Revisiting favourite London street names: Ha Ha Road

I was walking our younger dog the other day and came across a ha ha in the middle of a field. That made me think it was time to revisit Ha Ha Road, an old favourite, and one that lends its name to the book that I may yet finish.

But first, an addition from Beetley Pete to my most recent (but not that recent, alas) post on hay-related street names. As Pete says, “I used to live in Redhill Street, next to Cumberland Market, NW1. That was where the hay for the army horses was taken to be stored after it was no longer kept in SW1. The area is named after the Duke of Cumberland, the Army Commander who defeated the Scots at Culloden.” Thank you, Pete, you are a constant source of useful information and interesting personal tidbits about London.

Back to Ha Ha Road in Greenwich, which takes its name, simply enough, from the ha ha. A ‘ha ha’ is a ditch with a sunken retaining wall which originally served as a boundary marker for property, rather than a high wall that could block the landowner’s view. And what is so funny about Ha Ha Road? One theory is that the ha ha is so named from the reaction of any spectators who see their companions abruptly disappearing from sight (my preferred theory). It could also come be the exclamation of surprise from the unwary strollers who suddenly find themselves in a ditch.

Front view of the countryside ha ha

The ha ha was a landscape feature particularly favoured by Charles Bridgeman, an 18th-century garden designer who, in 1728 became royal gardener to George II and Queen Caroline. For the next ten years, Bridgeman was in charge of the royal gardens and parks at Hampton Court, St James’s Park, Windsor, and Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.

The gardens, once part of Hyde Park, were taken over by William III and his wife Mary when they bought Nottingham House and converted it for their use. Mary had the garden designed in a Dutch style to make her Dutch husband, known as William of Orange, feel at home. Mary’s sister Anne became queen when William died; she took 30 acres from Hyde Park and asked her landscape designers to create a more English-style garden. 

The biggest changes came about with Caroline, who took another 300 acres from Hyde Park and employed Bridgeman to produce a new design. Among other features, Bridgman created the Serpentine and the Long Water – and installed a ha ha, which provided a boundary between the Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park.

Kensington Gardens were first opened to the public under the reign of George II and Caroline: visitors were allowed provided that they were “respectably dressed people”.

Rear view of the countryside ha ha

Respectably dressed they may have been, but that didn’t prevent the king from being mugged there. He was in the habit of taking a solitary stroll around the gardens every morning and one day was approached by a man who jumped over a wall and, claiming to be financially distressed, very respectfully asked the king to hand over his money, watch and shoe buckles.

The one-sided transaction was carried out, and the king mentioned that there was a seal on his watch chain of little monetary, but great sentimental, value. The man promised to take it off the chain and return it provided George said nothing of the robbery. The king agreed, and the seal was returned the next day at the same time.

 

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