Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 4 - Hyde Park

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[-43-]

HYDE PARK.

     I REMEMBER often in my student days to have watched with eager eyes the breathing lung of a frog — to have seen, focussed in the microscope, the apparatus at work which supports the ever-burning lamp of life. Distinctly within the narrow field of vision I could see the dark red blood globules, rushing in a tumultuous tide along the transparent veins, then pacing slowly as the veins broke up into a. delicate net-work of little vessels, so narrow that they could only pass in Indian file; then again I beheld them debouching into the widening arteries, where they commenced once more their mad race, one over the other: no longer purple, but — under the influence of the air, which in their slow progress had permeated them — a brilliant scarlet.
    With that curious spectacle fresh in my recollection, I will, in imagination at least, change "the field" of the microscope for that of air, and suspend myself in a balloon over this mighty city of millions. Slowly, as I rise, casting out sand in the ascent, the earth seems to recede from me, and at last all is gray mist, and a few fleecy clouds. A little adjustment of the sand-bags and the escape-valve, and I can focus London as the physiologist does the frog's lung in the microscope. Directly under-[-44-]neath me, hemmed in by a huddled mass of brick and stone, lies a large open space, traversed by wide white lines, along which crowd and jostle a flood of small dark spots, no bigger than the heads of pins —out of these wide lines branch an infinite net-work of small lines across the open space, sprinkled with many dots, which fall in crowds once more into the wide white lines. The small dots which enter the open space look pale and worn; as they circulate about, their colour changes; they move quicker and lighter; and at last roll out of the great space, :florid and bright.
    Surely, I have only been looking at the frog's lung. again, magnified a little more!
    No, I have been peering at Hyde Park, watching Rotten Row, and the drive, and the different pathways crowded with holiday people. I have been looking at a lung, too ; for what are all these dark points, but people representing blood globules, which, in the aggregate compose the great tide of life? And what is this park but an aerator to, the race, as the one I before looked at was to the individual !
    Let me descend to a more minute anatomy of this great pulmonic space: dropping myself just inside the beautiful screen of Hyde Park-corner. Five o'clock, and Rotten Row alive with equestrians! Far away between majestic elms, now gently dipping into the hollow, now slightly ascending the uneven ground, made as soft and as full as tan can make it, runs, in the very eye of the setting sun, this superb horse promenade. And here comes a goodly company, seven abreast, sweeping along with slackened rein ; the young athletes on the Elgin marbles yonder upon the frieze of the screen do not seem more a portion of their horses than those gay young fellows, whispering cour-[-45-]tesies to the ladies so bright-eyed and supple of waist, who gently govern with delicate small hands their fiery-eyed steeds. Single riders trot steadily past, as though they were doing it for a wager. Dandies drawl along, superbly indifferent to everything about them with riding-sticks "based on hip." And when I reach the Albert Gate, all Belgravia seems pouring out through the narrow streets on prancing, dancing, arch-necked steeds. Where all the horses come from is the wonder to me. As far as the eye can see, out far into Kensington, where the perspective of the road is lost in feathery birch trees, I see nothing but prancing, dancing horses, tossing their heads, caracolling, humbly obeying the directions of delicate wrists, or chafing at the curb of powerful bridle-hands. Nor do they end here; over the bridge and round the drive, the contingents from Tyburnia pour along in troops; and now, as I come to the comer of Kensington Gardens, there is a perfect congestion of equestrians, listening to the band of the Life Guards playing a waltz. There they are, ranged round the great trees, English men and maidens, and English horses, all thorough-bred — as noble a group as the wide world can show, whilst over head, the thick fan-like green leaves of the chesnut-trees cast a pleasant shade.
    Meanwhile, the drive is gorged with carriages moving along at a foot-pace. Let me constitute myself (for the nonce) a young man about town, and comfortably resting my arms over the railings, take a good stare at the passing beauty. I need not feel bashful. As far as I can see, for hundreds of feet on each side of me, there is nothing but young men leaning over the railing, tapping their teeth with their dandy little sticks, and making the most [-46-] powerful use of their eyes. Here I watch moving before me the great portrait gallery of living British beauties. Every instant a fresh profile passes in review, framed and glazed by the carriage window. Onward rolls the tide of vehicles — of dashing cabs with pendant tigers — of chariots with highly-groomed horses — of open phaetons, the reins of faultless white, guided by lady whips — of family coaches, ancient and respectable. Now and then some countryman and his "missus," in a home-made chaise-cart, seem to have got accidentally entangled among the gay throng, and move along sheepishly enough. On they go all to where Kensington Gardens leans, like a sister, beside her bolder brother, Hyde Park; and here all alight and pour in a bright flood of moving colour upon the emerald turf.
    Country people pity us poor town people, and wonder how we can exist ! Did anybody ever see such a public. park as this in the country? I never did. Indeed, I question if there be a prettier promenade in Europe than the north bank of the Serpentine, with its mimic beach or broken shells, washed by its fresh-water lake. Here, where I stand, might be called the port; underneath tall sycamore trees, which cast a pleasant shade on the edge of the water, are grouped the various boats which hail from this place. There is a cutter, with flapping sails, just come off a cruise ; another is beating up in the wind's eye a quarter of a mile off; a third comes sweeping in with her gunwale under water. There is some respectable sailing to be picked up on the Serpentine, I suppose. Near the picturesque little boat-house, which, with its weather-beaten carved gables and moss-grown roof, looks as though it had [-47-] been an old inhabitant of some Swiss valley, lie grouped a dozen light skiffs, dancing on the water, and reflecting on their sides the twisting snakes of gold cast from the sun-lit little waves.
