The most fashionable bridle path in all of Regency London was Rotten Row in Hyde Park. It has been a very popular setting in countless Regency romance novels all the way back to Georgette Heyer. Rotten Row is still maintained as a bridle path in Hyde Park even today. However, there have been changes made to Rotten Row over the years, so that the Row today is not the same Row along which fashionable ladies and gentlemen of the Regency rode to see and be seen.
What are the origins of Rotten Row, how did it get its name, and what was it like during the years of the Regency?
In 1689, William III purchased what would become Kensington Palace from the Earl of Nottingham, as a country house where he and his queen could escape the smoky air of London. By 1691, King William began construction on a new, more direct road to take him to his country retreat from his London Palace of St. James’s. This road was built along the southern part of Hyde Park, running about a mile and a quarter from Hyde Park Corner to the grounds of Kensington Palace. But this road also followed the same route which the Plantagenet kings had traveled from Westminster to their royal hunting forests at Windsor in medieval times. In the late seventeenth century, the western approaches to London were plagued with numenous footpads and highwaymen, so King William had his new road lined with more than 300 lanterns to light his way. This was the first use of street lighting in London, in fact, in all of England, and it inspired wonder in all who saw the King’s Road fully illuminated at night. It is for this reason that King William’s Road was often called the Lamp Road.
For more than thirty years, the Lamp Road served the royal family and their courtiers as they traveled between London and Kensington Palace. But in 1737, George II ordered the construction of a new royal carriageway just to the south of the Old King’s Road, still within the boundaries of Hyde Park. A few years previously, in 1730, his queen, Caroline, had sponsored improvements to Hyde Park, one of which was the creation of the Serpentine. But this lovely ornamental lake also severed the most popular ride in Hyde Park, the Ring, from the southern side of the Park. Once the new King’s Road was completed, it was planned to turf over the Old King’s Road and convert it to a promenade for pedestrians. But the plan to grass over the old road was never carried out as there was great public sentiment for the preservation of the old Lamp Road. Instead, it was resurfaced with gravel and tan and converted to a bridle path for the Hyde Park riders who had lost the use of the Ring by the construction of the Serpentine.
Thus, the Old King’s Road became the Hyde Park bridle path which was eventually to be called Rotten Row. It was in about 1780 that the old Lamp Road became widely known as Rotten Row. There are a number of explanations given as to the source of the name. The most often cited is that it is a corruption of the French name of the King’s Road, "Route du Roi." Another possibility is that it got its name from it surfacing material. As I noted above, when the road was converted to a bridle path it was covered with a mix of gravel and tan. Tan is the crushed bark of trees, primarily oak, from which an infusion is made to convert raw animal hides into leather. The spent bark from the tanning process was very popular for use on riding courses, as well as with gardeners. It is very similar to modern-day mulch. The meanings of the English word "rotten" include "friable," "soft" or "yielding" all of which could apply to the surface of the "row" which was used in the sense of "right of way" or a "straight avenue." Horses, as big as they are, are remarkably delicate creatures. Their legs are especially fragile, and can easily be damaged if they must walk, trot, or worst of all, gallop over a very hard surface. Thus, the mix of gravel and tan which was laid down on Rotten Row would be an ideal surface over which to ride or drive horses, especially prime blood stock. An all tan surface would have been fine for horses which were ridden, but the gravel gave the surface enough firmness that the wheels of the carriages would not sink into the very soft tan and be a drag on the horses pulling those carriages. Another suggestion for the source of the name Rotten Row is that it derives from the German word "rotteran," which means "to muster." This seems to be linked to the use of Hyde Park for many military reviews and assemblies, but is really a bit far-fetched, since the last of these events had taken place in Hyde Park during the English Civil War. Another interesting, though unlikely, suggestion for the name Rotten Row is that it has a Celtic source, in the word "rattanreigh," which means a good mountain path as opposed to a bad one.
Rotten Row quickly became the place for the beau monde to ride or drive in London, as depicted in a scene from Pierce Egan’s Life in London. Hacking, that is, riding for pleasure rather than for travel or sport, first became popular in Hyde Park, and Rotten Row was the center of hacking for London’s leisure class. There were strict rules for the use of the Row, which required that horses and carriages should be driven at a sedate pace, no wild or high-speed riding or driving was allowed. The Hyde Park authorities allowed the use of the Row very early in the morning by grooms who exercised the horses of the aristocracy, but they required that each horse be ridden by a groom, no horse could be led by a groom riding another horse. The intent of this rule was to keep horse jobbers and others from turning the Row into an exercise yard. Wealthy aristocrats employed enough grooms and stable hands to put a rider up on every horse being exercised, while jobbers could not. Though it was not an official rule, it was expected that those who traveled the Row at the social hour would conform to the fashions of the day, appearing in their very best riding clothes and behaving with great decorum. Riding or driving in the Row was a much a social event as a form of exercise. The Prince of Wales regularly drove here with his various paramours, as did many a Regency rake and later it became the favorite venue for the pretty horse-breakers such as the famous "Skittles," Catherine Walters.
