There’s nothing quite like urban horseback riding. Today equestrians can ride where kings once ruled and the city’s elite came out in livery carriages ‘to see and be seen’ along an historic path called Rotten Row in London’s Hyde Park. A plaque in the park tells us its story: Rotten Row The King’s Old Road Completed 1690 – This ride originally formed part of King William III’s carriage drive from Whitehall to Kensington Palace. It’s construction was supervised by the Surveyor of their majesties road, Captain Michael Studholme, and it was the first lamp-lit road in the kingdom. Designated as a public bridleway in the 1730’s, Rotten Row is one of the most famous urban riding grounds in the world.
Rotten Row Rituals
Hyde Park Stables, on a quaint side street called Bathhurst Mews her the park, offers horse rentals. During one trip to London I mounted up. As we exited the lane, the sound of iron horseshoes landing on ancient cobblestones gave rhythm to our walk towards the park. Our group of eight waited briefly beneath the Archery Tavern pub sign before crossing heavy traffic on Bayswater Road to enter the park beneath Victoria Gate.
Sitting tall in the saddle, feeling the horse’s stride lengthen, we both relaxed with each stride as we walked along the West Carriage Drive. As we crossed a bridge over The Serpentine, the park’s biggest lake, we gathered up behind the Albert Memorial. Surrounded by greenery, tall trees and bushes brilliant in their fall colors, we stepped upon the famed Rotten Row.
“We are all going to wait, until I tell you to go, and take a canter, one at a time,” our instructor said. POW! A small bay pony burst forth down Rotten Row with a little boy astride. He was kicking his little legs, that barely reached below the saddle, and flapping his little arms like a bird trying to take off. Elbows pointed skyward came slamming against his sides in unison with his legs hitting the pony’s barrel side.
“Stooooop Him!… Stop Him!…” came the call from our leader. Little boy must have been deaf as the more he was yelled after, the faster his fluttering legs and arms moved. Now, the leader took off after him, making a daring grab of the reins to pull the pony to a stop. Many in our group were having a good chuckle. Then once all back in formation, one at a time — pony and boy sent to the end of the line — we did our own impressions of fluttering legs and arms to get our bridle-path weary horses to canter down Rotten Row.
Most were obliging, others needed more coaxing. The mile long canter down a 75-foot wide path of fluffy tan footing made for a nice ride. Compared to the hard packed cinders on Central Park’s bridle path, it was like floating on a cloud. The challenges in any park setting, waiting for something to dart out into your path that might spoke the old steed, were ever present. The scenarios were endless. Dogs, children, children chasing dogs, balls, children chasing balls, dogs chasing balls, children chasing dogs chasing balls, errant tourists, police on horseback in pursuit of suspects. You get the picture. After safely making it down Rotten Row to Queen Elizabeth’s Gate at Hyde Park Corner, we stopped to collect our breaths and release a sigh of relief. What a lovely calm ride.
Our group gathered near the Archilles Statue and made a left turn to head down Dorchester Ride, another fluffy lane to canter. Basically, we heading back home to the mews. One at a time, we were launched. Asking Sedrick for a canter this time was not even necessary. Like all good hack horses, he knew where to walk, trot, and canter. And canter he did. Full out this big buckskin boy began, having the time of his life. Nothing I did slowed his canter home. Quickly I realized it was time to enjoy the ride and not be in control (those who know me can chuckle here) but not before I saw the bus.
I looked to my right and there at eye level was a red double decker bus speeding down Park Lane, a busy highway parallel to the park. Sedrick was in a race with the bus. It seemed like the bus was heading towards us. We got so close, I could the terror in the tourists’ eyes as they looked at us, seeing the terror in my eyes. As Sedrick passed the Joy of Life Fountain, with the bus getting closer, I thought for a moment it might turn into my personal End of Life Fountain. But the trail then veered left away from Park Lane and the bus. Now, I started to breath, but still cantering while taking in the sights and sounds of London around me.
As Speaker’s Corner appeared I could see the Marble Arch in the distance. I could hear pigeons flapping and police activity. I could smell the diesel fumes from the traffic that swirled around the park. And then, as if on cue, bomb-proof Sedrick slowed to a walk, blew out his nostrils, lowered his head and headed home on the North Ride with the rest of our herd. I wore a smile from ear to ear. Cost of horse rental £85 – Cantering next to a double decker bus taking tourists to Harrods in Knightsbridge – priceless.
Next time you’re in London – book a ride at www.HydeParkStables.com