If we could stop the hands of time and take a step back to London’s Rotten Row in Hyde Park in the
1800’s and early 1900’s, what a sight we would see! Princes, Lords, Ladies, Dukes, Counts, Countesses, Earls and even a few top drawer mistresses would appear late afternoon in their carriages and coaches or riding their horses. Resplendent in the latest fashions and dripping with jewels in the ultimate meet and greet, this group called the Society or the “ton” came to London for many months of the year. The “season” ran from spring to early fall and allowed them to mix and mingle, see old friends and make new ones before heading back to their often remote country estates.
There would be no tradesmen here at Hyde Park, no shaggy ponies and cobs pulling coal wagons, or butchers’ carts. This was the playground for the rich and famous and the commoners would gather on street corners and laneways to gawk at this passing parade of finery, frippery and foppishness. The gentry would see and be seen, chat, comment and criticize on the slightest social or fashion faux pas amongst their set.
The Most Celebrated Hooker on Horseback
In 1861, a livery stable owner in Bruton Mews, London needed a way to expose and sell his horses to the wealthy and titled who rode in Hyde Park. He arranged that a stunning girl and courtesan Catherine Walters would ride his horses and drive his carriages in the Park. He had her dressed in tailor made habits in the “Princess” style that were fitted like a glove and with her ability at riding and driving his plan worked like a charm. Catherine Walters was staggeringly good looking and a fine horsewoman and his horses sold. Catherine Walters became known as “the most celebrated hooker on horseback.”
Discovered in a skittles alley (original form of bowling) Catherine Walters aka Skittles was the last of the famous “demimondaines” of the 1860’s. She was discretion itself and became mistress to many notables such as Lord Hartington, heir to the Duke of Devonshire; Napoléon III; French finance minister Achille Fould; and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII).
The idea took off and more high class courtesans rode horses for sale in Hyde Park and were permitted to do so as long as they dressed in proper riding outfits and behaved appropriately. And while the gents loved chatting to these courtesans who rode in “the Row” the true ladies of society turned a blind eye and feigned ignorance regarding these women who came to be known as horse-breakers.
The King’s Road Becomes Rotten Row
There have been countless changes made to Hyde Park and Rotten Row over the centuries. The infamous Henry VIII first acquired Hyde Park from the monks of Westminster Abbey in 1536 and used it for hunting. In 1637 Charles I changed the nature of the park completely and opened it to the general public.
Rotten Row, a broad track running for 1,384 metres (4,541 ft) along the south side of Hyde Park in London, was established by William III at the end of the 17th century. He wanted a safer way to travel from Kensington Palace to St. James’s Palace so he had the broad avenue through Hyde Park created and lit with 300 oil lamps in 1690: this was the first artificially lit highway in Britain. This track was called Route de Roi, which is French for King’s Road, and this became “Rotten Row.” In 1876, it was reconstructed as a horse-ride, with a brick base covered by sand.
Today it, leads from Hyde Park Corner to the Serpentine Road and is convenient for the Household Cavalry who are stabled nearby at the Hyde Park Barracks in Knightsbridge.
While riding stables were plentiful in Hyde Park in decades gone by, today there are but a handful left. One is Hyde Park Stables https://www.hydeparkstables.com/ offering riding lessons or a pleasant hack to view such impressive monuments as the Diana Princess of Wales Fountain, the Serpentine Lake, the Household Cavalry Barracks, the Albert Memorial, the Queen Elizabeth gate, Marble Arch and Speakers Corner.
In 1971, Barbara Hamilton Cartland, celebrated romance writer and step Grandmother to the late Diana, Princess of Wales, wrote The Pretty Horse-Breakers, the original idea coming from her friend Lord Louis Mounbatten who told her about the horse-breakers on Rotten Row.
Notable Films with Hyde Park Scenes:
– The First Great Train Robbery (1979) set in 1855. The film includes a scene in which the character Sean Connery escorts Pamela Salem on a romantic ride along Rotten Row.
– Around the World in Eighty Days starring David Niven, Noel Coward, Frank Sinatra, Sir John Gielgud and Trevor Howard.
– The Ipcress File (1965). The thriller starring Michael Caine.
– Johnny English (2003), starring Rowan Atkinson, Natalie Imbruglia and John Malkovich.
– Stormbreaker (2005) The 14-year-old hero hired by British intelligence to save millions of lives, is chased by the entire Household Guards on horseback through Hyde Park.
If you are interested in a complete history of Hyde Park’s Rotten Row, check out Horse and Carriage. The Pageant of Hyde Park by JNP Watson available through Amazon books. An interesting read with lots of excellent photos. http://www.amazon.ca/Horse-Carriage-Pageant-Hyde-Park/dp/0948253479