The Royal Parks – 5. The Regent’s Park

A former hunting chase, The Regent’s Park in London’s north-west was extensively developed in the 19th century and remains a good – if not complete – example of a Regency landscape.

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

Around London – London celebrates on the Thames; a fashionable night in London; and, heritage trains in Amersham…

London will this weekend celebrate the 15th annual Thames Festival, billed as the city’s “largest free festival”. The two day event includes a giant shipwreck sculpture outside City Hall (created with the aid of students from 100 London schools), barge races and a parade of more than 100 boats on the Thames, a wide array of musical and street performances (these include a mass choir of 700 school children and a performance in which the HMS Belfast is used as a percussion instrument) and an illuminated Night Carnival culminating in fireworks. More than 800,000 people are expected to attend the event which takes place at a range of venues stretching from the London Eye to Tower Bridge. Other highlights include the annual Feast on the Bridge on Saturday during which Southwark Bridge will be closed to traffic, Korean Taekwondo displays, a food market and an exclusive cruise on the Thames hosted by the likes of historian David Starkey and the creators of cult children’s character Rastamouse. River boat operators, meanwhile, are offering 2-for-1 tickets for the weekend to help people make the most of the festival. For more information on the festival, see www.thamesfestival.org. For more on the 2 for 1 tickets, see www.tfl.gov.uk/river.

Regent Street and surrounds will be buzzing tonight with more than 40 shops, bars and restaurants taking part in Vogue Fashion’s Night Out. The event, which is running for its third year in London, will see many stores remaining opening until 11pm and feature special events and promotions. The night is part of a series of nights being held in countries across the globe – from Russia to Brazil, Australia to Spain. For more information, see http://fashions-night-out.vogue.co.uk.

An art deco Tube train dating from 1938 and the Sarah Siddons, the last operational ex-Metropolitan Railway electric locomotive will be running between Harrow-on-the-Hill, Rickmansworth and Amersham this Sunday as part of the Amersham Old Town’s Heritage Day. Other activities include a best dressed competition showcasing retro fashions, a free heritage bus service, including rides on the Routemaster RM1, street performances including a Punch and Judy show and clowns, and “object handling sessions” at the Amersham Museum. For more information, see the London Transport Museum’s website here.

What’s in a name?…Mayfair

Still the address to have in London, the origins of the name Mayfair are just as they appear – this area to the west of the City was named for the annual May Fair which was held at what is now the trendy (and picturesque) cafe precinct of Shepherd Market during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

The two week long annual fair was established by King James II as a cattle market on what was then known as Brookfield Market in the 1680s. Attracting other pleasure-related activities, it soon became known for its licentiousness and, having survived Queen Anne’s attempts to have it banned, was eventually stopped in the mid-1700s. Edward Shepherd, who today gives his name to the area on which Brookfield Market once stood, was an architect and developer who subsequently redeveloped the site.

These days Mayfair is generally taken to encompass an area bordered by Hyde Park to the west, Oxford Street to the north, Piccadilly to the south and Regent Street to the east. The area’s development really took off in the century following the mid 1600s (landowners included the Grosvenor family – whose name is reflected in landmarks like London’s third largest square Grosvenor Square and Grosvenor Chapel (pictured) – as well as the Berkeleys and Burlingtons) and it became a favored residential location among the wealthy – indeed, it was this very gentrification which indirectly put an end to the fair.

Today, as well as being known for high end residential real estate, it’s one of London’s most expensive shopping precincts. Landmark buildings in the area today include the hulking bulk of the US Embassy at the western end of Grosvenor Square, the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly, the Handel House Museum (located in what was the home of composer George Frideric Handel), shopping arcades such as the Burlington and Royal Arcades, and various luxury hotels like Claridge’s and The Dorchester in Park Lane.

Around London – West End’s VIP day; National Curry Week; Kenwood House to close for repairs; and Horatio’s handwriting…

• Oxford Street and Regent Street in London’s West End will be closed to cars and buses this Saturday (27th November) as part of the sixth annual West End VIP Day. The day, which is sponsored by American Express,  will also bring singers, entertainers and celebrities hit the streets as they fundraise for the Starlight Children’s Foundation. Other entertainment will include a seven foot climbing wall on Regent Street, giant TV screens, fair ground style rides and the chance to climb inside a lifesize snow globe. Runs from 9am to 10pm. For more information, see www.westendlondon.com/vip.

• This week was National Curry Week, so to celebrate, we thought we’d tell you about London’s oldest curryhouse (in fact it’s said to be the oldest in the UK). Veeraswamy was founded in 1926 at its current location of 99 Regent Street (entry via Swallow Street) by, according to the restaurant’s website, “the great grandson of an English General, and an Indian princess”. Customers are said to have included Indira Gandhi, Charlie Chaplin, King Hussein of Jordan and Marlon Brando. See www.nationaleatingoutweek.com or www.veeraswamy.com.

Kenwood House in Hampstead, north London, is set to undergo major repair and conservation works meaning the house will be closed to the public from early summer 2012 for just over a year. The grounds will remain open. The current house was designed by Robert Adam and built over the period of 1762 to 1779 for William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice. It now houses a collection of paintings bequeathed to the nation in 1927 by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh, which includes works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Gainsborough and Turner. For more information, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/kenwood-house/.

On now: Compare Horatio Nelson’s handwriting before and after he lost his right arm in battle at a special showing of two of his letters at the Wellcome Collection tomorrow night (26th November). The letters are part of Hands: Amazing Appendages, a one night only show. There will also be the chance to try out some nail art, try out some surgeon’s tools and hear talks and see performances. Admission is free (but some talks and performances will be tickets – tickets available on the night only from 7pm). See www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/events/hands.aspx.

 

What’s in a name? – Soho

The first in an occasional series looking behind some of London’s place names. To kick it off, we’re taking a look at the origins of the name of the inner metropolitan suburb of Soho.

The name was apparently taken from a hunting cry – ‘So Ho’  and is believed to have been first used to describe this area of London in the 1600s (the cry was also later used as a rallying cry by the James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth’s men when he tried to overthrow James II at the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685).

The area was used as grazing lands before becoming part of Henry VIII’s hunting grounds and then in the later 1600s started to undergo development, becoming known as a refuge for immigrants from Greece and France (the French Protestant Church on Soho Square is indicative of the diverse population who have lived there).

It later morphed into a somewhat seedy and bohemian entertainment district and became home to some big name writers, artists, intellectuals and musicians. Over the years, famous residents have included everyone from Karl Marx to poet William Blake.

These days, while elements of entertainment industry remain – in particular the film industry as well as some seedier establishments – the area, bordered by Oxford and Regent Streets, Charing Cross Road and Piccadilly Circus to the south, is also home to large numbers of trendy cafes, pubs and restaurants and still boasts a healthy nightlife.