As London wheezes through another ice-strewn week, and the air hurts as it vaults down to our lungs in the mornings, focus is pulled away from our parks. This is a shame, as the thrilling majesty of the Regents Park is never so dramatic as it is in the winter. It gets odd in the summer, admittedly, because the Open Air Theatre gets filled with actors either in Shakespearean doublet and hose or tap shoes – or occasionally, on gala nights – both and there’s nothing so annoying as having a load of thesps hanging around one’s inner circle. To North Londoners, it’s always just “the Park”. In the summer, the Regents Park steps into light and is filled with ham sandwich-munching, lemonade-swilling picnickers, young lovers holding hands on benches painted as dark as the evergreens and strolling new mums launching their filled prams into the Boardwalk in the noon day sun. Then there are the pilates practicing yoga class attendees, filled with organic oats and mung beans and looking irritatingly well, and the London University playing fields, ten men abreast, coughing and kicking some odd miss-shaped object with their feet (how do you say it, a foot – ball?).
In the winter, remove everything except the blokes kicking the mis-shaped object.
The park in the winter can be your own. Because everyone else is shut up in offices willing for the hand to turn to 5, or curled up in the warmth of home with a hot chocolate and wearing a fleece. Only football lovers and lone walkers make the trips into the park when the plants are dead. Only us city walkers are stoic enough to bear the shock in friend’s faces when we tell them where we are going : “The PARK? Are you insane? It’s minus 12. If you don’t go out without any earmuffs, you’ll come back without any ears.” But as dedicated city walkers will know, there is solace to be found through the inter-park winter’s nod – that half bend of the head that fellow walkers embarrassingly give to each other whilst out for a stroll in the dead rose gardens on January 29th wearing two scarves, a Christmas present leather pair of gloves, three hats and some snowboots. We know our own kind, us winter walkers, and when amongst them I know I belong. Which is a mighty fine thing, because I don’t think “belonging” to en masse groups has ever come naturally. I am still bruised by the mid1990s grunge years, when it became de rigeur to wear a T shirt under a shapeless sack masquerading as a strappy dress, and yours truly spent a lot of time alone, in a room, wearing red lipstick and watching Debbie Reynolds films. I was a freak because I stylistically wanted to be a 50s throwback. Within ten years, I was a frigging GENIUS. A trail blazer. Ahead of the curve.
Whoops, I’ve digressed and meandered down altogether the wrong path. Perhaps that’s why I like the Park so much – so much opportunity for procrastination and alternation along your route. The Regents Park as we know it was a hunting / dairy farming / Georgian bit of field until the corpulent and red-faced Prince Regent decided to build his own palace in 1811. Before that, it was used as a hunting ground by Henry VIII who, the Royal Parks website euphemistically writes, took the park as he ” considered [it] to be an invigorating ride from Whitehall Palace”. That is not why Henry VIII took over the Regents Park. He took it over when he stole it from a monastery which is how he got most things. The effusive Parks website continues in a flagrant tone that Henry ” would hardly recognise the stylish gardens and sports fields that now stand in its place “! Well, I think perhaps he would, being a sportsman, and very fond of pinching actresses and taking them on “invigorating rides from Whitehall”. I’m sure an afternoon of Regents Park jollities would be right up his Royal codpiece.
The Regents Park was of course named for the Prince Regent (it was called Marylebone Park before) and his plan was to appoint John Nash to construct a wide park suitable for a kingly palace, to be approached by an intimidating and gracious tree-lined avenue. He got his avenue (Portland Place) and he got his now famous elegant Nash terraced houses around the park, but the palace in the middle never got built. This is because the Prince Regent was a right fatty and spent so much money on hog roasts, cakes, Maltesers and Mars bars that there was no money left to build a palace. Therefore, walking north up Portland Place one has a sense of impending majesty in the great grandeur of one of London’s widest roads, but there’s no pay off. No palace. William IV, the Prince Regent’s successor, opened up the Park to the public in 1835, but only for two days a week. I mean, you can’t let the commoners in all the time, can you? By this point the Zoological Society of London was already in, after William IV was threatened by some giraffes and a bad-tempered lion outside John Lewis Oxford Street. In 1829, the Zoo took up its residency. The Royal Botanic Society got involved in the 1930s, the same decade when the stunning Queen Mary rose gardens opened – although there are also Italian and English gardens too. Taking into consideration that the home for the US Ambassador to UK takes up a fruity site on the south west of the park, the Regents Park Mosque hovers on the skyline near Baker Street, there is a not-too-big-to-be-scary boating lake and the Open Air Theatre sits right in the very centre (and confuses children and adults alike by its insistence to carry on performing in the rain forcing the audience to get wet) this is an exotic and fabulously international use of space. And if that’s not sophisticated enough for you, you can also play Australian Rules Football.
It is of course owned by Her Maj, you know – that one – the one we’re getting two days off work for in June. This means that it is not legal to do certain stuff here. According to the Royal Park bye-laws, you cannot use “any roller skate, roller blade, skate board or other foot-propelled device”. This is odd, because you can drive all round the inner circle for hours should the mood take you, and I’m not sure what a car is if it isn’t a foot-propelled device. You cannot allow any animal you are in charge of to be “tethered or graze”. What are you going to tether your Jack Russell to in Regents Park exactly? A lion? A sad looking panda? You can land a helicopter, apparently, but only in an emergency. You must not release doves or balloons.
You need written permission to “play or cause to be played a musical instrument”. But does “cause to be played” mean encourage the player? Or incite instrumental activity? Or inspire the player by being his muse? Honestly, I can’t help it if, when I’m walking through the park, my compelling sexual allure causes a chap to toot on his trumpet. I also need written formal permission to interfere with a plant or fungus or use a mineral detector. I need formal permission to wash my linen and then hang it in the park to dry or park my caravan. You’re also not allowed to scatter anyone’s ashes in the Royal Parks. They’re very anti this (I think it would be easier to land the helicopter) as human ashes contain minerals which damage the soil and the plants in it, and in turn, the wildlife that feeds from these plants. Not that we thought about this in the hot summer of 1998 of course. It was until after my father’s death that we realised that his lifelong wish of being cremated, preferably when already dead, and being scattered in the Regents Park was highly illegal. This meant that we went into the park, ashes in one hand and a plastic fork from the cafeteria to mash them into the ground with the other, yours truly was deployed as look out and given a £50 note in the event of seeing a parkkeeper who would hopefully be open to bribes. No one did see us, although the nearby plants continue to look strangely troubled. I shouldn’t think for a moment we were alone in our predicament. I’m surprised any of the foliage in the park is still living when you consider the amount of people whose last wish it is to end up under a hedge here.
Crikey, that was a bit morbid for an early spring morning. Or perhaps its a bit optimistic to call this strident morning early spring, when I found myself so cold when walking through Hanover Square at 8.10am today that I actually burst out into hysterical laughter. Spring is on her way, Londoners, and I can feel her feet racing across the city gravel and cobbles as I type….Get thee to a park and watch out for the first joyous signs of it. And do try to keep within the bye-laws listed above.
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