Guards Army, Hyde Park, 1915. Credit Keystone Press Agency
Visitors are invited to go on an immersive tour of Kensington Gardens’ very own First World War trench – a reconstruction of the one built in the park 100 years ago, which formed part of the Government’s top-secret plans to devise ways to defeat the enemy.
Two free public events on Sunday, September 17 and 24 invite families to discover the vital – but undercover – role played by London’s Royal Parks during wartime Britain.
The tours are part of a series of activities hosted by The Royal Parks together with The Royal Parks Guild to mark the centenary of the Great War.
During the war, Kensington Gardens was turned into a small slice of the western front to help soldiers get to grips with trench construction, warfare and living. And now visitors can go back in time to experience trench life for themselves.
Every half hour a costumed soldier from the 10th Essex Living History Regiment will lead a 20-minute interactive tour around a specially-constructed open-air trench to give groups a unique glimpse of how the army slept, ate and engaged the enemy during the Battle of the Somme. Events are wheelchair accessible.
To complement the tour, an exhibition will reveal how the original Camouflage School, sited at Kensington Gardens, enabled the army to experiment with innovative tactics to confuse the enemy through disguise – from cardboard cut-outs of soldiers to ships inspired by zebras.
Discover the story of how Solomon J. Solomon, a pioneer of camoflage techniques, established the school. Find out how he convinced the army to translate the camouflage techniques found in nature into cutting-edge techniques to deflect enemy aerial reconnaissance of troops and vehicles – and how he knitted camouflage nets from his mother-in-law’s house.
Families can visit Kensington Gardens’ war allotments, tended to by a team of volunteers. During the war, the view from Kensington Gardens was of radishes not roses. Growing-your-own provided a vital boost to a rationed diet. Visitors can learn how Kensington Gardens led the way with a ‘model allotment’ and discover vegetables produced during that period of history that are no longer grown.
A range of other activities will also be on offer including face painting and the chance for children to play a giant interactive game to bring the story of the First World War to life.
Eleanor Harding, First World War lead at The Royal Parks, said: “This one-off interactive tour brings to life the story of how techniques developed at Kensington Gardens’ Camouflage School helped baffle and ultimately defeat the enemy – from painting ships with zebra stripes to disguising key look-out points as trees.
“Today the Royal Parks are the heart and lungs of London, providing a slice of nature away from the hustle and bustle of the city for millions of visitors. But not many people realise that 100 years ago they played a more dramatic role to provide top secret information to the army which helped save many lives on the battlefield.”
David Ivison, Vice Chairman of The Royal Parks Guild, said: “This is a rare chance for visitors to immerse themselves into the fascinating but forgotten secrets of how the Royal Parks boosted the war effort – and find out about the people who worked in them. So much knowledge has been lost over time. But research organised by the Guild has uncovered intriguing snippets from the past.
“A ‘eureka’ moment came when the official list of Royal Parks’ war casualties was found in The National Archives. The subsequent discovery that 24 names of The Royal Parks’ war dead were included in His Majesty’s Office of Works memorial, situated in the Treasury building opposite St James’s Park, was a truly heart-stopping moment.”
The First World War project is funded by a £90,000 National Lottery Grant awarded through the English Heritage Fund. The project runs until June 2019 to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles, with a host of events being organised in the Royal Parks over the next two years.
Stuart Hobley, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund London, said: “This fantastic programme of events will highlight the significant but underexplored role that the Royal Parks and their staff played in the First World War, bringing to life the wartime stories of some of the UK’s most recognisable landscapes. Thanks to National Lottery players, the Heritage Lottery Fund has already invested more than £86million to more than 1,700 projects marking this global centenary and helping people to understand the lasting legacy of the conflict.”