diamond geezer

 Friday, January 29, 2010

The River Westbourne
7) The Serpentine

Of all London's lost rivers, one glorious stretch of the Westbourne must be the most well known. It's the Serpentine through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, and Londoners have two royal figures to thank for its creation.

It was Henry VIII who first sealed off Hyde Park in 1536 to create a royal hunting ground. Formerly under the ownership of the monks of Westminster Abbey, a fence prevented stocks of deer, wild boars and bulls from escaping the royal enclosure. Henry also ordered that the trickling Westbourne be dammed in a dozen or so places to create small ponds where deer might be lured to drink. Elsewhere grandstands were erected so that he could entertain nobles and visiting dignitaries with a day of not-exactly-challenging hunting, rounded off by a slap-up banquet in a temporary marquee. This was sporting corporate hospitality on a grand royal scale, and continued throughout the Tudor years.

Queen Caroline, wife of George II, had far grander plans. Under her guidance the entire Westbourne through the park was dammed to create an ornamental lake. Its sharp central curve was thought radical in 1730, with precise classical rectangles de rigeur, but fashionable estate owners across the country soon followed Caroline's less formal trend. The north end of her lake, below the pumping station and four Italianate fountains [photo], became the Long Water [photo]. Only the eastern half, beyond John Rennie's five-arched road bridge, is officially the Serpentine [photo] [photo]

100 years later, with the creation of residential estates in Bayswater and beyond, the Westbourne's waters eventually became more sewage than sparkling. The upstream link was cut and the river's flow diverted down a parallel pipe along the lakeside. Today's Lido swimmers and pedalboat rowers are therefore likely to bump into nothing more unpleasant than an angry swan.
Following the Westbourne: Marlborough Gate, Italian gardens, Edward Jenner memorial, The Long Water, Peter Pan statue, West Carriage Drive bridge, the Serpentine, Diana Princess of Wales memorial fountain [photo, full] [photo, empty], Serpentine Lido, site of the Great Exhibition and Crystal Palace (1851).

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