You can drive around several of London's Royal Parks if you like, including on some of the carriage drives in Hyde Park and Regent's Park. What's less well known is that, in the sixties, a motorway was actually built on Hyde Park. Which one?
It's a slightly disingenuous question. If you know anything about Hyde Park you will already know there's no motorway there, and there never was. So what are we on about?
Hyde Park has a feature unique among London's Royal Parks, which is that you can not only drive in it, you can also drive under it. A considerable slice of greenery adjacent to Park Lane is sitting on top of an underground car park. If you've ever used it you'll know it's positively enormous, and all on a single storey. Demand for parking in the Mayfair district is evidently not as large as anticipated, or perhaps not as great as it used to be, because it doesn't ever seem particularly busy and significant parts of it are now used to house storage cages for Westminster City Council and various other purposes.
By our rough calculation, the underground car park is something like 126,000m² in size - that's 31 acres, or about 5% of Hyde Park's total area - all of which was excavated to a depth of at least three metres. That means half a million tons of Royal mud came out of the ground, to be replaced with neatly marked spaces housing Vauxhall Victors and Ford Anglias. And it all had to go somewhere.
The best place the Ministry of Transport could take it was to their nearest big construction project, somewhere a load of good solid earth would come in handy. In 1963 and 1964, they had just the thing: the new M4 between Brentford and Slough.
Today that motorway scheme is best remembered for giving us the lengthy and structurally troublesome length of viaduct from Chiswick to Boston Manor, suspended above the A4, which forms a significant two-lane bottleneck at the end of a three-lane motorway. But west of there, where it's an ordinary three-lane motorway, long lengths of it run either at ground level or just above it, and since very little of the motorway is in a cutting, the earth to build those embankments had to come from somewhere else.
So it is that almost all the embankments supporting the M4, and approaches to the various bridges carrying local roads over the top of it, incorporate those half-a-million tons of spare earth. The motorway is, very literally, built on Hyde Park. (The exception is the embankment under the M4 immediately east of junction 3, which is instead made of "domestic refuse". I haven't been able to find out why that might be the case, and it doesn't sound like a very appealing idea, but it evidently works well enough because it's still there.)
So, next time you're on the M4 around Heathrow Airport, spare a moment to consider the fact that you're driving on part of Hyde Park - and all so that, eight miles to the east of you, other people can park their cars underneath it.
Great article (as usual). You completely threw me with the question - I read it as "which Hyde park?", so started thinking along the lines of M67 around Hyde! Of course, that wasn't built until the late 1970s, so couldn't be the answer...
I suspect the reason the Hyde Park car park is not used to capacity are the absolutely eye-watering parking charges. OK, I know it is near Mayfair so residents are assumed to all be billionaires, but really !
I wonder if the car park was once intended to become part of a fully underground London inner ring road?
I've no reason to think so - there was no plan for an underground ring road until Boris Johnson's madcap proposal in about 2014. In the 1940s there were plans for a ring road that would include a tunnel under Hyde Park, but it wouldn't have gone under the same bit of Hyde Park, and in any case those plans died off in 1951.
Sometimes an underground car park is just an underground car park!
One of the oft-missed things about the Ringways project was an intention to effectively ban ALL private personal transport inside Ring 1.
The changes to London's outer suburbs are indeed interesting to think about, but the radical changes this would have caused inside the "Box" are mind bending.
I'd imagine the car park was excavated in anticipation of being needed for that, given the dearth of high speed inner-outer transport links and the difficulty of convincing (self)"important people" to ditch their cars.
I think the underground car park predated that - it was being excavated in about 1961/62 at a time when the urban motorways, later to become the “Ringways”, were still under complete secrecy, even from cabinet members at the London County Council, and couldn’t have informed thinking. Until the LCC was abolished in April 1965 it was their policy to provide off-street parking in Central London for as many people as wanted to drive there. The GLC’s policy, once they established one, was indeed to seriously restrict mobility for private cars within Ringway 1.
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- Photograph of path at Speaker's Corner taken from an original by Robert Lamb and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- Photograph of underground car park taken from an original by David Anstiss and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- Photograph of the M4 east of Heston taken from an original by Marathon and used under this Creative Commons licence.