Distance: 3¼ miles
Terrain: Mostly flat and on sealed paths (unless you really want to walk on the grass!)
Start: Kensington Palace (nearest Tube: High Street Kensington)
Finish: Whitehall (nearest Tube: Charing Cross, Embankment or Westminster)
Cyclists encountered: 44
Species of bird seen: 21 (22 if you include the pelicans)
London has eight open spaces that are classed as Royal Parks, and this walk through history takes in the four of them that form a ‘green lung’ in central London: Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, Green Park and St James’s Park.
We start at the western end, at the black and gold gates of Kensington Palace; the statue behind depicts William III, who with his wife Mary II bought the palace in 1689 because they didn’t want to live in Westminster. Queen Victoria was born there, and it has been home to many members of the Royal family — including Princess Diana, and it was outside these gates that the cellophane-wrapped flowers piled up in 1997. Today it is the London home of (among others) the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
From the Palace, we head across Kensington Gardens via the duck pond. The park was developed as a palace garden by William and Mary although the person who transformed it into what we know today was George II’s queen, Caroline of Ansbach, who installed the formal avenues and the water features. The duck pond, called the Round Pond, is frequented by many waterfowl; overheard, the squawking sound is that of the ring-necked parakeets.
Once we’ve got to the other side of the pond, you should see an equestrian statue with a white arch in the distance behind it. That’s where we need to head towards next. The statue is a Victorian work called Physical Energy and is described on the accompanying plaque as "a universal embodiment of the dynamic force of ambition". From here we can see the ornate black and gold of the Albert Memorial, as well as the white arch on the other side of the lake which is a Henry Moore work.
As we walk down to the lake, note the little Classical-style pavilion on our right; this is Queen Caroline’s Temple and was built for the aforementioned royal so she could look over her lake in the summer. And ‘her’ lake it was, for she was responsible for having the River Westbourne dammed to create the Serpentine — although the bit that’s in Kensington Gardens is called the Long Water. It’s usually teeming with bird life — ducks, gulls, cormorants and geese can all be seen here. Just along to the left is the Peter Pan statue, but we want to go to the right in order to cross over to Hyde Park.
By following the path alongside the Long Water, we reach a left-hand fork that takes us under West Carriage Drive and into Hyde Park. The first thing we encounter is another sculpture, of a bird this time, which is called Isis (after the Ancient Egyptian goddess). Nearby is the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain (under repair at the time of writing). Just along from here is the Lido Café, a collonaded building with an alfresco dining area and toilets.
The nearby swimming area is open to the public between June and September; for the rest of the year it can only be used by members of the Serpentine Swimming Club, which famously hosts an annual swimming competition on Christmas Day. The Serpentine was used for the swimming component of the triathlon in the 2012 Olympics.
The largest of the four parks, Hyde Park began as Henry VIII’s hunting-ground and was first opened to the public by Charles I in the 1630s. Much of the present layout is the work of Queen Caroline (see above) and later the 19th century architect Decimus Burton, a protégé of John Nash. In 1851 the park hosted the Great Exhibition, for which the Crystal Palace was built (it was later moved to Sydenham). We follow the Serpentine to the end, after which bear right to join a path that runs parallel to Rotten Row, the bridleway which began life as an avenue for William and Mary to travel between Kensington Palace and Westminster. Watch out for horses!
This takes us down to Hyde Park Corner, the intersection where five roads converge. We need to cross to the entrance gates (the lodge of which is now a café) and then cross again to the Wellington Arch. The stately home to our left is Apsley House, home of the Duke of Wellington and now a museum. There are several war memorials here, including the ones for Australia and New Zealand.
After passing through the arch, we cross the road again and enter Green Park. The smallest of the Royal Parks, it was enclosed by Charles II in the 1660s and has been open to the public since 1826. By the entrance are the Memorial Gates which commemorate the five million people from the Indian sub-continent, Africa and the West Indies who served in the two world wars.
Stick close to Constitution Hill, the road running to the right (the wire-topped wall conceals Buckingham Palace Gardens). Walking through Green Park, we encounter the Canada Memorial, and close by are the Canada Gates, through which can be seen the Victoria Memorial and the front of Buckingham Palace.
After the Canada Gates, we cross The Mall in order to enter our fourth and final park. Once the site of a leper hospital, St James’s Park was opened to the public by Charles II, who enjoyed mingling with his subjects. It had already been used to house animals that were given as gifts, and the most famous residents, pelicans, have been here since 1664 when they were presented by the Russian ambassador. The present layout is the work of the Regency-era architect John Nash.
Follow the lake until we get to the bridge, which we cross over (do admire the view of Horse Guards with the London Eye in the background) and then turn left and carry on next to the lake until we get to the end of the park.
Just across the road from here is the heart of government — those armed police are protecting the back of Downing Street. Our walk sticks to the park side of the road until we get to the Guards Memorial, after which we cross into Horse Guards Parade. This is the venue for the Trooping the Colour ceremony which is performed annually on the Queen’s Official Birthday (celebrated in June, regardless of the reigning sovereign’s actual date of birth).
Our walk ends by crossing the parade ground and going through the arch of the 18th century Horse Guards building — nowadays, armed police are just as visible as the sword-carrying Household Cavalry troopers in dress uniform — and onto Whitehall. From here, we’ve got the option of going home via three Tube stations (Charing Cross, Embankment or Westminster) or many bus routes.