As with many of London’s Royal Parks, Regent’s Park (it’s formal name is actually The Regent’s Park but we’ll shorten it for our purposes here) once served as King Henry VIII’s hunting grounds – he seized the park, then known as Marylebone Park Fields after the nearby village and boasting thick woods as well as more open forests, from the Abbey of Barking in 1538.
Used by royalty for the next 50 years, it remained largely unaltered until after the Civil War when, between 1649 and 1660, the Commonwealth ordered many of the trees to be chopped down to pay debts. It was restored to royal ownership with the restoration of the monarchy but, with hunting falling out of fashion, was then leased out to tenant farmers.
It was John Nash who created the park that we know and love today. Friend of the Prince Regent (later King George IV), he was among a number of architects who responded to the Prince Regent’s calls for the creation of a new design featuring a palace for himself.
Nash’s original designs included a round park featuring a lake and canal and surrounded by as many as 56 villas and a palatial summer home for the Prince Regent which would be linked to his other home at St James’s by a processional road.
But only eight of the villas were ever built and only two of them – St John’s Lodge and The Holme – remain (both are private residences but part of the lodge’s gardens are open to the public) while the plans for the Prince Regent’s palace were put on hold when he turned his attention to developing Buckingham Palace instead. The canal, meanwhile, was moved to the park’s northern boundary where it still stands today (see our earlier entry on Regent’s Canal) while the processional route Nash had proposed became Regent Street.
While the park was initially only for the exclusive use of residents and what Royal Park’s call the ‘carriage set’, in 1835, the eastern part of the park was opened to the public for two days a week. Other sections of what is now included in the park, including Primrose Hill, were opened later.
Meanwhile, the fact most of the villas had never been built had left a large amount of free space and so both the Zoological Society and the Royal Botanic Society moved in – the latter laying out what is the Inner Circle with lawns and a lake of its own. Another society to operate in the park was the Royal Toxophilite Society which introduced archery there.
Not much has changed since but for the creation of Queen Mary’s Gardens in the 1930s – these were laid out on the space formally occupied by the Royal Botanic Society which had decided not to renew its lease. The Open Air Theatre performances, which are still held in the gardens today, started at about the same time. The park was damaged by bombing during World War II but has been fully restored.
Other facilities now in the 166 hectare (410 acre) park include a sports facility known as The Hub as well as several cafes, tennis courts and boat hire. The London Zoo, of course, also remains there.
WHERE: The Regent’s Park (nearest tube station is Regent’s Park); WHEN: 5am to at least 4pm (closing times vary depending on the month); COST: Free entry; WEBSITE: www.royalparks.gov.uk/The-Regents-Park.aspx