Charles Doxat reminisces about growing up next to our beloved Royal Parks.
I don’t remember my first visits to Kensington Gardens. Well, I was a baby in a baby “carriage” – those big prams you hardly ever see these days (think: “Silver Cross”). Fortunately, at that age, I was totally unaware of war-related activity such as the anti-aircraft gun emplacement in Hyde Park, but apparently showed some interest in the herds of sheep that grazed in Kensington Gardens in those days.
My first real memory is learning to ride my bike, OK tricycle, around the park’s paths.
Few of us in central London had our own gardens to play in, so Kensington Gardens/Hyde Park was our playground, and it seemed enormous and exciting.
Later, from age 8, I was allowed to walk there from our home in Kensington. It took around 15 minutes. I don’t think parents would allow it today. Often we went for a favourite activity of net-fishing for tadpoles in the Round Pond. An unlucky few “tiddlers” got taken home in a jam jar, but they never made it into frogs. You still sometimes see tadpoles in the pond but I’ve not seen any kids fishing there for years.
The next stage, also using the Round Pond, was sailing my precious little wooden sailing boat with red sails, called “The Red Swan”. I was not alone, lots of us kids were there with their boats. Also, were the grown-ups, racing their large sailing boats and wearing waders – essential for launching the boats with big keels and useful for rescuing our little boats marooned out of reach. Clockwork motorboats, able only to prescribe a semi-circle, were another “high risk” item. Nowadays I never see kids playing with boats (why bother when you’ve got virtual reality on your device). But men, it’s mainly men, still race sailing boats there – but remote controlled from the shore.
My own fishing went up a notch during teenage years, with coarse fishing in many locations around London, but especially in the Serpentine fishing area, which is on the south-side adjacent to the lido. In the 1950/60s there would be a long line of fishermen there. Fishing is still permitted in the same designated area but nowadays it’s unusual to see an angler there.
I was so keen I got special permission to fish from the Serpentine island near the boathouse in order to survey whether there were more and bigger fish in that area. This was reported on BBC radio and the press. The fish were prolific – mainly roach, but none could be called good (i.e. big!) specimens.
The parks were far less crowded in those days: a few residents, dogs and hardly any tourists. Very few bikes or runners, although I do remember seeing Olympian Brian Hewson (European 1500m champion, 1958) train there during his lunch hour! That’s typical of the sort of training top (amateur) athletes did in those days. But we did have park-keepers – whatever happened to them? Now we see the occasional policeman.
A claim I make that I’ve worked and lived all my life on three pages (66, 84 and 85) of the London A-Z took a slight bashing when with my wife we moved out of London in 1966 for a time, while our children were growing up, but I still worked within page 66, and walked the parks regularly. I was working nearby when, in July 1969, the infamous free (yes, free) concert featuring the Rolling Stones took place. The crowds were massive, some estimates say half a million! A memorable occasion, followed over the years by much more formalised events.
Back in London full time again by the 1980s, and living near the parks, my wife and I now call Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens our “back garden”. We walk for exercise there (also Regent’s or St. James’s parks) most days. I took again to running casually in the parks. Then a mate at my swimming club (Otter SC) suggested that even at age 50 I might like to try the then emerging sport of triathlon. To be competitive I needed to start cycling seriously (Richmond Park was my main venue), but also improve my running and therefore I needed to join a running club. And so, it was that I met up with the Serpies at our then “exotic” HQ – Alexandra Lodge, near the Alexandra Gate. I think the membership then numbered around 150. My, how we’ve grown.
It worked – I did improve. In those days Saturday mornings was not 2/3 parks runs but interval training in the park – very effective. As most of my swim training, outside of drills, was interval work, I was very used to the concept.
In recent years some of my greatest pleasure has been taking my grandchildren to the parks, to do the things I’d done 60 years before, including learning to ride a bike, fondling the animals on the Peter Pan statue, feeding the ducks, chasing pigeons, collecting conkers and playing hide-and-seek. What a wonderful facility the Royal Parks provide.
In an effort to cover their costs the Royal parks have now become much more “commercial”, with a significant number of paying events such as the (not universally appreciated) Winter Wonderland and the summer concerts.
However, some events such as the impressive gun salutes, are free. Another that was essentially free was a 2012 Olympic show ground, and, memorably for me, the triathlon events where I was fortunate to be a marshal at “busy corner”, just where the Serpentine Bar & Kitchen cafe is located.
If they get the chance everyone runs in “our” parks, from elite runners like Steve Jones or Paula Radcliffe, to publicity freaks like Madonna and entourage, and everyone else from “princes to paupers”.
I’ve witnessed massive changes since the 1940s ’til today such as:
- The parks are far, far busier with pedestrians (mainly tourists) and bikes – the latter – especially Boris/Santander bikes – often constituting a wobbly menace, especially on non-cycle paths!
- No park-keepers to keep order, but a sprinkling of police.
- The new commercial imperative leading to many events and ruining the Parade Ground greensward area for long periods, to the annoyance of some.
- Too much (in my opinion) vehicular traffic.
- And lots of runners (a thoroughly good thing!).
The Royal Parks have been an essential part of my life, and of course the life of Serpentine RC – a vital asset. Whether the parks have improved over the years is arguable – I guess it depends what you like. Personally, I like them quieter, but of course you can still achieve this if you’re an early bird or are happy going out in poor weather. Running in the rain, early in the morning with just the ducks for company. Heaven, eh?
Charles Doxat is a long-time Serpie with numerous British swimming masters titles and British age-group Triathlon titles. He has been married 56 years and has 2 children and 4 grandchildren.