When Rotten Row was first made available as a bridle path in 1737, both riders and carriages were allowed to use it. This remained the case through the years of the Regency. The social set who frequented the Row during these years was a relatively small group. Thus, even during the heavy use of the bridle path during the social airing each afternoon, there was enough space along the Row to accommodate all of the riders and drivers who chose travel along it to see and be seen. But by 1834, as the population of London increased, the traffic along the Row was so heavy that it was necessary to segregate riders from carriages for the safety of both. At that time carriages were barred from Rotten Row, and instead, they were required to use the South Carriageway, which was, in fact, the New King’s Road which had been built by George II to replace William III’s Old King’s Road. The only exception to the ban of carriages in the Row was the Duke of St. Albans, the Hereditary Grand Falconer, who retained the privilege of driving his carriage along Rotten Row, should he choose to do so. For many years during Victoria’s reign, the Duke drove his carriage the length of Rotten Row once a year so that he could retain this privilege. By the late twentieth century, there was again so little traffic along the Row that carriages now travel along it once again, though not frequently.
In 1737, Rotten Row was lined with wooden fencing, to separate it from the public walkways which ran along either side. In 1853, the Row was widened to about 100 feet and new iron railings were put up along both sides. Until the late 1860s, the full original length of the old King’s Road was available to riders, from Hyde Park Corner to the Kensington Palace Gate. However, about 1868-9, approximately a quarter of the western end of the Row was appropriated as a staging area for the construction of the Prince Albert Memorial. A supplementary loop known as the "New Ride," was constructed south of the main row between the Alexandra Gate and the Albert Gate to compensate riders for the loss. The lost portion of the original Rotten Row was not returned to the Row after construction of the Albert Memorial, but its track survives as the course of the Flower Walk in Kensington Gardens. You can see the route yourself it you search Google Maps for the Albert Memorial, then turn on the Satellite view. If you look just above the Memorial, between The Ring/Exhibition Road and The Broad Walk you can see the lost portion of Rotten Row, now the Kensington Garden Flower Walk. All of the iron railings along Rotten Row were removed during World War II and melted down for scrap metal for the war effort. During and after World War II, though the Row remained open to riders, it was not often used, and mainteance was intermittent. But by the later decades of the last century, it was again reworked. Now, a bicyle path runs along one side of the Row, and it is separated from the bridle path by an iron railing. The other side of the Row does not have a railing and is open to the Park. The bike path reduces the width of the Row back to about the same width it had originally, the width it would have had during the Regency.
Rotten Row duing the years of the Regency was about 75 to 80 feet wide, a mile and a quarter long, bordered on each side by wooden fencing, probably about three feet in height, the surface covered with a mix of gravel and tan. Both riders and carriages had the use of the bridle path, and it was the most popular venue for social hacking and driving in all of Regency London. During the afternoon promenade, it was expected that all riders and carriages would travel at a sedate and decorous pace. But early in the morning, when horses were often exercised along the Row by the grooms of the aristocracy, there were those gentlemen, and some ladies, who took their horses to the Row, gave them their heads and enjoyed a good gallop. There were grassy walkways along each side of the Row, outside the wooden fencing, where the common folk might stroll, particularly on a Sunday afternoon, hoping to catch a glimpse of a member of the bon ton or even of the royal family.
Rotten Row still exists, running along the southern part of Hyde Park. It is now shorter than the Row of the Regency, but about the same width. It is open to riders and carriages even today. There are stables nearby which hire horses for those who wish to ride along Rotten Row, so if you should ever find yourself in London and and wish to travel in the path of one of the heros or heroines from your favorite Regency novels, you might want to contact Hyde Park Stables to make a reservation. But keep in mind that should you ride, or walk the Row, you will also be traveling in the path of the Plantagenet kings, William III, George II, and the Prince Regent. That particular stretch of road has a very long history well beyond the fanciful tales woven around it by authors of Regency novels.
For more information about Rotten Row and Hyde Park:
Ashton, John, Hyde Park from Domesday-book to Date. London: Downey and Company, 1896.
Bellamy, Joyce, Hyde Park for Horsemanship. London: J.A. Allen, 1975
Larwood, Jacob, The Story of the London Parks. London: Chatto and Windus, 1881.
Picard, Liza, Victorian London: The Tale of a City 1840–1870. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006.
Tweedie, Ethel Brilliana Harley, Hyde Park, Its History and Romance. London: Eveleigh Nash, 1908.
Williams, Guy, The Royal Parks of London. London: Constable and Company, Ltd., 1978.