There are many wonderful things to do and see in London and for me the most wonderful of all is to spend time in the parks. On a recent visit I focused on The Regent’s Park, which at just over 400 acres in size, includes greenswards, formal gardens, a boating lake with a heron rookery, sports fields, tennis courts, an outdoor theater, children’s gardens and playgrounds, a canal and the London Zoo. The Regent’s Park is beautiful, impeccably maintained and provides unparalleled opportunities to experience nature in the heart of London.
The Regent’s Park as a public open space evolved over time and, among other uses, once served as a hunting preserve of Henry VIII. It was enclosed and inaccessible to the general public until 1835, when sections of the Park opened two days of the week. The Park is now open to all at 5 a..m each morning and closes between 4:00 and 9:00 p.m., depending on the season.
The park is preserved as public open space by the failure of an early nineteenth century development scheme that sought to build garden villas and a summer palace for the Prince Regent on the site. When conceived, the development scheme incorporated the park into the design, carefully integrating it with the surrounding residential fabric. It is possibly one of the first parks to have been created in such a manner, providing an early model for subsequent garden cities.
The architect, John Nash, is credited with the park’s plan which includes an inner and outer circle ringed by a series of terraced houses looking into, and placed discretely within, the landscape. Only eight of the intended fifty-six villas within the park were built and although there have been modifications to the original plan, much of Nash’s landscape vision is intact. Of the buildings and monuments within the park, two villas, St John’s Lodge and The Holme, remain from John Nash’s original plan. St. John’s Lodge’s garden is a lovely “secret” spot within the park that is open to the public and is accessible from the inner circle.
The Royal Parks byline is, “London’s Personal Space” and while Regent’s Park is very actively used and contains many structures, memorials, and statues it also offers opportunities to experience nature within the city in a completely discreet manner. The blend of naturalistic and formal spaces provides a variety of landscapes (not to mention recreational opportunities) and the quality of the park’s horticulture and the magnificence of its specimen trees is inspiring.
I couldn’t help wonder how The Royal Parks managed to maintain such a high level of horticulture and overall maintenance within Regent’s Park (and for that matter the other three Royal Parks I visited during my visit – Hyde Park, Green Park and St. James Park) so I decided to stop into their offices and pick up some information while I was there. Fortunately, The Royal Parks maintains an extensive website where one can find annual reports, business plans, management plans, park histories, maps, an event schedule, and all manner of information about visiting the parks, including an update on the 2012 Olympics, which is using many of the parks as event venues and the Queen’s Jubilee.
Due to budget cutbacks of approximately 25%, The Royal Parks are depending more and more on private donations for support, a model perfected by the Central Park Conservancy and widely emulated in urban parks throughout the United States. Recent documentation notes that government funding priorities include day-to-day care of lawns, flowers beds, roads and paths with limited support for education, art, heritage restoration, sport and wildlife conservation projects.
The Royal Parks Foundation provides support for The Royal Parks. In 2011, the Royal Parks Foundation (USA), was formed and “aims to strengthen and reinforce Anglo-American ties and the many links that exist between parkland in the United States and in Britain.” Its first project was funded with a $1.25 million grant from the Tiffany and Co. Foundation. “Tiffany Across the Water,” has restored drinking fountains in all eight Royal Parks and heritage water features including, The Tiffany Fountain in St. James Lake and the Italian Gardens in Kensington Gardens.
The Royal Parks Foundation has, among other projects, built the Isis Education Center at The LookOut in Hyde Park and sponsored Deck Chair Dreams, a public art project supported by Bloomberg.
In Regent’s Park, The Royal Parks Foundation SITA Trust, Friends of Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill and The Royal Parks have contributed to ecological enhancements to the lake within Queen Mary’s Gardens. The project has enhanced the environment for insect and birds and improved the aesthetic character of the lake by adding reed beds, de-silting and erecting a new walkway.
You can spend many hours, if not days, exploring The Regent’s Park. Some highlights include.
The Broad Walk and Avenue Gardens : Accessible by the Regent’s Park Underground Station, the mile-long Broad Walk was intended to lead to the Prince Regent’s summer retreat. Today, it connects the Victorian era Italianate Gardens (listed on maps as the Avenue Gardens) to the Zoo and Regent’s Canal, passing Cumberland and Gloucester Greens. The planting beds within the Avenue Gardens are spectacular and change with the seasons. The Broad Walk crosses Regent’s Canal connecting to Camden and Primrose Hill.
Queen Mary’s Gardens: Located in the Inner Circle, Queen Mary’s Gardens are best known for the rose garden with nearly 30,000 plants representing 400 varieties. Within the Inner Circle there is also the Begonia Garden, the Park Cafe, an open air theater and the Triton Fountain. Queen Mary’s Lake provide habitat for nesting birds and includes a beautifully landscaped island connected with a Chinese footbridge.
The Adult’s Boating Lake: The 22 acre Y-shaped lake provides a rural ambience in the heart of the city and includes six islands that serve as habitat for nesting birds, including a heronry (at the time of my visit there was much excitement as a heron had hatched a chick in clear view of the shoreline). The Holme one of the two villas built from the original scheme is located here, as is a nature study and waterfowl care center.
The Regent’s Canal and Primrose Hill: The canal was included in Nash’s original plan as a commercial venture. Today, it is a popular, if somewhat hidden, recreation feature used for boating and kayaking with pathways used for walking and jogging. Primrose Hill, a sloping meadow, affords scenic views of the London skyline.
The Wildlife Garden and Nature Area: Located between the Inner and Outer circles near the York Bridge Road entry this area of The Regent’s Park includes displays to encourage children to explore the park’s natural environment. The wildlife friendly community garden was designed and built by the “Wild in the Parks Team” with help from local volunteers, community groups and school children. To learn more about the Wildlife Garden visit the Wildlife Garden Blog.
The Allotment Garden: Opened in June of 2011, the training allotment garden is the first to be located in a Royal Park. It provides training for people interested in growing food and hosts classes managed by Capel Manor College, whose London branch is located within the Inner Circle, including an urban growing training program with courses on soil management and seed preservation.
Capel Manor College maintains a partnership with The Royal Parks to increase opportunities for horticulture and garden design training to people living and working within London and uses the park and gardens to support learning in horticulture and garden design.