The Queen’s gardens

A 19th century map showing the area around Buckingham Palace, including the Palace Gardens, Green Park and St James's Park.
Green Park and St. James’s Park, 1833 (Buckingham Palace Gardens shown as The Palace Gardens)

This past week it’s been suggested by the writers Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (or Alibi-Brain as she’s known in these parts) and Simon Jenkins (in the Guardian) that the Queen should make some of her vast gardens open to the public. Previous dynasties bequeathed to the nation the huge royal parks of London such as Richmond Park, Hyde Park and Epping Forest but “alas the Windsors seem incapable of such gestures”. She complains that her 15 local parks “are knackered and overcrowded” and that other quiet spots fill up just as she discovers them. Royals and aristocrats, she complains, own 1.5 million acres and offshore companies also own a number of desirable properties. “The Queen has urged Britons to think of others during this pandemic. She should lead by example by opening up her vast, beautiful, arboreal treasures. That won’t happen,” she says.

I’m not sure where Alibi-Brain lives but it can’t be very close to Buckingham Palace, otherwise she would know that Buckingham Palace Gardens would not add very much space even if it were opened to the public. It’s a fair bit of land and would make a good size public park if there weren’t already vast tracts of public parkland in the area: it’s about two-thirds the size of Green Park which lies across Constitution Hill and about half the size of St James’s Park, which is the other side of the palace. It’s just across Hyde Park Corner from Hyde Park, which together with neighbouring Kensington Gardens dwarfs all three combined. All are heavily used by tourists as well as by locals and by workers on their lunch break, but as commuting has been somewhat reduced by the lockdown, locals have the parks to themselves. Buckingham Palace Gardens is the nearest of that group of parks to the residential area south of Victoria, but Hyde Park is not too far to walk and people living there may also have access to Ranelagh Gardens and Battersea Park to the south.

It’s true that the royal family owns a lot of land, but much of that is tenanted and farmed; some of it is people’s homes. There are vast parks open to the public at most of the royal palaces such as Sandringham in Norfolk and Windsor, outside London; the palaces themselves and some of their gardens are also open to visitors, and in Scotland there is “right to roam” legislation which applies to royal estates, including Balmoral. Not everywhere in the country has a royal house nearby, of course. Opening up Buckingham Palace Gardens or other royal private garden won’t help people who live a long way away from them. What might be more useful is to open some of these gardens to people who are shielding and need fresh air but cannot use public parks because of their condition. But this too would not help people who live far away from the site. A local park in any given area could also be set aside for this purpose (many areas have several parks).

I am no great fan of the royal family, especially given the treatment of the Sussexes (though the media is as much to blame for this) and the relative indulgence of Prince Andrew. They are obscenely wealthy and are known to have interfered in legislation when it affects their financial interests, as recently reported. However, the idea that they are sitting on huge amounts of land like dogs in the manger while people remain cooped up in their homes or condemned to wander in overcrowded bits of parkland is nonsense; there are vast amounts of open space in almost every part of London and in other cities and towns across the country. These include royal parks (in central and south-west London), municipal parks and privately-owned parks open to the public that are owned by organisations like the National Trust. Their private gardens are bigger than most people’s, but a fraction of the size of the country’s public parks.

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