Duck Island is very small island and is located at one end of the lake in Saint James’s Park, behind the cottage that looks like a Swiss chalet. It is hidden from view by a ring of trees and undergrowth and is not open to the public. Its name derives from the fact that in the days when St James’s was an enclosed park, decoys were built to attract ducks for the royal table.
Small though it is, the island once had its own governor. In the early 1660s Charles II appointed Charles de Saint-Evremond, a French aristocrat who had fled the wrath of Cardinal Mazarin in France during the 1660s, to be in command of Duck Island on £300 a year. It must be the smallest amount of land ever given to a governor.
Saint-Evremond, curiously, is buried in Poets’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. One of the things Charles II liked about him was that he introduced him to French champagne, which quickly became a court favourite.
This is where it becomes interesting. In those days, champagne was a still white wine. That is because French glass was made in wood-burning furnaces and too fragile to cope with secondary fermentation in a bottle, which caused the bottles to explode. In England, however, because government edict had decreed that wood was needed to build ships, our glass furnaces were changed to being coal-fired, which meant bottles were much stronger.
In December 1662, while the governor of Duck Island was doubtless rhapsodising about the wonders of still champagne, an interesting lecture was delivered at the Royal Society whose offices these days are located on the other side of the Mall, just a few hundred yards away. Sir Christopher Merrett explained to fellow RS members how sparkling wine and other drinks were being made in England by allowing secondary fermentation in the bottles. In other words, what we today we call the “méthode champagnoise” was pioneered in England. It was another 20 years before Dom Perignon, whom most French people still believe invented champagne, actually got around to using it.
Saint-Evremond has slipped back into the news recently. Tattinger, the renowned French champagne house became the first champagne company to plant a vineyard – 100 acres – in England to take advantage of the growing success of English sparkling wine. And what will they call their first English sparkling? Why Domaine Evremond, of course. Plans are afoot to restore Duck Island to something approaching its former glory. Let’s drink a glass of sparkling to that.
Previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.