Park life: What’s the best park in London to hold a duel?

Wellington vs Winchelsea, March 1829. Image: Getty.

One sight that’s sadly disappeared from our parks in the 21st century is the duel: two idiots enter, shoot guns (or, earlier, wave swords) at each other according to a pre-agreed and often arcane set of rules, then somewhere between none and two idiots leave.

Why in parks? “Trying to, at absolute best, maim each other” was not particularly encouraged by the authorities: the sanctioned version, trial by combat, wasn’t officially abolished until 1819 but in practice hadn’t actually happened since the 17th century. And so, city-based fans of the hobby were forced to do in the relative isolation a park in the early hours of the morning.

If you’ve been wondering the what the best London park to try and mutually murder an acquaintance you’ve had a very mild disagreement with, here are some you could go to and imagine it very hard while definitely not doing it because CityMetric does not condone duels, except when they are funny.

Green Park

1730: MP William Pulteney and political writer Lord John Hervey had already spent time slagging each other off via the medium of newspaper columns (Pulteney co-owned a newspaper) and pamphlets (Hervey didn’t), basically because one liked the Prime Minister and one didn’t. But at some point one of them got too furious to hold his pen (according to some sources, when Pulteney passed comment on Hervey’s sex life; he was bi) and they took to the park to try and blow chunks out of each other, which they successfully did, albeit that they were small, non-fatal chunks.

1771: Lord Edward Ligonier offers Italian dramatist Count Vittorio Alfieri out for a fight after Alfieri shags his wife. Alfieri gets shot, but survives. Edward divorces his wife, who becomes a high-class prostitute and then, according to a legend, gives him a dose of the clap when he accidentally sleeps with her at a masquerade ball. Epic fail!!!

Finsbury Park

Finsbury Park tube station features some tiling with an image of a pair of duelling pistols, because the area was once known as a duelling site. Except that smart asses will tell you that when actually this was a cock up when the station was built and actually it was Finsbury Fields – now Finsbury Square, in the City – where they did the duelling.

Except: actually people did duelling bloody anywhere halfway suitable, including Hornsey Wood, the remains of which was turned into Finsbury Park. For example, an 1821 incident recorded by the London Morning Post, involving “two Gentleman extensively engaged in Stock Exchange transactions” who decided to make a risky investment in the “possibly being shot to death market”.

And while it doesn’t involve pistols, A Complete Bibliography of Fencing and Duelling by Carl Thimm – one of a number of highly relatable Victorian who seems to have mainly got into writing for the lists – records a “duel, with dagger knives, by two Germans” taking place in Finsbury Park itself on 25 February 1872.


Regent’s Park

An 1821 duel between a Captain J and a Mr H obviously a necessity after Mr H was heard to be using “strong language” about Lord Nelson in a pub. H is shot in the shoulder, but survived to cuss Nelson bad another day.

Later the same year a Captain T and a Mr R faced off after the Captain had given “unsolicited attention” to a lady friend of Mr R whilst at the opera (which, judging by the records, is a curiously common place for duel-beef to get started), for which his penalty was to be shot in the knee.

Battersea Park

Or at least, the fields that later became Battersea Park – where in 1829 the actual sitting Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, challenged the Earl of Winchelsea to a duel after the Earl announced that the PM’s policy of allowing Catholics to be MPs was “popery”. In the event no-one actually got hurt – Wellington missed, either deliberately, or because he was crap at shooting and Winchelsea fired into the air, then issued a pre-written apology.

Still, this does suggest a more interesting format for Prime Minister’s Questions.

Hyde Park

The London park of London parks inevitably saw a lot of the city’s duelling action. Two notable incidents occurred in 1792 – one involving two law students facing off because one of them had declined to continue drinking the night before, which is some pretty hardcore peer pressure.

The other demonstrated that duelling wasn’t just for the lads: a Mrs Elphinstone questioned the true age of a Lady Almeria Braddock sparked “the petticoat duel”. An initial exchange of pistol shots resulted in one damaged hat: at that point they switched to swords and after a palpable hit to the arm Elphinstone agreed to settle the matter with a handwritten letter of apology.

People would duel about more or less anything – In the 19th century there were at least two recorded Hyde Park duels that were sparked because one of the duelist’s dogs was too naughty.

But as in Battersea, one of the most notable duels was political: in 1763 MPs John Wilkes and Samuel Martin faced off in the park. Martin had laid into Wilkes during a speech in the House of Commons, at which point Wilkes turned around and said “Yeah, well up yours it was me who’s been been writing all those anonymous newspaper pieces about how much of a dick you are!” (I paraphrase), so there was NO OTHER OPTION than to try and kill each other. Outcome: Wilkes was shot in the groin, but survived to, among other things, make publishing Hansard, the parliamentary record, legally possible.

But what’s particularly notable about this duel is the rumour that Martin had spent six months practising with his pistol daily and had then deliberately trolled Wilkes into his duel-worthy admission in order to have a pseudo-legitimate reason to shoot him as part of an assassination conspiracy.

Given the current state of British politics, if you are in a park early one morning and do see any Members of Parliament hanging about together, probably just call the police immediately.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.