Hyde and Seek With Swans
In a city like London, with infinite options, you’re thankful for the simple pleasures. A packed lunch at the Serpentine is the perfect antidote to tired feet and a stifled soul after a thrilling albeit exhausting shopping excursion in Oxford street—consider yourself lucky if you wiggle out the other end without a dislocated shoulder. For those familiar with Harry Potter, a visit to the Serpentine is like lowering your head into a pensive bowl of memories; summer days filled with picnics, feeding ducks and a bout of hayfever.
Make your way to the Marble Arch tube station and you’ll find yourself at the junction between Park Lane and Marble Arch. Ask Pret A Manger to pack some sandwiches and hop across the road to Hyde Park. You’ll soon cross the Speakers Corner, the famous soapbox dedicated to freelance sermonising—once frequented by Karl Marx and George Orwell. Choose a gravel path and you’ll pass another site of free speech, the mosaic marking the Reformer’s tree burned down in 1866. You’re heading towards a body of water known as the Serpentine, a 40-acre recreational lake in Hyde Park created between 1726 and 1730 at the behest of Queen Caroline, wife of King George II.
The worm-shaped lake is fed by an underground spring, otherwise known as three boreholes, and it separates Hyde Park and Kensington gardens. The wider end begins at the Southeast end of Hyde Park, near Aspley House, and it snakes up north near Lancaster gate, where it ends at the Italian gardens. The Serpentine Bridge cuts off a third of the lake as it would the tail of a worm, leaving a small narrow stretch called the Long Water, which everyone refers to it as the Serpentine. Joggers often run the figure eight crossing at the bridge, which is roughly about three miles long. During the early summer hours you can see swimmers in the Lansbury’s Lido braving the icy water as Red Crested Pochards look on in amusement. The Serpentine Swimming club was formed in 1864 and is the oldest in Britain and the lake has been a swimmers paradise for over 200 years.
But the lake really belongs to the birds: haughty swans white as snow, squawking Mallards, brown-winged ducks that zig-zag their way to attain pole position. The ducks can often be seen sitting on the gravel bending their bubble gum pink beaks into their breasts looking like strange-feathered humps on the sand. They usually congregate near the Boat House which houses over a 100 pedalos, only available for hire in summer. Make sure you buy an extra sandwich because you’ll find yourself parting with much of your food. Regular walkers gather with plastic bags of bread, which attract geese from the Serpentine Gallery, just across the lake. Canada Geese swoop in from across the Long Water and glide like water planes leaving glittering blue ripples in their wake. Fearless, they run cackling towards dogs and humans alike. Grey Wagtails chirp behind picnic goers, jumping like circus dogs to catch morsels of bread. Sometimes, it’s absolute mayhem as the Mute Swans and herons cut through the crowd like swaggering celebrities pushing through ordinary mortals.
They are called Mute swans because they are less vocal than the rest of their species—wings hovers menacingly over the tiny Mandarins; they don’t look as beautiful then. Pairs meander away after a quick bite; swans mate for life even though divorce is not unheard of in the Serpentine.
The lake achieved notoriety in December 1816 when Harriet Westbrook, the pregnant wife of the poet Shelley, was found drowned having left a suicide note addressed to her father, sister and husband. Shelley married Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin less than two weeks later; the swans would not have been amused. The over 15 species of birds are beautifully illustrated on a white board right next to the Boat House, which also serves as a quaint map of the lake; if you’re lucky you might even see a pelican.
For lunch, quieter corners beckon, too. Continue by the riverbed towards the bridge to your left. It offers great views of Long Water and Kensington Gardens, the palatial home to William III, Queen Victoria and Princess Diana. Right ahead is the Serpentine Gallery, which focuses on contemporary artist like Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst. This is no Tate Modern but it is one of London’s finest galleries and it’s free. Turn around and you can see as far as the Houses of Parliament and Westminster on a clear summer’s day. As you cross the bridge, glaze your eyes over the controversial Princess Diana Memorial Fountain on your left; much like
Marmite, you’ll either love it or hate it.
Follow the path to your right and you’ll pass the Peter Pan statue, dedicated to JM Barrie and is often a climbing post for children. Ahead lie the Italian Gardens, an idyllic lunch spot. Housing four intricately carved Carrara marble basins and a Tazza fountain, the 150-year-old manicured gardens can seem rather formal but nonetheless is pretty perfect, especially combined with ice-cream vendors. Afterwards, follow the path back to the boathouse. Ahead is the Serpentine Bar & Kitchen, formerly known as the Dell, perfect for a cup of coffee while you look on to the Queen Caroline Memorial and perhaps a bevy of Mute Swans holding council near the tall grass; they don’t seem as hostile as they did before. Like Henrich Heine said, “The swan, like the soul of the poet, by the dull world is ill understood.” End your lunch with a languid stroll through the rose gardens just beyond the memorial and prepare yourself for the onslaught of traffic and reality as you exit through Aspley House.