For magical encounters this summer, take a stroll in Knightsbridge neighbours Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Look out for the Summer Pavilion, Peter Pan, and the regal Household Cavalry
Bjarke Ingles design for 2016’s Serpentine Pavilion
Peter Pan appeared overnight, appropriately enough, as if by magic.
It caused a Christmas morning-esque eruption of delight among children when, one day in 1912, the statue, a wonderfully winsome creation by Sir George Frampton, was set in place, a deliberate act of nocturnal chicanery to surprise kids out walking with their parents or, more likely, nannies.
Located on the banks of the mighty Serpentine lake that separates two Royal Parks – Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens – the Peter Pan statue is just one of a plethora of oddities and delights, showing that these two parks are the lungs of London and much more.
Indeed, as Dodie Smith, author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians once wrote: 'It came to me that Hyde Park has never belonged to London – that it has always been, in spirit, a stretch of countryside; and that it links the Londons of all periods together most magically – by remaining forever unchanged at the heart of an ever-changing town.'
The sense of Londoners using these parks as a place to unleash their inner child and to shed the schedule-hogging pace of everyday life in the capital is obvious at any time of year. For example, the annual Serpentine Gallery series may seem, and is almost certainly intended, to be a serious project of art installations. Yet its wild success over the past 15 years is perhaps down to adults careering around the temporary architectural creations like pre-teens on a sugar binge, before scampering off to play frisbee or drink Pimm's on the grass.
The Household Cavalry
For this season, the Serpentine Gallery has commissioned four Summer Houses designed by different artists and architects, all inspired by the nearby Queen Caroline's Temple, a neo-classical structure built in 1734. They will appear, for four months, alongside this year's Serpentine Pavilion, this time designed by the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. Taking the form of an 'unzipped wall' – a straight line transformed to a three-dimensional space – by day it will be home to a cafe and by night will become a space for the Park Nights programme of performative works by artists, writers and musicians.
The Serpentine lake in Hyde Park
Creative zeal may rule supreme in this corner, though there's still enough pomp to remind visitors of the origins of the two parks. Originally the hunting grounds of Henry VIII, they were first opened to the public during the reign of James I (for those of formal attire only). Even today, visitors can experience the areas' regal associations when the mounted Household Cavalry leave their Knightsbridge barracks and trot down to Whitehall in full ceremonial garb for the Changing the Guard. Meanwhile, guests of Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London enjoying breakfast in the dining room can catch a glimpse of them as they pass the hotel from around 10-10.30am daily (in the autumn, they go by every other day).
To use the two parks as locals do, though, it pays to come without maps or itineraries. This is a place where, in the all-too-fleeting London summer, one simply meanders and saunters at ease, rather than striding with purpose. Turn off your phone and let spontaneity be your guide; whether it be watching the impromptu political debates at Speakers' Corner (heckling is encouraged, or rather demanded, here), taking a rowing boat out on the Serpentine, exploring the rose gardens, or contemplating the vicissitudes of the quintessentially English form of modern memorial at the Diana, Princess of Wales fountain.
The Serpentine and Italian Gardens in Kensington Gardens
Yet, on a summer's afternoon, as the sun beats down upon the acres of lawns and the soundtrack is one of ice creams being licked, dogs' tails wagging, footballs being kicked into the long grass, and the occasional pop of a champagne cork, one is reminded just how essential these two parks are in keeping Londoners budding and youthful.
It's all enough to make one feel that perhaps JM Barrie himself was wrong when he wrote, 'all children, except one, grow up'.