I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
– From “London” by William Blake
Two centuries ago, William Blake lamented the systemic ails of a leviathan called London. This April, I visited that beast. Though I had a blast, I sympathize with Blake’s song of experience. So much of London is chartered and paved; so little is wild and green. As much should be expected of the cultural, political mecca that reached its height of influence by sending subjects abroad to colonize and “improve” foreign lands (i.e., plow it over and eradicate the natives).
Four days into the venture, I struck out in search of wilder-things in this concrete jungle.
Refusing to brave the left side of the road, I did not drive my entire stay in London and it was glorious! The tube, the double-decker Routemasters, the crack-free sidewalks! I walked the two miles from our AirBnB in Pimlico to Hyde Park, happily sipping an Americano from a mom-and-pop deli called Delizie D’italia, which became our home-away-from-home while in London. The Americano is a fun novelty for a Yank abroad. Sure, you can find an Americano at any cafe in the States but the novelty in it is that drip coffee seems rare if not abject in London (and in Iceland, for that matter). You know your brew has not been sitting around for hours because there is no pot for over-worked baristas to neglect. If you order a black coffee, chances are, you’ll be handed an Americano fresh from the espresso bar.
Together, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens amount to 625 acres. For perspective, New York’s Central Park is roughly 842 acres. Immediately northwest of Green Park and Buckingham Palace, a columned archway in Queen Elizabeth Gates ushers visitors to the trim lawns, flower gardens and monuments of Hyde Park.
The first hint that I was not in my proverbial Kansas anymore was a Magpie in the grass below a Rose-Ringed Parakeet fluttering from tree to tree near the Rose Garden. Rose-Ringed Parakeets, known as Kingston Parakeets in these parts, are nouveau Londonites. From what I’ve read, it seems that the origin of these parakeets is subject to speculation. They did not arrive — or, at least, were not widespread — in London and surrounding areas until the 1990s when (and here’s the speculative part) one or more mating pairs were either released or escaped their keepers. Though they stay in the trees and off the ground, the parakeets in Hyde Park act much like other feral locals, pigeons and ducks. They’ll happily eat whittles from your open palm while perched on your hand.
I skirted the Serpentine and Long Water. Large waterbirds like Mute Swans, Graylag Goose, and Egyptian Goose are common, mostly unperturbed by people and very photogenic. A particular family of Egyptian Goose — a mating pair and several downy chicks — paused beside me to dine and preen. It was that time of year — birds and bees and the birds were especially getting at it. I stumbled upon many expectant parents sitting atop their clutches.
Though I saw old friends — Canada Goose, Mallard — nearly all species I came across were familiar but slightly different. Here, I did not find American Crow but Carrion Crow, not Great Blue Heron but Grey Heron, not American Coot but Eurasian Coot, not Common Gallinule but Eurasian Moorhen. For most of these, I had to do some extensive reading to realize the differences. Still, each one thrilled me. Here was something different and new, something I would never see in the States but in field guides and zoos.
After an outing, I tend to wonder how I look to other people going about their days — jogging during their lunch breaks, walking hurriedly to their next appointments — as I traipse through brambles or stalk a tree for some bird that is probably perfectly mundane to the locals. But so much amazingness happens all around us everyday. Why, that’s not an American Robin… That’s a European Robin!!! How my New-World heart melts…
I also came across the Eastern Grey Squirrel, an American stowaway who has made a comfortable living in England. One cheeky bloke scurried toward me as I photographed a bevy of mute swans preening their feathers beside the water. He stopped about a foot or two before me, entirely unafraid of my humanness, sat back on his haunches and awaited alms. I had none to offer, so he scurried off.
Charming but strictly manicured and populated with human-happy creatures whose behaviors make them seem more feral than wild, Hyde Park feels more like a garden than a park. And I don’t mean to complain. I wasn’t expecting to find Grizzly Bears or untamed forests within London. It’s just so damn chartered.
Bird-watching in Hyde Park feels a little like playing tennis with the net down. It’s almost cheating but it’s also exciting to see critters that you’ll never find roaming feral in the States. Further, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens are just two green destinations of many in London. Parks and gardens — ideal birding spots, including the London Wetland Center — and even urban farms are scattered throughout the sprawling city. You’ve likely heard of London’s grand architectural achievements — Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Big Ben and so many more — but the city’s efforts to create and maintain green places deserves equal recognition.