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
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.