Bright lights, empty city
Country Life UK|March 17, 2021
For John McEwen, the enforced constraints of the pandemic have engendered a greater appreciation of our capital’s abundant parks and wildlife

LAST year, John Goodall memorably described the architectural revelation of the empty City of London (‘London in lockdown’, April 22, 2020). However, the pandemic has also left a legacy of discovery through familiarising the famous London parks—in this case, central London’s linked St James’s, Green Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens—their secrets revealed and knowledge amplified.

To buy a picnic in Westminster’s Petty France from the Royal Artisan Bakery, with its irresistible window display, was an obligatory start. A stroll to the 1841 Swiss Chalet in St James’s Park provided a delicious waft of January wintersweet from one of John Nash’s ‘floriferous’ Regency shrubberies. The chalet, once the bird keeper’s house, now a meeting venue, has a garden that is (usually) open to the public. A path, dividing formally arranged vegetables from informal flowers, leads to the building’s bridge, which allows close acquaintance with diving ducks and their amusing antics. As are most waterfowl, they are at their most numerous in winter.

A dabchick (little grebe) enjoyed the pools to either side, popping up at half-minute intervals. Pochard passed underwater; a showy drake smew and North American hooded mergansers added the glamour. The latter can submerge for up to two minutes, reappearing far away, after the onlooker has lost patience.

The cottage is attached to Duck Island, from which bird keeper Hugh Smith feeds the waterfowl, principally the six great white pelicans, which daily receive two to five fresh fish from 2.30pm. James I made St James’s a public park by creating a menagerie, complete with elephant. His grandson Charles II commissioned the 800-yard canal, the basis of Nash’s lake, and introduced exotic ducks and geese after being given great white pelicans in 1664, by the Russian ambassador (‘Birds of an unusual feather’, January 3, 2018).

The pelicans are as symbolic of St James’s as the ravens are to the Tower, also credited to Charles II. There are six: two white brothers and four pink females (hence their other name, rosy pelicans). Five of them are under eight (lifespan 50) and come from Prague Zoo. All have names, but the personality is Gargi.

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