This is another park that’s so huge (182 acres) that I can’t possibly sum it all up in one visit (I’ll return at some point over the next few months to explore the wider and more open northern meadows, pitches, winter gardens and canalside walks, not forgetting a glimpse through to the zoo).
I’ve just this week finished reading the amazing John Fowles book ‘The Magus’ in which, coincidentally, the final chapter is set in Regents Park. His description is so evocative:
“The park was full of green distances. of countless scattered groups of people, lovers, families, soilitaries with dogs, the colours softened by the imperceptible mist of autumn, as simple and pleasing in its way as a Boudin beachscape”
Today I’m sticking to the southern section, east of the boating lake. Even this part is like a progression of different gardens, jigsaw- puzzled together, each with its own character. There is a ring road called the Outer Circle, which circumnavigates the whole park for over 2.5 miles, and the Inner Circle which is about half a mile in circumference. These, apart from the linking roads, are the only routes for motor traffic.
The tree lined paths and straight hedged formality of the Avenue Gardens remind me of a Parisian Park. Ornamental fountains or decorative urns at every intersection and colourful box- hedged beds. At a distance the strolling figures could be promenading Victorians. But Marylebone Green, just next door, by contrast, is a proper village green, rough- grassed, tree- shaded, mole- hilled. You just want to run across here tugging an old fashioned kite!
There is a pull which draws you away from the noise of hectic Marylebone Road, towards something sweeter, like the pull of nectar for a bee. So I cross York Bridge and through the gently meandering and wooded waterside walk. And the banks are crowded with every kind of waterbird! A group of hunched herons are standing around in their grey tailcoats like a bunch of bored wedding ushers; they couldn’t care less about me being so close (on river walks at home, you can’t even tiptoe closer than 25 metres to a heron without it taking off with an annoyed, pterodactyl cry).
Here I can almost imagine myself traipsing a winding track in the vast Forest of Middlesex that, a millennium ago, thickly blanketed the land from here northward, up over Primrose Hill, the whole of north London and further. Before the 16th century it was a mix of woodland and rough pasture belonging to Barking Abbey. It was appropriated by Henry VIII in 1538, during the Dissolution, adding the land to his growing collection of Royal hunting grounds.
The parkland was seized by Cromwell during the Civil War and much of the remaining forest’s timber was cleared and sold to pay off war debts. After the Restoration in 1660, the land was returned to the crown and was leased out to tenant farmers, who supplied the city markets with milk, butter and cheese.
On the bank, just before the boating lake there’s a planting of young birch, gleaming against the dark strap of Clarence Bridge. I set up my easel where I get the view through to a ribbon glimpse of water. It’s a very warm and sunny day, but pretty breezy, so I edge back into the shade of a mulberry tree. A branch keeps getting blown into my neck so I bend it away and clip it temporarily to another branch with my spare bulldog clip. Two Egyptian geese flap down and immediately stage a squabble then lose interest in fighting and start earnestly pecking at the grass, taking surreptitious glances at me with their unblinking orange eyes.
The piping, squawking and cawing of waterfowl is punctuated by the incessant squeal and clash of the gate into Regents University grounds just behind me. A constant flow of park visitors (just as Fowles describes above) across the bridge, break into shifting colour diamonds through the gaps in its iron latticework.
In 1811, the Prince Regent saw this area as a perfect location for a new summer palace and commissioned John Nash to make it happen. Nash’s original idea was for a circular park, with a lake, a canal, the palace and 56 private villas set in ornamental gardens. The whole would be surrounded with streets of grand Regency terraces. But it didn’t all go to plan: the fickle Prince’s interest was diverted by other projects, such as Buckingham Palace and the Brighton Pavilion so, although the park was established (and renamed as The Regents Park), there was no palace and only a few of the planned villas were built. However, Nash did manage to build the white stucco terraces and sweeping Regent Street to link the Park with other Regency schemes such as Carlton House Terrace and Buckingham Palace.
Some of the park was opened to the general public from 1835. Other portions were leased out to local societies and groups, ranging from The Royal Botanic Society to the Zoological Society (which still runs the Regents Park Zoo) and various sporting, scientific and educational bodies. Each of these portions were developed differently which has led to today’s diverse patchwork of gardens, recreation grounds and park buildings.
I pack my things and step back onto the path. The breeze has dropped and the heat is building. I walk alongside the lake; the mass of waterfowl reluctantly letting me through. A couple in a blue pedalo are having steering problems and seem to be going in circles, backwards. I cross the lawns, between deckchairs, push under the swaying curtains of a high weeping willow, with flickering reflections and glimpses across the blue banded water. And out, to pause by the bandstand (there’s a memorial stone here to the seven bandsmen of the Royal Green Jackets who were killed by an IRA bomb in 1982 while performing a lunchtime concert).
I feel that ‘nectar’ pull again and am drawn up the slope, across the Inner Circle road and into the perfect round of Queen Mary’s Garden (named after the wife of King George V). This 17 acres was originally used by the Royal Botanic Society for nurseries and a huge conservatory, but they gave it up in 1931. It was relandscaped and planted and opened to the public to experience its exotic leafy borders and Mediterranean gardens and colourful beds and walks. And secret corners. A pond with little rills. And lawns and trees. The conservatory was demolished and later, on its site: the Triton fountain built, jetting high (with gleaming and dripping mer figures, as a memorial to artist Sigismund Goetze), .
I buy a cup of tea from the cafe and walk on and, as I leave behind the aroma of pizza and chips, there’s a syrupy, heady scent wafting to greet me. I’m lured to the rows of rectangular rose beds next to the stately Jubilee Gates (donated by Goetze for George V‘s Silver Jubilee in 1935). I’ve never been the greatest fan of roses, but these beds are truly magnificent! (There are around 12,000 rose plants of many varieties in these gardens). Ablaze with vibrant colour, petals pierced by bright shards of sunlight, alive with bees and gusts of breeze. I have to draw! Drawn closer by the intoxicating cocktail of scent and colour and movement. And the sun beating down. Bursts of laughter and applause bounces across the lawns from the Open Air Theatre on the opposite side of the garden (performing ‘Pride and Prejudice’ today).
As I draw, a magpie hops in amongst the rose bushes. It re-emerges with a crimson bud in its beak and pecks at it on the grass. Then hops back in to pick another!
(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )
The Regents Park, Chester Rd, London NW1 4NR
Google earth view here