The toddler's Guide is written by Solnushka's eighteen-month-old daughter, who is generally accompanied on her travels by her Mama and her Big Brother, who is four and a half. She wishes everyone to know that the spelling is Mama's.
Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens
Hyde Park is big. It’s not as big as Richmond Park or, y’know, space, but it is nevertheless big and particularly big for the purposes of this Guide as Mama says I should include Kensington Gardens. She says no-one really knows where one stops and the other begins anyway, certainly not her. So Hyde Park (with Kensington Gardens) is big. This is important for Londoners, most of whom do not have gardens to call their own. At the slightest hint of sun they will therefore head for a park en masse, and since the capital would probably give space a run for its money, it’s good that there is still room to move about in this very central public open space despite the very large numbers of people who frequent it.
Mostly our walks there begin in the middle of the southern side, hoping for a sight of horses as we cross the sand covered dedicated riding track, a feature of the park which dates back to its days as the place for the great, the good and the beautiful to ride around on display to all and gossips1. Sometimes we get to see the Horseguards exercising their nags or, on really exciting days, practising for some big ceremonial outing. There were a lot of these this last Jubilee year, so there were a lot of opportunities for such sightings to happen. Fabulous stuff, especially when they are in the dressage square.
The Albert Memorial run is the one we do if we are in a hurry. Straight along the bottom edge of the park and out via the ice cream kiosk to the bus home at the end. It is an excellent route for toddlers, having broad, well-paved pathways and a total absence of water features. Plus, I like climbing the steps to the Albert Memorial, and even Papa likes hanging out here. Built by Queen Victoria to honour her late husband, the Memorial displays all the taste and subtlety of which the Victorian age is known for, which is to say none at all, and the fact that Albert is covered from head to foot in gold leaf and makes Papa, the Russian, feel right at home. Practically any public art that stands still for too long in Russia is covered by gold leaf. As a result, the Albert Memorial is the only bit of statuary in London Papa approves of.
The Diana Memorial Fountain option is something we have only really started doing this summer. Mama freely admits to being wrong about the Fountain, which she came across in its early stages, back when she didn’t have kids and it spent six months cordoned off for not working properly.
Of course it remains more of a low lying circular cannalette than anything else, and certainly not, in the absence of your actual spurting water, a fountain. But the thing is, now they have fixed whatever plumbing problems there were, it has become a bit of a hangout on a nice sunny day. People sit on the edge of the channel, wade round and round the waters, or picnic on the surrounding grass. There are a lot of kids, most of them wet, but it’s not all families and that is rather nice too. And while nothing shoots up in the air, up close the stream is interestingly textured with different flow patterns and in places even loud and oddly musical. Mama says we can build her one of these when she goes any day. Not sure where she is planning on going, but I’m sure we will figure it out.
The nearby Serpentine lake is pretty tedious to walk all the way round (Mama thinks) and best avoided altogether with two water obsessed children. Mama is particularly adamant about this after she had to fish my Incredible Big Brother’s scooter out of the water not once but twice on one trip. So we generally depart the waterside briskly after hanging over a decently fenced section admiring the ducklings and goslings and signets, pausing only to see if anyone is braving the waters in the specially fenced off lake/pool. Mama tells me that you have to be a member of some club to actually get in the water. I ink this is just an excuse and plan on testing the theory as soon as I can toddle faster. In the meantime, we usually end up at the playground back up near the Horseguard barracks. It has a coffee dispensing kiosk right outside, so everyone is happy.
But the way we most often go is to the Round Pond2 via the Serpentine Gallery. Even through the Gallery sometimes, an occurrence which happens more if we are with my Incredible Big Brother’s friend and his artist father. Mama enjoys being in an art gallery with someone who understands what they are seeing, but since her default positions on art, especially rooms with large screens showing rather incomprehensible films about a music box, involve being polite and describing it as ‘nice’ or indulging her snark and being funny about it, she also finds that rather stressful. So we frequently divert around it.
The Round Pond is much beloved of my Incredible Big Brother because there are many geese and swans and ducks here. Until recently, when Mama decided he is becoming rather too large and intimidating to indulge in the habit, my Incredible Big Brother would spend many happy hours herding any water birds which had the temerity to set webbed foot on land back into what he considers to be their only permissible habitat. This is only a temporary reprieve as I have been taking notes and soon it will be my turn to harass the birdlife of London parks unmercifully. Also, squirrels. It’s a good thing both of us are photogenic because the tourists who have got lost on their way from Kensington Palace to the Diana Fountain love this kind of behaviour and take whole memory sticks full of pictures of a line of grown swans waddling, cowed, in front of a determined small boy (or girl). If anyone reading this finds themselves being shown such a photo from a recent returnee from the Sceptred Isles, do say Hi from me.
If we have made really good time, next we sometimes bear right and go to the Diana Memorial Playground, although Mama is not a huge fan. In many ways it is an excellent playground, with a huge sand pit, some really good slides, swings and climbing frames, and best of all a gigantic pirate ship, all divided up into different areas separated by high grassy banks or really big bushes. Unfortunately this latter feature is what causes the problem. Thing is, Mama likes to be able to keep half an eye on my Incredible Big Brother whilst following me around wherever my whimsy takes me. Or at least, she likes to be able to keep an eye on the exit, particularly when my Incredible Big Brother was smaller and didn’t understand instructions like ‘stay in this playground at all times’. This is pretty much impossible with the Diana Playground, and so Mama is forced to choose between being the helicopter Mama she likes to pretend she isn't or the momentarily panic of not being able to find one of her children when she makes sporadic checks to ensure he hasn’t recruited the other under fives in a plot to take over the world or something.
Which is why she is almost always forced to fortify herself at the refreshments booth outside. I recommend the ice cream. Mama likes the coffee.
Anyway, Hyde Park is great for toddlers, and that’s even without the special events they sometimes have like the Winter German Fairground Attraction Festival.