The splendour of London’s Green Park

Ian Collins Continuing a tour of London’s green oases Ian Collins parks himself in Green Park and surveys the scenery.

Ian Collins

Smallest and busiest of London's eight royal parks, Green Park links St James's and Hyde parks. It's a great short-cut between The Mall, Piccadilly and Hyde Park Corner. What's generally the green space we pass through briefly en route to somewhere else is also a great place to linger.

This area first hit the national consciousness in 1554 when, as a 40-acre meadow outside London used for hunting and the occasional duel, it was a rallying point for Sir Thomas Wyatt's rebellion in protest at Queen Mary's marriage to Phillip II of Spain.

For a long time it was the missing link in a chain of parks stretching from Westminster to Kensington - until Charles II acquired the undeveloped domain, named it Upper St James's Park, walled it and relished the prospect of walking freely and privately from Hyde Park to St James's Palace without leaving royal soil.

The route of the king's daily constitutional was soon called Constitution Hill.

The restored ruler and unreconstructed rover enjoyed canoodling hereabouts - also installing one of the first ice houses in Britain so that guests at grand summer picnics could be served cold drinks.

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The name Green Park, officially adopted in 1746, may have derived from a royal rumpus when Catherine of Braganza, long-suffering wife of Charles II, discovered that her husband had picked flowers in the park and given them to one of his mistresses.

The queen is said to have ordered that every single flower in the park should be pulled up and no more planted - perhaps also banishing shrubberies to spite a monarch keen on the wrong sort of courting.

Whatever the truth, Green Park was to evolve without formal flowerbeds - though 250,000 daffodils now rising from the grass carpet each spring provide a fleeting Yellow Park.

In the 18th century the park was beloved of Queen Caroline, wife of George II, who commissioned a reservoir called the Queen's Basin to provide water to St James's Palace, reached via the Queen's Walk and a library.

Her favourite retreat was used for a national party in 1749 to mark the end of the War of the Austrian Succession in which George II had been an eager player in order to preserve his German territories. The royal family planned a great firework display - a series of flaming pictures culminating in an image of the king bringing peace to Britannia, Mars and Neptune - and hired Handel to write his Music for the Royal Fireworks.

George had at first wanted no music at all, then decreed that only “war-like instruments” should feature. The composer battled valiantly for his violins. A Temple of Peace was constructed in the park to store the fireworks, but early on in the celebrations a stray rocket hit the building. Three people died in the ensuing explosion and fire. By George that peaceful party went with a bang.

In 1814 there was another party in the park, this time hosted by the Prince Regent to mark a century of the Hanoverian royal family. Another temple was built and again it burnt down during the event.

In the 1820s John Nash re-landscaped Green Park as part of his alterations to adjoining St James's Park, with trees planted for the first time in the former meadow and the public admitted. Constitution Hill was straightened for a processional route into the Mall outside Buckingham Palace, with Wellington Arch added at the far ended on the border with Hyde Park.

Inside the park, buildings gradually disappeared. Queen Victoria filled in the Queen's basin, so that all the historic structures had vanished by 1855 and Green Park could fully justify its name.

Unfortunately the green rule has relaxed of late, with the construction of vast and hideous memorials - one of the worst being the “tribute” to Canadian soldiers added in 1994.

Given the backdrop of Buckingham Palace, Green Park is a favourite film location - with 101 Dalmatians, starring Glenn Close, partly shot here in 1996.

Lancaster House, the stately government conference centre on The Mall, was the home of Lady Bracknell in the 2002 Oliver Parker adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. It also stood in for the Tsar's St Petersburg Winter Palace in the 1981 film Reds, telling the saga of two American radicals during the Russian Revolution and starring Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton.

You may also have spotted the interior of Lancaster House in the 2000 movie of Henry James's novel The Golden Bowl, with Angelica Huston and Uma Thurman.

I love Green Park in every season, but it's now-magnificent trees look best in summer. Most are those good old London standards of plane and lime, but you might also track down a black poplar - Britain's rarest native timber tree recognisable by its gnarled trunk and twisted and tilted branches - silver maples and silver limes, as well as oaks and hawthorns.

After all this tracking down, let's slow down - and, better yet, lie down. There's a café beside Ritz Corner and Canada Gate. But I prefer a picnic beneath a leafy canopy.

t Green Park is open all day all year round. Tube: Green Park or Hyde Park Corner.