In Hyde Park, I catch the Household Cavalry returning from the Changing of the Guard ceremony. They jingle past on beautiful, well-groomed horses, their shiny, thigh-length boots, bright cuirasses, helmets and swords gleaming in the sun. Every tourist within range comes running to take a picture or just admire the sight.
It’s hard to imagine these busy spots as the edge of the city, but Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens offer a few glimpses of how the countryside might have looked before the endless urban sprawl swallowed it up. Hyde Park is frequented by joggers, walkers, pushchairs and dog-walkers, as well as those brave enough to swim in the chilly outdoor waters of The Serpentine. I settle for some traditional fish and chips in the Serpentine Café.
I walk on along Rotten Row – supposedly a corruption of “Route de Roi” – being careful to avoid the cyclists rushing into town from Kensington. Several out-of-towners are not so observant and ignore even the ringing of bicycle bells until one cyclist shouts at them. British manners are tested but remain under control.
Hyde Park was the setting for the Great International Exhibition of 1851 but few physical traces of it remain here, other than some ornate railings. Its legacy, however, is the great museums of South Kensington, as well as the Albert Hall and University College, London. Funded by the proceeds of the exhibition catalogue, and backed by the passion of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, the area stretching from the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) to the Albert Memorial has been dubbed “Albertopolis.”
“The Great International Exhibition in Hyde Park, later moved to what became Crystal Palace in South London, was a key moment [in tourism] because it attracted six million visitors to London in a six-month period,” says Dr Michelle Johansen of the Bishopsgate Institute, who studies the history of tourism in the capital. “People came from all over the world, and from all backgrounds, including lots of working class people. It was a huge success and really put London on the tourist map.”
“From then, the numbers of visitors expanded, attracted by the cosmopolitan atmosphere, the beauty of the architecture, the heritage and tradition. The traditions were often played out through large public events like Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in the late 19th centuries and the coronations of the 20th century, which were all seen as moments when people gathered in London. There was always something to see or do.”
Fast forward to 2016, Hyde Park, so placid by day, also holds a solid reputation as a venue for memorable, record-breaking music shows. Many iconic rock acts – such as the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Stevie Wonder, and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers – have graced the park's music stage, bringing millions of music lovers from all over the world together – just like the Great International Exhibition did more than a century-and-a-half ago.
If you're looking for accessible, dynamic, cosmopolitan and vibrant, Hyde Park is still "where it's at."
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