Monday 24 July 2023

Green London: St James's Park, a Ghost and a Goddess

I've been blogging about London's green spaces in an effort to dispel a prevalent myth in the pagan community that the city is all concrete. St James’s Park is huge - nearly 57 acres of lawns, flowers, trees and a lovely lake that's home to waterfowl including pelicans. The latter were a gift from the Russian ambassador to King Charles II 400 years ago.

The park lies between Buckingham Palace to the west and Horse Guards to the east, and is one of the poshest of the eight Royal Parks in London. It wasn't always like that. The land was originally a marshy area through which the Tyburn river flowed and the site of a hospital dedicated to St James the Less, which treated "maidens that were leprous". The area was enclosed as a deer park for King Henry VIII in the 1530s. Charles II had it redesigned in a formal style. He opened it to the public and used it very much as a pleasure garden. In that time it was the place to go for causal sexual pick-ups, as described in John Wilmot 2nd Earl of Rochester's highly explicit poem "A Ramble in St James's Park". 

According to legends, the park is haunted by the ghost of a headless woman in a red striped dress. In 1804, George Jones, an officer in the Coldstream Guards told a newspaper:
"...whilst on guard at the Recruit House, about half past one o’clock in the morning, I perceived the figure of a woman, without a head, rise from the earth, at a distance of about three feet before me. I was so alarmed at the circumstance, that I had not power to speak to it, which was my wish to have done; but I distinctly observed that the figure was dressed in a red striped gown, with red spots between each stripe, and that part of the dress and figure appeared to me to be enveloped in a cloud."

Over the years other people have reported similar sightings as well as strange sounds. There's been speculation that the woman was the wife of an 18th century soldier who murdered her by chopping off her head and tried to get rid of the body in the lake.

On the edge of St James's Park, in Waterloo Place, is a gilded statue of Athena, Goddess of Wisdom. She stands on the balcony of the Athenaeum, a private members' club founded in 1824 for professional people in fields such as literature and the arts, science and education. The Athenaeum's website describes Athena as "the Club’s tutelary spirit and guide".

The pelican photo is copyright Sandra Lawrence, the Athenaeum photo is copyright John Davies, the other photos were taken by me, Lucya Starza.

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