    But what are all those mimic skiffs I see, coasting from shore to shore — cutters, sloops, and schooners, now on their beam-ends, now sliding in between the swans, which scarcely deign to turn aside their feathery breasts? These, at least, are playthings. Not at all. One of the boatmen with a straw in his mouth, and his hands in his pockets, informs me that they form the squadron of the London Model Yacht Club, and that they are testing their powers for the next sailing match. I am not quite sure that those grave-looking men with long poles, watching the performances of the different craft, are not the members of the Club. That big man there may be, for anything I know, the commodore — for they have a commodore, and rules, and a clubroom, and they sail matches for silver cups ! Look into Bell's Life in London, a week or two since, and there you will :find full particulars of the next match of the Yacht Club, "established in 1845," which is to come off in next June, for a handsome twelve--guinea cup, and which informs us that the measurements must be as follows :—  "The length, multiplied by the beam, not to exceed five hundred inches over all; the keel, for cutters, or yawls, not more than two feet six inches; and for two-masted vessels, two feet ten inches, on the level of the rabbet, with not less than four inches' counter." It is a very serious sporting matter. The vice-commodore of the sister Club at Birkenhead having proposed, by advertisement, to change the flags of the Club, "the white ensign to be [-48-] without the cross," &c., the editor of our sporting contemporary gravely objects,  "that the alteration of our national ensign cannot be legally made without the written sanction of the Admiralty." Fast young boats these !
    For the cup, some years ago, fifteen yachts started, and the different heats lasted the whole day; the America, modelled on the lines of the famous Yankee boat, coming off victorious. It is a pretty sight to see these little cutters driving along under full sail; and many an old gentleman, standing amid his boys, I have noticed enjoying it to his heart's content. After watching them for some little time, one's ideas of proportion get confused; they look veritable ships sailing upon a veritable great lake; the trees, the men, the sheep on the shore, swell into immense proportions, and it seems as if one were contemplating the fleet of Lilliput from the shores of Brobdignag.
    A little farther on stands the boat-house belonging to the Royal Humane Society; and in it are seen the awful-looking "drags" with which the drowning are snatched from Death's black fingers. Across the road is the establishment for recovering those who have been rescued from the water. Over the door is the bas-relief of a child attempting to kindle with his breath an apparently extinguished torch, and around it is the motto: "Lateat forsan scintilla," — Perhaps a spark still lingers. Baths, hot-water beds, electrifying machines, and mechanism by which artificial breathing can be maintained, are ranged around the rooms. .
    The majority of poor creatures carried beneath these portals are persons who have sought their own destruction. The bridge across the Serpentine is the Westminster [-49-] "Bridge of Sighs." Who would think this bright and sunny spot could be the haunt of suicides? They are mostly women of the better order, who have been brought to shame and abandoned —at least five women to one man being the proportion. The servants of the Society, who form a kind of detective water-police, and are always on the look-out, scarcely ever fail to mark and to watch the women who contemplate self-destruction. They know them by their usually sitting all day long without food, grieving; towards evening they move. When they find they are watched, they sometimes contrive by hiding behind the trees to elude observation, and to find the solitude they desire. The men, less demonstrative and more determined, escape detection, and but too often succeed in accomplishing their purpose. Those who have been restored to life, after hours of attention in the receiving-house, frequently repay the attendants with, "Why should I live against my will?" Nevertheless, it very rarely happens, here, at least, that a second attempt at suicide is made.
    While I have been dwelling upon this melancholy subject, the shades of evening have been coming on. The last carriage has driven off, and the last young man about town has tapped his teeth with his cane for the last time, and departed to his club. The water's edge is only thinly dotted with people, and the old gentlemen who have been sitting reading on the seats have gone in to escape the night-air.
    Gradually, however, I perceive a gathering of boys upon the opposite shore; they thicken apace, and soon the hum of hundreds of small voices is wafted over towards me; they line the whole shore for a mile, like little black [-50-] dots. As I look, the black dots gradually become party-coloured.
    What are they doing here in the boat-house? Getting ready a flag to hoist on the pole; three boats are also putting off. What is it that excites and moves to and fro the living multitude on the other side? The whole mass is turning white with frantic rapidity; up runs the red bunting, and five thousand youngsters dash simultaneously into the water, driving it in a huge wave before them. As far as can be seen along the bank, the water is studded with heads, like pins in a pincushion; some of the heads move out into the middle; the great majority remain timidly near the shore, splashing and dashing with hands and feet. The boats have taken up their different stations, and here they will remain, ready to go to the rescue so long as the bathing continues. At nine o'clock the flag drops, and " All out!" roared from stentorian lungs, booms over the water: "All out!" is echoed by many silvery young voices. The opposite bank is again a moving mass of white specks: these deepen to gray, soon become black, and then move off across the green, and all is quiet. Morning and evening, during the summer months, the Serpentine is thus made a huge bath for the children of the labouring classes. The better classes also make use of it early in the morning. One party of gentlemen, who have formed themselves into a club, bathe here all the year round; and when the frost is very hard and the ice is very thick, a space is cut for them with hatchets, to enable them to take their diurnal dip.
    The twilight deepens. A few children, feeding the swans upon the margin of the water, is all the human life [-51-] to be seen of the vast tide rolling along so incessantly a short time ago. Across the glass-like lake the waterfowl, here and there, are gently sailing, leaving long trails of silver as they go. Over the bridge the foliage seems to float in a bath of purple haze, and across the deep amber of the sky a flight of wildfowl go,  in swiftly moving line. Danby should be here to paint from it one of his delicious pictures of evening.

source: Andrew Wynter, Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, 1865