Regent's Park

London Portrait Magazine – 07-1984

The creation of Regent's Park and its surrounding terraces has been described as a grand scheme by a great architect in honour of an unworthy prince. CHRISTOPHER LONG examines Regent's Park, its designer, John Nash, and drops in on the London Zoo.

By Christopher Long

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At first sight Regent's Park is not exactly reminiscent of Milton Keynes. Nor would the residents of Regent's Park be pleased to hear their particular neck of the woods compared with Welwyn Garden City or Hampstead Garden Suburb. The truth is that there is indeed a link between them. Grand, posh, smart and splendid as Regent's Park undoubtedly is, it is also probably the first British example of purpose-built, suburban planning.

The man who dreamt up this 'grand scheme' was, of course, John Nash. The man he built it for was the Prince Regent. And the park and its surroundings were only a small part of an even grander scheme which was never fully developed.

It was in 1810 that the Prince took over as regent when his father, George lll, became both physically and mentally unable to rule. In the same year the Prince, later George lV, first had the idea of creating a spectacular and triumphal road sweeping down from land in Marylebone (which had recently reverted to the Crown) to the steps of his already spectacular palace, Carlton House, over-looking St James's Park.

The land in Marylebone had remained undeveloped because the surface was covered in deep clay, making it boggy and wet. Furthermore, the absence of London clay below ground made it impossible to sink wells to supply fresh water.

This was no problem to John Nash, the brilliant son of a poor Lambeth millwright who had already earned himself a great name as a designer of country houses. Two years later he published his first plan of Regent's Park. It was immediately clear that London was about to be transformed – a new concept in style and stucco would be copied and reproduced throughout London in years to come.

Quite how the rather pompous, flashy and not wholly popular Nash came to be so acceptable to the decadent, idle and spendthrift Prince Regent isn't clear. The Prince was clever enough to spot Nash's talent and certainly had an interest in architecture as the Brighton Pavilion demonstrates. Maybe there's truth in the story that Nash's much younger wife was one of the Prince's mistresses. In any event the Nash scheme was accepted in 1813 and work went on to try to complete it until 1825.

The park itself was to be an extravagant and splendid end to a ceremonial road from what is now Waterloo Place. It was to climb up Lower Regent Street, cross Piccadilly, curve along Regent Street itself, broaden into Portland Place and sweep round into Park Crescent.

There, on all sides, Nash planned a mixture of large and small family houses with their own shops, church, carriage-ways and stabling – all overlooking a huge landscaped park.

The park was geographically much as we know it today, as are the lake, inner roads and 'circuses'. Not visible are the canals and pavilions and the barracks planned for the north-west corner, which have either now vanished or were never completed.

An important barracks on the western side of the park was in use until quite recently. All the Royal Parks in London had barracks beside them, the open land being ideal for exercising horses and troops. Kensington Barracks was destroyed in the 1980s but Wellington Barracks is served by both St James's Park and Green Park while Knightsbridge Barracks lies within Hyde Park.

As the massive development went ahead there was something appropriate and at the same time ironic about the scale and cost of this outrageous whim. In the year of its conception, 1812, Napoleon was defeated by the Russian snows. In 1815, when the builders were at work, Wellington dealt Napoleon and France a final humiliating defeat. After years of threat to Britain and her Empire, here at last was a time to build a ceremonial road of honour through London.

Yet, at the same time, the industrial revolution was hitting the poor harder than ever before. The new rich who would buy Crown leases on Nash's houses around the park were light years removed from the squalor and slums just a few streets away from Portland Place and the grand circuses on Piccadilly, Oxford Street (then the Oxford Road) and inside the park itself.

And not everyone was thrilled about the style either. Maria Edgeworth said at the time that she was: "properly surprised by the new town that has been built in Regent's Park – and indignant at the plaister statues and horrid, useless domes and pediments crowded with mock sculpture figures which damp and smoke must destroy in a season or two".

Present residents find that she was, to some extent, right. The cost of maintaining Nash's buildings is exorbitant.

For all his genius in creating ornamental crescents, rides, lakes and gardens, Nash's building techniques left much to be desired. His buildings have been described as bold, imaginative and slapdash – and probably only the best of them have survived because so many of his country houses and London terraces have been structurally shoddy.

In Regent's Park, however, most survive – even if the Victorians were unable to restrain the impulse to make the gardens more fussy and elaborate than originally intended.

Nevertheless, the houses remain as Nash planned them, concentrated for the most part in the south-east corner. What does not exist – and in fact never fully existed – is the rest of Nash's scheme for the road to Carlton House. Certainly All Soul's Church in Langham Place is still there (though the interior is a modern restoration following wartime German bomb damage).

Also still visible is Nash's beautiful Theatre Royal, in the Haymarket, just round the corner from the Prince Regent's palace at Carlton House, also designed by Nash. The latter was pulled down when the Prince became George lV and the court moved to Buckingham Palace instead.

We can only speculate as to what Regent Street might have looked like in Nash's stucco-fronted, wedding-cake style if, by 1825, the money had not run out and the whole scheme had not petered out rather inadequately into the Duke of York's Steps instead.

In some ways it may have been a blessing that the grand scheme, based on Regent's Park, was never completed. The idea was much more suited to Vienna, Paris or Rome. London, being a curious collection of intricately related villages, is somehow too intimate, too much of a workaday town, on a human scale, to accommodate the equivalent of the Etoile, the Champs Elysées and the Place de la Concorde – all of which suit Paris so well.

