Bri­tain’s Trea­sures

This green utopia has had many uses, from mano­rial gar­dens to royal hunt­ing grounds to farm­land. But it be­came what it is to­day on the whim of a Ge­or­gian prince

History Revealed - - CONTENTS -

Re­gent’s Park

In 1811, the Prince Re­gent, the fu­ture Ge­orge IV, thought that a long-un­de­vel­oped park in Lon­don was in need of land­scap­ing so to bet­ter fit the im­age of the thriv­ing me­trop­o­lis, and sat­isfy his own love of grandeur. That year he com­mis­sioned John Nash, his city plan­ner and chief ar­chi­tect, to de­liver an am­bi­tious de­sign for a place of royal leisure, with a sum­mer palace and vil­las for his aris­to­cratic chums.

Nash’s vi­sion for the park would never be ful­filled, as Ge­orge got dis­tracted by im­prove­ments to Buck­ing­ham Palace (an­other of Nash’s cre­ations). Yet what he left be­hind still came to be a beloved el­e­ment of the cap­i­tal, chris­tened Re­gent’s Park.

The land first be­came royal prop­erty dur­ing the dis­so­lu­tion of the monas­ter­ies in the 1530s. The sprawl­ing wood­land and wide spa­ces where deer roamed had be­longed to the manor of Ty­burn, which it­self was owned by Bark­ing Abbey. Henry VIII took pos­ses­sion of the vast tracts and turned it into his own hunt­ing chase. So it re­mained un­til the Bri­tish Civil Wars and the ex­e­cu­tion of King Charles I in 1649. The sub­se­quent decade saw Oliver Cromwell sell off parts of the park and cut down some 16,000 trees to pay the wages of his army. The land re­verted back to the re­stored crown in 1660. By this time hunt­ing had be­come less pop­u­lar, and so Charles II de­cided to lease the area to ten­ant farm­ers.

By the early 19th cen­tury, Lon­don had grown and the Prince Re­gent saw that he could make bet­ter use of the land. John Nash – the ar­chi­tect who went on to build Mar­ble Arch and the Royal Pavil­ion in

“A much-loved get­away from the bus­tle of the city”

Brighton – de­signed the park as a gi­ant cir­cle, fea­tur­ing a lake, canal, 56 de­tached vil­las and a sum­mer palace. Work didn’t get un­der­way for sev­eral years, though, by which time Ge­orge had lost the zeal he felt in 1811 and Nash re­vised his am­bi­tions. Only eight vil­las were built and con­struc­tion on the palace never even started.


In­stead, the park be­came home to or­gan­i­sa­tions, who leased the vil­las or added new touches with the con­struc­tion of their own build­ings. The Royal Botanic So­ci­ety put up palm houses and, in 1828, the Zo­o­log­i­cal So­ci­ety opened Lon­don Zoo – but only to so­ci­ety fel­lows or those nom­i­nated by a fel­low. Ev­ery­one else had to wait un­til 1847 to see the col­lec­tion of ex­otic an­i­mals.

The gen­eral pub­lic could not en­ter Re­gent’s Park at all be­fore 1835, and then only for two days a week. Yet the tree-lined path­ways, grand foun­tains and stat­ues, and colour­ful flowerbeds soon made the park a much-loved coun­try get­away from the bus­tle of the city.

The changes con­tin­ued into the 20th cen­tury, with two no­table ad­di­tions com­ing in the 1930s. The land for­merly used by the Royal Botanic So­ci­ety be­came Queen Mary’s Gar­dens, while not far away, per­for­mances be­gan at an open-air theatre. It was around this time that the last of the wooden rail­ings were re­placed with iron ones – a process be­gun in 1906. Then, dur­ing World War II, they were all taken down again, req­ui­si­tioned for the war ef­fort.

To­day, Re­gent’s Park of­fers a host of sights and ac­tiv­i­ties to suit any mood. Around the edge is the nearly three-mile outer cir­cle path, which passes the zoo, runs along­side the canal and of­fers views of the lake. Visi­tors can get onto the water by hir­ing a boat or pedalo. For those seek­ing some­thing more en­er­getic, much of the park’s space is ded­i­cated to sports pitches. The in­ner cir­cle path is where the theatre, rose gar­den and some of the many cafes and restau­rants can be found. It’s easy to spend an en­tire sunny day in Re­gent’s Park, and still want to come back on the next.

BAND TO­GETHER A plaque on the band­stand com­mem­o­rates seven sol­diers who died in 1982, when a bomb planted by the IRA ex­ploded dur­ing a con­cert by the Royal Green Jack­ets band.

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