensington Gardens.
Hyde Park itself was wrested from the monks of Westminster by Henry VIII in 1536. First it was a royal hunting ground with wild bulls and boar roaming free. Wooden forts and military camps came and went, duels were fought and carriages raced. In 1851, on the eve of Queen Victoria’s gift of the Royal Parks, Prince Albert wowed the world with the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. Six million people visited, and it made enough money to help set up the great museums that line Exhibition Road.
Now the moneymaking entertainments are back, but they are tawdry rather than visionary. The nuisance and noise are justified by The Royal Parks, the agency which runs the spaces and is part of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Ultimate responsibility lies with the secretary of state, Sajid Javid, an ex-banker whose government cut funds for the Royal Parks from more than £19m in 2008-09 to £14.1m for 2013-14. The parks are now expected to make 60 per cent of their own income.
Running costs for the parks were about £30m last year. Major events in 2014 raised around £7m — chicken feed in the light of the disruption: Winter Wonderland and the British Summer Time concerts alone, plus time for setting up and “reinstating the grass”, put 13 per cent of Hyde Park out of bounds for much of the year.
Similarly, events associated with the 2012 Olympics caused part of Hyde Park to be lost for a year. The effect is that our public space is being turned into a private area. The benefits of this Arcadian heritage are being snaffled by commerce, with loose change being left to the parks, while costs are socialised.
There may be a solution to the funding gap. The global rich value these central London parks so highly that they will pay a premium on property prices of up to 20 per cent if even a butler’s pantry gazes on to the luxuriant landscape. Prime properties adjoining the parks include the Candy brothers’ development One Hyde Park, where a penthouse sold for £140m, and the three adjacent Regent’s Park regency houses bought for £120m by members of Qatar’s royal family.
Parkside homes are the most expensive, most desirable properties in London. And the owners should be charged an annual amenity tax of, say, 1 per cent of the value of their property — to go straight to the coffers of The Royal Parks. That simple levy would almost certainly sort out the funding problems.
If entertainment is needed in the Royal Parks — beyond singing birds, infernal squirrels and unhinged obsessives who perform (gratis) at Speakers’ Corner — let us at least do something that does not destroy and despoil. History offers some suggestions. In Charles II’s time, the entertainments enhanced the parks. A (live) crane with a wooden leg in St James’s Park coexisted with an elk, pelicans and members of the royal family — who swam in what is now the lake. In 1814, Hyde Park’s lake, the Serpentine, played host to the re-enactment of the Battle of Trafalgar.
All this is a world away from the present sorry situation in which one chunk of Hyde Park is in effect out of bounds (and out of grass) for most of the year. True, no one has — yet? — gone as far as to suggest concreting it over. But the more it and the other Royal Parks become permanent moneymaking entertainment grounds the more barren they will be. For Londoners revelling in the early spring sunshine and blossom beginning to bud that would be an intolerable loss.
The writer is editor of FT House & Home
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