Birdcage Walk, SW1
I have walked along Birdcage Walk many a time and never really given much thought as to why it has its rather charming name. Running from the south-east corner of Buckingham Palace to the intersection with Great George Street, Horse Guards Road and Storey’s Gate it forms a boundary to the southern side of St James’s Park.
St James’s park is the oldest of the capital’s royal parks. Originally a marshy water meadow it housed a leper hospital from the 13th century until in 1532 Henry VIII acquired the site to create a deer park. He also built a palace, St James’s, there and James the First made further modifications, improving the drainage and controlling the water.
The first clue to the origin of our thoroughfare’s name is to be found in Storey’s Gate. The Storey after whom the gate was named was Edward who held the post of keeper of the King’s birds. It seems that James the First had a penchant for collecting wild animals and birds and they were housed along the southern edge of the park. Charles II redesigned the park, planting rows of trees and laying down lawns. He threw the park open to the general public and would often be seen feeding the ducks and mingling with the hoi polloi.
The extensive collection of cages and aviaries housing exotic species was a great draw. On Sunday 18th August 1661 Samuel Pepys graced it with his presence as he was in the area, noting “and then to walk in St James’s Park, and saw great variety of fowl which I never saw before and so home”. Another visitor, John Evelyn, gives a more extensive account of the attractions than the rather laconic Pepys, when he went there on 9th February 166.
“I went to St Ja: Pke, where I examined the throate of the Onocratylus or Pelecan” which was a gift from the Russian Ambassador. “It was diverting to see”, he continues, “how he would tosse up and turne a flat fish, plaice or flounder to get it right into his gullet, for it has one at the lower beake which being filmy stretches to a prodigious widenesse when it devours a great fishe”. Despite the amusement value it afforded to on-lookers, Evelyn regarded it as a “melancholy bird”.
There were penguins, storks and cranes to be seen, all of which seemed to be munching their way through the fish stocks of the lake. One creature that took Evelyn’s fancy was one of a pair of Balearian Cranes which “having had one of his legges broken and cut off above the knee, had a wodden or boxen leg and thigh with a joynt for the knee so accurately made, that the poore creature could walk with it and use it as well as if it had been natural”. The artificial limb had been fashioned by a soldier.
As well as birds there were “also deere of severall countries, white, spotted like leopards, antelope, an elke, rede deers, robucks, staggs, guinny goats and Arabian sheep” on display. Evelyn’s final comment was, “the withy potts or nests for the wild foule to lay in, a little above the surface of the water was very pretty”.
The Walk in our street’s name owes its origin to a restriction in its usage. Until 1828 only the Royal Family and the Hereditary Grand Falconer were permitted to ride along it; everyone had to go on foot. Glad to see literalism still survives.