We know from our own experience that visiting large cities with younger kids can often be a bit of a trial, as there can be limited safe and affordable opportunities for them to let off steam. So the Diana Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens is a wonderful option to have in your 'back pocket' when you can sense that your offspring are reaching overload from being cooped up indoors! This would be a particularly good option for breaking up the day if you were planning to bring your children to one of the spectacular museums in South Kensington (Natural History, Science, Victoria & Albert), which are brilliant but can be a bit overwhelming for a full day: it's only about 15 minutes walk, most of it through the park.
The playground - which opened in 2000 - is a truly wonderful resource and a fitting tribute to a woman who unquestionable had an affinity with children. The centrepiece is a jungle gym in the form of a pirate ship, which is particularly apt given that Kensington Gardens is also home to the Peter Pan statue with commemorates J.M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan) - see my other travel tip. It is superbly designed - including a concrete crocodile reclining in nearby shallows and a treasure chest (thankfully securely locked) - and would keep any child happy for hours!
The pirate ship is the main event, but there are also many other attractions such as an encampment of Red Indian teepees (presumably where Tiger Lily lives?), a water feature that kids can play in, sound sculptures and all manner of things to bounce on, clamber over/under/through and slide down.
The playground is well landscaped with lots of vegetation to hide in. As a result, there is quite a lot of small wildlife - squirrels and a range of birds - which enchanted my children: these will be familiar to anyone living in Northern Europe, but paradoxically, since we live in Africa, grey squirrels seemed really exotic to my lot!
Sad to say, one of the highlights of the playground is the security (which sounds like a very South African concern, but a very real consideration in any big city with the risk of pedophiles using them as stalking grounds). The playground is securely fenced, and although entrance is free, adults can only enter if they are accompanying children (except for one hour in the morning). Conversely, children have to be accompanied by an adult so that the playground cannot be used as an unsupervised childcare facility. There are also good on site toilet facilities.
The best - and most cost effective - option if you're planning to stay for any time would be to bring your own picnic. However, if you're not that well organised, there is also an on site cafe which epitomises the sort of moneyed clientele that the playground attracts: organic produce, several vegetarian options, lots of goat's cheese and rocket with everything! Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that, but it did make me smile that the menu would so clearly betray the priveleged demographic!
Kensington Park Gardens is located west of Kensington Park and is home to many embassies and Kensington Palace, making it one of the most expensive real estate areas in the world. The London Cage was located here-the M19 spy center that was used during WWII and the cold war. The tree-lines mile long avenue averages £22m for a property there, but most are embassies and ambassador residences. The road was originally built in 1840 and named Queen Anne Road, but was renamed in 1870 when the trees were planted. The freehold is owned by the Crown but long leases are given to private buyers. The Indian Tycoon, Lakshmi Mital, at one time the 4th richest man in the world bought a property leasehold for £57m. Many famous residents have owned property there including Rothchild, Reuter, Bernie Ecclestone, Khalili, the Saudi Royal Family, the Sultan of Brunei.
There is a gatehouse at each end and i used to drive through there years ago but i am not sure if this is still possible.
This can be found in the north east corner of Kensington Park, but only adults with children may enter. It was opened in 2000 at a cost of £1.7m and some of the features are based on Peter Pan, the highlight being a pirate ship which children can clamber over. There are also slides, swings and an area for disabled children.
The Elfin Oak is a 900 year old tree stump surrounded by a cage, located near Black Lion Gate at the north west end of Kensington Gardens. Elfs, gnomes and small animals have been carved into the stump so it looks like the stump is home to these creatures. The stump originally came from Richmond Park and was relocated here in 1928 and it took the artist, Ivor Innes two years to carve the small creatures that now inhabit the stump. The creatures are painted from time to time.
As you walk northwards on the Broad Walk you will come across a worn old marker stone that nobody takes much notice of but if i remember correctly it marks the boundary of Paddington and Kensington, but i am not sure if the boundary is still in the same place today.
The Orangery was built in the 18th century for Queen Anne who hosted lavish dinners. Now it is a restaurant famous for providing high teas as well as breakfast and lunches with delicious home made food and cakes.
There are some magnificent conifer trees as you approach the entrance.
open 9 am- 6pm March to September and 10am to 5 pm during the rest of the year. There are also set serving times for the various mealtimes.
The sunken gardens must be seen in the summer to appreciate the care taken in planting all the colourful flowers. It is sometimes known as the Dutch Garden and many tulips can be found in symmetry around the edges in springtime.
Kensington Palace is the official home of Zara Phillips, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, and the Prince and Princess Michael of Kent. The original building was constructed in the early 17th century by the Earl of Nottingham but in 1669 King William III took it over as he wanted to get some clean air as he suffered from asthma in central London. Kensington was a small village outside London back in those days. Sir Christopher Wren extended the palace and for 70 years the British monarchs resided there, but Queen Mary died of smallpox there while a few years later King William fell of his horse and died a little later in the palace. George II was the last monarch to reside in the palace.
She proudly sits at the back entrance of Kensington Palace for all to see. Her own daughter, Princess Louise was the sculpture who celebrated 50 years of her mother's reign. Victoria, herself was born in 1819 at Kensington Palace in a room now known as the north drawing room.
The Round Pond is an ornamental lake facing Kensington Palace, but it is actually rectangular with an area 150m X 200m and 5m deep. It is the headquarters of the Model Yacht Sailing Association and in the summer you will find enthusiasts busy sailing their model yachts. There are quite a few variety of birds to be found on the pond and locals can be seen relaxing by the pond during warm summer days.