Perhaps it's not at all surprising that roughly ten years after Nash's builders stopped work, someone thought of a much better use for part of Regent's Park. The very focal point of Nash's dream suburb was where someone decided the royal menagerie should be re-housed.

There was something very English, eccentric and delightfully heretical about the idea of herding together exotic lions, tigers, ostriches and camels in the centre of so much classical elegance.

The Zoological Society of London was founded in 1826 by Sir Stamford Raffles and eminent men such as Sir Humphrey Davy. The following year the zoo itself was established in Regent's Park, open only to members of the society. Some animals came from the Royal Menagerie which had been based for centuries at the Tower of London, while others were donated by Raffles and other collectors and scientists. Of the animals from the Tower of London, only the ravens were left behind – on a pension of two shillings and sixpence (12.5 pence today) to provide them with food and lodging. They remain there to this day.

But within twenty years of its establishment the Zoo was facing financial disaster and so it was, in 1847, that the 35 acres in the north-east corner of the park were opened to the public at one shilling (five pence today) on weekdays and thus reducing the exclusive access to members to Sundays only.

The Zoo now became fashionable. 'The Great Vance' popularised it with his musical hall song 'Walking in the Zoo is the OK Thing to Do' and 1882 was the year of Jumbo-mania. Jumbo was the Zoo's largest African elephant, weighing six and a half tons and standing 11 ft tall at the shoulder. When he became older and more aggressive the American showman Barnum offered to buy him for $10,000, even after he had wrecked his stall and broken his tusks in frustration.

The public were appalled at the prospect of his sale and visitors, gifts, songs and cartoons all expressed the public's emotional response to the giant, 'jumbo-sized' elephant. Eventually he went to America where he was killed by a train in 1885.

By then, however, Jumbo had focused maximum attention on the Zoo and the revenue earned allowed rapid expansion in both scientific research work and new facilities for the viewing public.

While some of the original Decimus Burton buildings still survive, most have gone to make way for a continuing programme of impressive new buildings. These include the Cotton Terraces for giraffes and zebras, the Charles Clore pavilion for mammals and the moonlit world, the new Lion Terraces, Lord Snowdon's futuristic aviary and Sir John Casson's Elephant House. A great improvement is the suite of Michael Sobell Pavilions for apes and monkeys. But dominating them all are the famous Mappin Terraces, donated in 1913 by the cutlery and jewellery firm based in Nash's Regent Street.

Today the Zoo looks healthy enough to the one million or more visitors each year – as do its inmates. But despite the massive investment in buildings and improved facilities for the paying public, the Zoo faces a severe financial problem. The public is staying away in droves.

London Zoo needs the public to pay to see captive animals in order to fund its invaluable research and scientific work, which helps save and protect species in the wild all over the world. Unfortunately, the public doesn't seem to like the idea or the price of entry to something they find to be an increasingly offensive exploitation of animals. They have been told, and now believe, that animals should be allowed to run free and prosper in the wild.

The Royal Zoological Society faces a crisis and is hard at work encouraging private, individual sponsorship of individual animals – aiming the campaign at children in particular.

Recently the government has announced that it will provide funds to cover an operating deficit of up to £2 million in the first year, but that it is not prepared to provide capital funds. The Zoo has been told to try a lot harder to woo and win the public's attention.

Nevertheless, the Zoo will no doubt survive, even if it has to adapt in order to do so.

Just! In the late 1980s the Zoo was technically bankrupt and on the point of closure. Its problems were mostly of its own making, it emerged. A culture of arrogance and complacency among its inadequate and failing management had caused almost terminal damage the Zoo and to the morale of its staff. Only the pressure brought by influential voices and an inspired fly-on-the-wall TV documentary persuaded the government to back a new management team with new funds, thereby saving the world's oldest public zoo from extinction.

Adaptation has been a necessity throughout London's history. There were protests of shock and horror, for example, when the skyline over Regent's Park was suddenly dominated by the gleaming dome and minaret of the new London Central Mosque on the west side of the park.

There has been no criticism and much praise for the introduction of open-air theatre in the centre of the park. And it seems there may be changes afoot for London University's Bedford College site, now that 'rationalisation' threatens its future on the south-west corner, overlooking the lake.

The park was largely comprised of informal open grass-land until the early 1930s when members of the British Shrub Growers' Association decided to form a garden within the park – mostly stocked with plants donated by members. A couple of years later the Rose Growers took over and again donations were made by members who named the garden after Queen Mary, widow of George V who died in 1936.

Tragically, and etched into the memories of many local residents, even the famous band-stand is no longer original. Following its destruction by a terrorist bomb in 1982, it has been restored of course. But the squalid attempt by the IRA to win friends and influence people by murdering bandsmen and members of the public two years ago will not be forgotten.

Other things don't change in Regent's Park. They still play cricket there and, if you can shut your eyes to the hideous refreshment kiosks, you have superb views across to Winfield House, The Holme the lake and Nash's terraces now that Dutch Elm Disease has rather brutally denuded the park of so many of its trees.

All in all, it seems that the park, its landmarks and institutions face their ups and downs with dignity and that the Royal Parks department makes a good job of maintaining the area. So even if the 'grand scheme' was in honour of an unworthy Prince, the millions who love and use it each year must surely consider Nash worthy of some honour for creating it as grandly as he did.

See Regent's Park

See Kensington Gardens

See St James's Park

© (1984) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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