Duck Island Cottage | A ‘rural’ retreat in St James’s Park
The history of the small cottage in one of London’s Royal Parks.
Entering St James’s Park from the Whitehall side, it’s likely you will have come across Duck Island Cottage. Situated on the eastern end of the park’s lake stands a 19th century cottage – quite a contrast with the nearby neo-classical, imposing grey stone government buildings and Buckingham Palace. Situated by the lakeside with a small stream running under a bridge linking the cottage’s two sections, it also includes a sweet little garden. When I first saw it, it reminded me of Mr McGregor’s garden in Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit tales.
As part a chain of royal parks (which are separated by roads), St James’s Park stands out from the others because of its birdlife. Established in 1603 under King James I (1566-1625), the park was named after a women’s leper hospital dedicated to St James the Less. After being landscaped, the park became home to exotic animals, including camels, crocodiles and an elephant! It wasn’t until 1664, the famous pelicans arrived as a gift by the Russian ambassador, and they still remain today. At the time, a long canal ran nearly the length of the whole park, with a duck decoy in the south-east corner to capture ducks for the royal dining table. The island in the middle of the decoy was given the name Duck Island, which was entrusted to the appointed Governor of Duck Island to oversee. The first cottage on the site wasn’t built until King William III’s (1650-1702) reign in the late 17th century, initially as a tea house. By the 18th century, Duck Island was removed due to the stench of stagnant ponds and replaced by grass.
Over the centuries, the park was re-landscaped many times, with the body of water changing shape between a stream, channels, smaller ponds and now the lake as we see today. The landscape of the park today is mostly down to the Regency architect John Nash (1752-1835), who remodelled the straight canal of water into a more natural looking curved lake in the late 1820s. He also reintroduced Duck Island, which had been missing for several decades at this point. With new trees and shrubs surrounding the cottage, birdlife returned to the park.
In 1837, the Ornithological Society of London was founded with the aim to protect the birds and three years later, work started on plans for a cottage to house a bird keeper. Architect John Burges Watson (1803-1881) designed the cottage comprising of two buildings – a dwelling for the bird keeper and a clubroom for the Society – which were completed in April 1841. The two buildings were connected by a small covered bridge, offering views across the lake and garden. The romantic design appears to be Swiss inspired and wouldn’t look out of place in the countryside. (See a 1844 sketch of the cottage on the London Metropolitan Archives).
From 1900 to 1953, Duck Island Cottage was home to bird keeper Thomas Hinton. The cottage was damaged during the Blitz in 1940 and by 1953, following Hinton’s death, the cottage was abandoned after it was considered unfit for habitation. Today, the cottage features water treatment facilities and pumps for the lake and fountain, while the garden is maintained by the Royal Parks. Duck Island is a nature reserve as a sanctuary and breeding ground for the park’s birds, including herons, mute swans and eastern or great white pelicans. If you want to see the pelicans being fed, head to the grassy bank adjacent to the cottage between 2.30pm-3pm every day.
- Duck Island Cottage, St James’s Park, Westminster, SW1A 2BJ. Nearest stations: Westminster or St James’s Park. Park is open daily from 5am-midnight. For more information, visit the Royal Parks website.
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