The most important of all is the great stretch of green known as Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. The two are really one piece only divided by a long tongue of water called the Serpentine. On the Serpentine there are many boats for hire, and the water is not so deep anywhere as to be dangerous. In the very early mornings men and boys are allowed to bathe in the Serpentine, and there are some who have done it year by year on all the coldest mornings, even in the depths of winter, when the ice has to be broken. Sometimes, indeed, the ice is so thick that skating is allowed, but this does not happen often. The Serpentine affords endless amusement even to those who do not go in boats. There are quaint-looking ducks and wild-fowl of various breeds to be fed, and on Sundays the whole of dog-land seems to gather there, yelling and barking and plunging after the sticks thrown into the water. Also toy boats may be sailed, but the Round Pond is the best place for that. The Round Pond is right in the middle of Kensington Gardens, and very round it is. There are ducks here also, and sometimes in the evenings, as the dusk is settling down, and the weird cries of the keepers, calling the people out before the gates are shut, resound echoing through the place, you will hear a whirr, and suddenly a string of little ducks will fly out of nowhere and alight on the water as gently as thistledown!
But the glory of the Round Pond is in its toy sailing-boats, and these are brought here not only by children, but by grown-up men too — huge craft some of them, and most elaborately made. There are times when the Pond seems to be covered with a flock of swans, so closely set are the white sails. The wind generally is strong enough to take the boats across, but sometimes one gets becalmed or water-logged, and lies helplessly in the middle, so the luckless owner has to leave it with an aching heart because he cannot get it, as there are no big boats that humans can use on the Round Pond. Perhaps he knows he must go to school next day, and that he can only send a nurse or footman to regain his treasure, and meantime it may drift to the edge in the night and be taken away by some other boy. There are many tragedies at the Round Pond!
Not so very far from the Pond a real playground has been made for the children of the poor. Here a piece of ground is fenced off, and within it very strong swings are provided, and, what is a very peculiar feature, a great bed of sand is laid out for the children to dig in; but it is not like the seashore, for there is no water to fill the trenches around the sand-castles, and no clean tide to sweep in and make all smooth again when the little toilers have left. Into this delightful place boys over fourteen are not admitted, for it is feared they would be too rough and rude, hurting the little ones, and girls over sixteen are similarly barred out. It is rather sad to see some small boys, who have just reached the age-limit, standing looking into Paradise with wistful eyes.
Hyde Park is not so pleasant as the Gardens, but it has its own attractiveness too. There are wide spaces of open grass, and often soldiers are drilled here, and camps are sometimes made, as at the funeral or the coronation of the King. Very often in the morning you will see a battalion of the Foot Guards marching round looking like a great white-bodied centipede with black legs, because the men wear short white shell-jackets and dark trousers. There are roads for driving and cycling, whereas one can only walk in the Gardens. There is also a soft road all round the Park for riders, and most interesting it is to see them, both men and women, in the early mornings coming out to take exercise. Some of the ladies and nearly all the little girls now ride astride, and gain a much safer and better-balanced seat that way. Part of the track made of soft earth for the riders is called Rotten Row, a strange name for the most fashionable ride in the Kingdom! It is supposed to come from Route du Roi, or the King's Road, as only the King could drive along it if he wanted to, which isn't likely!
The Green Park borders Piccadilly, and the stately club-houses in that most fashionable street look out upon its trees and grass. In St. James's Park there is a space railed off for the use of children alone, but there are no swings or amusements provided; there is a pretty piece of ornamental water, but no boats may be sailed on it.
Consequently, St. James's is not nearly so popular among the children as its larger neighbour. However, the birds on the water are far more interesting, for they include all sorts of strange and beautiful kinds, and there are stands holding pictures of them to show what their names are.
At one end of the park is Buckingham Palace, a large and plain building, which is the London home of the King. You have heard of the Tower, and Westminster, and Whitehall, which were each in turn the King's palace, as Buckingham Palace now is. On another side of the park is St. James's Palace, the site of which we know Henry VIII. took from the leprous sisters. But this is not now occupied by royalty; instead of that, Marlborough House opposite, which once belonged to the famous Duke of Marlborough, is used as the second London home of royalty, and if there is a Prince of Wales who wants a separate house during the lifetime of his father, he usually inhabits it; just at present it is used by the Queen-mother .
The third of the best-known parks of London is Regent's Park, which lies northward. The attraction it offers does not rest wholly with the fine strip of ornamental water on which live numerous black swans, or with its most beautifully laid out flower borders, but in something quite peculiar to itself. I wonder if any stranger or child could find out what it is.
Besides those mentioned, there are many other parks in London; one, Victoria Park, is in a very poor district in the East End. There are pretty shrubs and flowers, and the bit of water which no London park is complete without; and besides this, there are fine spaces of grass for cricket and other games. Another park, Battersea, is also in a poor part, on the south side of the river, but close to a very fashionable and expensive part, for it faces Chelsea across the water. On Saturday afternoons in summer Battersea is given up to cricket. Standing on a little knoll at one end, you can see cricketers of every sort and size, from the tiny urchin - who has put his ragged coat over a stick to make a wicket, and is batting with a piece of flat wood, in a tattered shirt and trousers, far too wide, and plainly cut down from "father's" - to the well-set-up young man, in white flannels, who is playing for a club on a specially kept ground. The balls fly all around, often dropping right into the middle of another game, and it is wonderful that the players themselves don't make mistakes and run to the wrong wicket in their excitement.
So you see, what with the parks and the graveyards, and all the numerous patches of grass which are open to children in London, generally the very poorest can find some playground. One of the oddest is, perhaps, the playground of the boys belonging to the choir at St. Paul's Cathedral. There is no grass near for them, and no open space, for in the City land is most valuable, so a playground has been made on the flat roof of the school, and this is closed in with wire-netting, so that cricket or football can go on merrily, without danger to the passers-by. It must be a little smutty up there among the chimneys, but it is certainly better to have this space than nothing.
Not far from the British Museum is a garden belonging to the Duke of Bedford, and the Duke allows the crippled children of a special school near to use this garden, so they can go hopping about on their crutches, or sit under the great shady trees on the grass. Very few, even of the richest children, have such a garden in London.
All around London, the farther out we go the larger are the open spaces preserved for the use of the people, never to be built upon. The finest of all are Putney Heath and Wimbledon Common, which run on all in one piece in the south-west, and Hampstead Heath in the north on the heights above London. In both, the natural appearance of the ground is preserved; there are heights and hollows, trees and shrubs and bushes, all naturally growing; there is nothing stiff or park-like about them. On Bank Holidays the ground is simply covered with people who cannot afford to go farther, but come here to picnic and enjoy themselves.
Farther still are Kew Gardens and Richmond Park, but these lie right outside London, and take some time to reach.- London, by G. E. (Geraldine Edith) Mitton, 1911