Articles

Heart of an Empire (1935)


St James’ Park, and the London traffic just beyond the trees. It’s only a few yards from the roar and bustle of London’s streets, down Waterloo steps, past the stately facade of Carlton House Terrace, to The Mall. Around the park are grouped some of the stateliest and most important buildings in London, forming a fantastic vista of copulas, towers and turrets. This Italian-looking palace is the Foreign Office. The experts here, overlooking the park, have their fingers on the pulse of world affairs. Here’s the Admiralty, with its wireless masts, keeping in touch with British ships in the seven seas. The War Office, where the general staff direct British troops in all parts of the empire. Downing Street. It’s been called the smallest, yet the greatest, street in the world. Here’s the famous doorway, No. 10. For 200 years, the official residence of Britain’s Prime Ministers. Here are the twin centres of imperial administration. But the dominions have their own representatives in London too. Australia House, inquiry bureau for everything about the Commonwealth, from cricket to sheep. Another unofficial embassy for visitors and traders, New Zealand butter, being unloaded at London’s docks. Back in Trafalgar Square is Canada House, London’s link to the great North American wheat fields. South Africa House, the shop window of the Empire’s fruit garden. Eye of India and the India Office behind. So, in the shadow of Westminster, St.James’ Park stands, surrounded by the key buildings of the Empire, and by memories of London’s historic past. Birdcage Walk marks the site of an aviary, which stood here in the time of the Stuarts. And here, the children play today. King Charles II used to saunter with Nell Gwyn and the spaniels. The park was a favourite haunt of Samuel Pepys, who came here often to gossip and to watch the fashionable crowd of his day. the wits, and the bows, and the mighty fine women, in all their splendour. Pepys once followed the King into the park, where he says: ‘whether the ice was broken and dangerous, he would go slide upon his skates.’ The famous ducks and the pelicans are a heritage from Charles II too. He even appointed a salaried official to look after them, with the title Governor of Duck Island. Overlooking the park is St James’ Palace, from which the park takes its name. Designed by Henry VIII as a home for Anne Boleyn, here the royal family have lived for over 300 years. But now of course, the royal residence has changed, to the other end of The Mall, past the Victoria memorial, to Buckingham Palace. And here at Buckingham Palace, the crowds gather every day to watch the comings and goings of the royal family to and from their London home. And here too, on a June morning every year, begins the most brilliant of London’s pageants, the King’s birthday parade. As the glittering cavalcade sets out for Horse Guards Parade the ancient tilting ground for the kings of England. So, through the centuries, shadows of great events have passed over St James’ Park. The ghosts of history are all around it. But today, the park remains a lovely place of trees, and flowerbeds, and green velvety grass. A place for pelicans and children, at the heart of the Empire.

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