After more than a dozen trips to London, I’ve only visited Hyde Park once. Last summer, I was on a mission to find a particular Hyde Park sculpture – the Animals in War memorial. It was erected in 2004 but I only read about it in 2009. The article included photos, so I knew what it looked like and had a rough idea of its size but not the exact location. I’d seen War Horse (the play, NOT the movie) in London the previous year and it moved me deeply, so maybe that was why I wanted to find this, one of the newest additions to the park.
A huge green space of two conjoined parks sits in the center of the city; the western section is Kensington Gardens, surrounding Kensington Palace. The eastern section, more than half the total area, is Hyde Park. My Bayswater hotel was only a couple of blocks from the northwest corner of Hyde Park, making that a natural starting point. Dozens of paths crisscross both parks connecting gates, fountains, snack bars, buildings and monuments. The paths are straight, but so many converge at these various points that it’s easy to wind up somewhere other than your original destination. Normally, I wouldn’t care if I wound up someplace different but this time I didn’t want to walk in circles (something I did last spring trying to cut through Central Park!) because I really wanted to find Animals in War.
The fountains in the manicured garden in front of the Italianate Pump House just inside the gate sprayed tall blooms of water that sparkled in the bright sunshine at the northern end of the narrow pond called Long Water. The pond flows south, eventually curving east, forming a boomerang shape and changing its name to the Serpentine.
On this weekday, large numbers of people were taking advantage of the weather. School was out. Children, and a few geese, splashed barefoot in the Princess Diana memorial fountain on the south side of the Serpentine. A dozen or so mounted riders, possible part of the Queen’s Household Cavalry, practiced their routines on a bare patch of ground not far from the fountain, great clouds of dust rising from the horses’ hooves because of the unusually hot, dry weather.
After almost two and a half hours, I had covered most of Hyde Park with no sign of the memorial I searched for. I asked for directions at the Wellington Arch information desk; they told me the memorial was up near Marble Arch, at the northeast corner of the park. I had done a complete counter-clockwise circuit of Hyde Park. If only I’d gone clockwise but how was I to know? A better map might have helped. Aah, 20-20 hindsight and all that.
There was an even newer monument to see about halfway up Park Lane. This memorial to the 52 victims of the July 7, 2005 London bombings was added in 2009 and because one of the bombs had exploded on a bus across from one of my favorite hotels, I took a quick look. Squared stainless steel columns form a rectangular grove, each column 11 feet tall and marked with a victim’s name and bomb location. The columns are arrayed in neat rows with barely enough room to walk between them. Cut flowers, some fresh, some fading, were piled on the ground near the columns.
At the Marble Arch traffic signals, I looked towards the park, still expecting to find what I was looking for there. Then I looked across the street. Finally! The Animals in War memorial occupies part of a traffic island, of all places. I hit the crossing button and scurried across the traffic lane. A concave limestone stone wall is split into two segments flanking a narrow space that allows passage to the other side. A cavalcade of animal species used in wartime marches in relief across the surface of the wider wall – camels, elephants, horses, dogs and pigeons. Two bronze pack mules, weary and overburdened, embraced within the curve of the wall, trudge toward the steps they must climb to reach the open space. The wall is stark white; even the words are part of the stone, rather than contrasting metal. The summer sunlight beating on the stone appeared to transform the space into desert. The memorial’s title and other words are on the right-hand wall, ending with the tragic phrase ‘THEY HAD NO CHOICE’.
If you walk through the opening, you will join a two-animal queue. A sturdy bronze draft horse trots away from the wall, perhaps finally on his way home. A dog pads along at the horse’s heels, looking back towards the wall, one paw raised, watching for the mules to come through the gate. The horse and the dog have ‘made it’, heading down the gentle slope to the cool shade of the trees. This ‘back’ side of the wall carries the names of the sculptor, designer and others responsible for the memorial.
The memorial is overwhelmingly poignant and troubling: we still use animals to do our dirty war work. Their skills make them perfectly suited for tasks that humans cannot do easily, but the fact that we use them at all illustrates our willingness to value their lives below our own.
At first, I thought placing the monument on a traffic island was disrespectful, though there may have been a simple explanation for the location. Then I decided that it was a good spot. This memorial will be seen by many more people daily than if it stood inside the park. It deserves to be seen by as many as possible, as often as possible. It is a constant reminder that we can make the choices that these animals cannot; choices about waging war, about the value we do (or don’t) place on other inhabitants of the planet, human or otherwise. Next time you’re in London, put this monument on your must-see list and carry a map that shows its location, unless you’re up for a three hour walk.