Kensington Gardens is a very lovely Royal park adjacent to Hyde Park. It is different from Hyde Park in that it is so ornate, with lovely statues and fountains - and Kensington Palace, which is where Princess Di lived after divorcing Prince Charles - I add a photo of the gate to the palace where people put heaps of flowers after she died. Queen Victoria was born in Kensington Palace and there is a statue of her by the palace.
Kensington Gardens were a part of Hyde Park until 1689.
There is an entrance to the park from Bayswater road by Queensway, where you enter into the beautiful Italian Garden with its ornate fountains, urns and statues. This garden was a gift to Queen Victoria from her husband Prince Albert.
The part of The Serpentine that is in Kensington Gardens is called The Long Water. There is another lake in the park called The Round Pond, they were given very simple names :)
There is a small gallery in Kensington Gardens, The Serpentine Gallery, where one can visit exhibitions. Free entrance.
There are lovely statues at Kensington Gardens, f.ex. the Peter Pan statue and Physical Energy (see my photo).
Albert Memorial (see my next tip) is at the very end of Kensington Park by Kensington road.
Opening hours: 06:00 - dusk.
St. Michael’s Church is located in Belgravia and, despite its wealthy neighbourhood and interesting neo-Romanesque design, there doesn’t seem to be much of note written about it. Nevertheless, the church is a quaint stone structure that adds a bit of humility to an otherwise well-heeled area.
As explained in my tip about Sloane Square, I came to Belgravia because of its ties to Agatha Christie’s famous detective (the fictional one), Hercules Poirot. It is in Belgravia that Poirot is supposed to have his Art Deco flat. Even for those who do not have an affinity for the Queen of Crime’s novels or her faux-Belgian sleuth, Belgravia has at least some attractions that are sure to catch one’s attention. Belgravia is supposedly the wealthiest district in the world, and its homes and offices bear the inescapable mark of tasteful opulence. You are unlikely to find the gaudy, outré flamboyance of Gulf construction or New Russian fashion, but rather the stolidly English sense of good living. The area was first developed in the 1820s as a fashionable section of the city, and has remained so to this day. Much of the land is owned by the Grosvenor Group, although progressive legislation from the 1960s has ensured that some of these titles have been sold off to outside owners. This hasn’t stopped the prices of homes in the area from rising, and the average price of a house here is something similar to USD10 million. Belgravia is a great area for wandering around and taking photos of the 19th and 20th century buildings, and in noting their residents. There are more than a few Embassies and Consulates that are located in Belgravia, and these are undoubtedly better marked than the residences of such (in)famous people as Gamal Mubarak and Roman Abramovich.
I’m pretty sure that I was only drawn to Belgravia because it is in Belgravia Mansions that Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s famous sleuth, is supposed to have his apartment. Sloane Square lies at the southern edge of Belgravia, on the border with Knightsbridge, and thus benefits from the wealthy boroughs that surround it. It features a large park with a statue of Venus in the middle of a fountain, and, although none of the buildings around the Square can claim to have been constructed as historically important residences, they all benefit from the general desire to maintain the area’s aristocratic (or at least moneyed) feel.
The Albert Memorial is proof positive that Queen Victoria was a dutiful wife, and knew a thing or two about putting her husband on a pedestal - literally and figuratively! So if you're coming to London on a romantic break or as a fiancee or wife, better temper your Significant Other's expectations up front (unless you happen to be of a similarly dutiful demeanour!)
Unusually for a royal marriage, Albert and Victoria's was a love match (at least on her side) and she worshipped and idolised him. Although he was only Prince Consort (not King), she deferred to him in their private life, and his fascination with the achievements of the Industrial Age was instrumental in popularising technological advances with the hitherto conservative aristocracy.
Victoria was bereft when Albert died unexpectedly in 1861 at the age of 42. Traditionally his death has been ascribed to typhoid, but recent research suggests that it is far more likely that he succumbed to Crohn's disease, which he had suffered from for much of his life. Victoria blamed her playboy son Bertie (the future Edward VII) for precipitating her husband's death as Albert travelled to Cambridge to intervene in his son's affair with the Irish actress Nellie Clifden and developed a fever on his return. This irreparably damaged an already chilly mother-son relationship and Victoria stated that she could never again "look at him without a shudder".
At the time she commented plaintively "Who will call me 'Du' [the familiar form of 'you' in German] now?" and spent the rest of her life in mourning, wearing only black and largely retreating from public life: in fact she was not seen in public for three years after his death, leading to unprecedented criticism of 'The Widow of Windsor'. Interestingly enough, the design and construction of the Albert Memorial was sponsored by public subscription.
You either love or hate the Albert Memorial, as the flamboyant revivalist Gothic architecture, overblown classical marble friezes and statues topped off with an overdose of gilding is not to everyone's taste: true to the spirit of the Victorian age, it symbolises that whilst less may be more, more is even better! Sharp eyed observers will get extra brownie points for noting that the external Gothic structure is inspired by the Eleanor Crosses (the best known of which is located outside Charing Cross station). At the time of writing (January 2011) the memorial had recently been restored to its full overgilded glory, and the sight of Albert's unexpectedly shiny gold face radiating through the gloom of a grey winter day is a little startling.
You used to be able to climb the steps right up to the memorial but access has now been fenced off (due to fear on vandalism?) and this is no longer possible. Sad, as I remember sitting on these steps and watching a partial eclipse with my Byronic - but sadly unsuitable - boyfriend on the evening of my 21st birthday as we were waiting to attend an Al Stewart concert at the Royal Albert Hall over the road. More than half a lifetime later, I returned as a middle aged matron with two kids and a spectacularly wonderful husband in tow - to whom I (sometimes) defer: I think that Albert would have approved!