Thursday, January 28, 2016

History in the Streets: London

I hate London and I wish I were out of it.”

So wrote Lady Katherine Cochrane in one of her letters to her husband – she was apparently living in lodgings while her husband, Lord Thomas Cochrane, headed up the Greek navy in the nation’s bid for independence. When the bother of town became too much, her ladyship habitually took to the quiet of the Kent countryside. 

While I could appreciate Kate’s sentiments, I could not share them as I strolled the streets of London one quiet morning in October. I had dashed by bus, Tube, and foot from the edge of Hampstead Heath to make a pilgrimage to Regent’s Park. This had, after all, been Kate’s neighborhood.

Hanover Lodge, Regent's Park, London, 1827. Villa designed by architect John Nash.

She lived in the London of mad King George, and Beau Brummel, and Lord Byron and Caroline Lamb. This was the London of the fictitious Dashwood sisters, and where the unfortunate Lydia Bennett presumably lost her virtue to George Wickham. 

Though no such figures lurked about that Saturday morning, I could easily enough imagine them. London has the charm of being able to keep the past visible alongside the present. Regent’s Park itself was a product of that very era, named for the bon vivant Prince Regent, George Augustus Frederick, and originally envisioned an aristocratic enclave, with a palace for the prince and several villas for his friends.

No palace materialized from these grand schemes, but some of the villas did – Hanover Lodge among them. Here Kate and Thomas settled in 1833 with their two youngest children, several servants, and eventually, a pony. 

Regent's Park Canal. Regent's Park, London.

It is a magnificent setting. The waters of the Canal are quiet. A few plucky blackberries cling to briars along the pathway. The trees still have their leaves, and the air is warm enough that I loosen my jacket. London seems to have forgotten this corner of its boroughs, for I pass only a handful of joggers. It is as close to solitude as one may get in a city of millions.

I follow the path as far as I dare, though it is not the worry of walking too far alone in a foreign city that pulls me back, but the consciousness that a train that will take me to my next destination, Edinburgh, will be leaving King’s Cross station in a few hours, and I must be on it. I reluctantly leave the Park, and my window into the past, behind.

P.S. After returning to the States, I learned that Hanover Lodge is once again a private residence – this time, purchased by a shadowy Russian billionaire.

Letter held at the National Records of Scotland, GD233/13/6/1/3/8 (2). Cochrane, Katherine Barnes. 2 May, n.d.

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