Elfin-OakDelightfully carved out of a hollow oak tree, the Elfin Oak takes its name from the many colourful figures that adorn it.

The sculpture, which sits beside the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Playground is the work of children’s book illustrator Ivor Innes.

He spent two years – 1928 to 1930 – carving “Little People” upon an ancient oak tree trunk that had been found in Richmond Park and relocated to Kensington Gardens (and in 1930, with his wife Elsie, published the children’s book, The Elfin Oak of Kensington Gardens).

The characters depicted include animals and fanciful creatures such as a gnome called Huckleberry, a series of elves including Grumples and Groodles and a witch named Wookey.

The hollow, incidentally, had been presented to The Royal Parks by Lady Fortescue in response to an appeal run to improve facilities in line with a scheme by George Lansbury (among other things, he also founded the Serpentine Lido).

Now a Grade II listed structure (and well protected by wire mesh), it has a few pop culture associations – among them, the fact that it appeared on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1969 album, Ummagumma (the head of the band’s lead singer and guitarist David Gilmour can be seen projecting from the trunk).

Meanwhile, in 1996, Spike Milligan – long a fan of the oak – was the face of a successful campaign to raise funds for its restoration.

Announcing the Grade II listing in 1997, then Heritage Minister Tony Banks noted that the oak sat alongside the late Victorian fascination with Little People and complemented Sir George Frampton’s statue of Peter Pan (also located within the gardens).

“Together the two sculptures make Kensington Gardens very much the world capital of fairies, gnomes and elves,” he reportedly said.

PICTURE: Lonpicman/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0/

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Once the western part of King Henry VIII’s hunting ground, the 111 hectare Kensington Gardens is now primarily associated with the palace which sits at its heart.

The origins of the gardens go back to 1689 when King William III and Queen Mary II decided to make Kensington Palace (which, as we mentioned last week, was formerly known as Nottingham House) their home. Queen Mary oversaw the creation of a formal, Dutch-style garden featuring hedges and flower beds.

Queen Anne expanded the gardens after King William III’s death and commissioned landscape designers Henry Wise and George Loudon to create an English-style garden. She also ordered the construction of the Orangery which still stands to the north of the palace complex today (and houses a fine restaurant).

But it’s to Queen Caroline, wife of King George II, to whom Kensington Gardens owe its current form for it was she who in 1728, scythed off 300 acres of Hyde Park and employed Charles Bridgeman to create a new garden. His designs included damming the Westbourne stream to create the Long Water and the adjoining Serpentine in Hyde Park. He was also responsible for the creation of the Round Pond in front of the palace and, a landscape-history making move, used a ditch known as a ha-ha to separate the gardens from Hyde Park.

By the reign of King Charles II, the gardens had become fashionable for the elite to stroll in with the Broad Walk a popular promenade. But the gardens gradually fell from favour – a move exacerbated when Queen Victoria, who was born in Kensington Palace, moved to live at Buckingham Palace.

There were some changes made during the era, however. They included the creation of the ornamental Italian water gardens at the northern end of the Long Water and the Albert Memorial (see our previous story here) on the southern edge of the gardens.

Other highlights there today include the Peter Pan statue (see our earlier story on this), the Serpentine Gallery (with, in summer, a temporary pavilion), the Peter Pan-themed Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground (opened in 2000), and the Elfin Oak, a stump which originally came from Richmond Park and is carved with tiny figures of woodland animals and fairies.

There’s also a statue of Queen Victoria directly outside of Kensington Palace which, interestingly, was sculpted by her daughter Princess Louise in celebration 50 years of her reign, as well as statues of Edward Jenner, creator of the small pox vaccine, and John Hanning Speke, discoverer of the Nile.

Other facilities include a cafe and, next to the magazine, an allotment.

WHERE: Kensington Gardens (nearest tube stations are that of Queensway, Bayswater, Lancaster Gate, South Kensington, Gloucester Road and Kensington High Street); WHEN: 6am to dusk; COST: Free; WEBSITE: http://www.royalparks.gov.uk/Kensington-Gardens.aspx

PICTURE: Courtesy of Royal Parks. © Giles Barnard