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King of Parks
Regent's Park (London)
Member Name: plipplop
Regent's Park (London)
Date: 16/06/10, updated on 17/06/10 (283 review reads)
Advantages: Beautiful, diverse, spacious natural resource
Disadvantages: Not open 24 hours
It's a lovely place. I mean truly, absolutely lovely. It literally has something for everyone. Beautiful ornate formal gardens provide a haven of flowers and plants that attract a plethora of bees and butterflies. Large recreational fields allow the city's residents to burn off all their energy, with seemingly endless spaces for playing games. There are miles of footpaths, winding through quiet, tranquil spaces, alongside the bustle of a boating lake and bird sanctuary, always bustling with ducks and their visitors. There are overgrown woodlands, beautifully maintained Regency buildings and deckchairs on which to just watch the sunny world go by. The best thing, of course, is that it's largely all free; a fantastic resource to be enjoyed by everyone.
==The History of Regent's Park==
Regent's Park dates back to 1646 when the area was known as Marylebone Park and was set up as part of the enormous chase appropriated by Henry VIII. Originally designed as a hunting park, the area was substantially redesigned in the 1800s when the architect John Nash was commissioned to re-design the area for the Prince Regent. Nash's original design included a spectacular palace and various other smaller villas but these plans were never put into practice. The regency terraces around the edges of the park were largely completed, however, and remain beautifully intact to this day.
The park was not open to the public until 1845, when it was opened for two days a week. The park was the scene of a horrific disaster in 1867 when forty people drowned in the boating lake when the ice cover broke and the lake was subsequently drained and reduced in depth before being re-opened, largely to remain as it is today. It wasn't the last time that tragedy would strike at Regent's Park. In 1982, the IRA exploded a bomb at one of the bandstands, killing seven soldiers.
Regent's Park covers an area of some 410 acres, 100 of which are open sports fields - the largest location in London. The park has been home to a number of organisations, including the Zoological Society and the Royal Botanic Society. Indeed, it has been the presence (and subsequent departure) of these organisations that has shaped the park's landscape. The park is largely reserved for pedestrians, broken only by an outer ring road and an inner ring road. The public areas of the park are managed by The Royal Parks, along with seven other places and the park is open throughout the year, normally from 05:00 a.m. with varying closing times according to the time of year.
==Getting There and Getting About==
The park is served by five different Underground stations, located at different sides of the park. Regent's Park has its own station, on the Bakerloo line, one stop up from Oxford Circus. Great Portland Street, however, is just as close and is served by three different lines (Metropolitan, Hammersmith and City, Circle Line). Baker Street is also served by these three lines, but is slightly further away from the park. St John's Wood sits on the Jubilee line and Camden Town, to the north-east, provides access from the Northern line. All of the stations are, unsurprisingly, at the periphery of the park and are largely the same distance from the centre.
If you're driving to the park, the good news is that it falls just outside the northern perimeter of the London congestion charging zone, which makes it cheaper during the week than some of the other parks in London. Pay and display parking facilities are available around both the inner and outer circles, but expect to pay between £1.40 and £2.40 an hour to park here - not cheap! There are, of course, a lot of very frequent bus services that pass around the edges of the park, particularly those that use the very busy Euston Road at the south of the park and unless you're carrying loads of stuff, this is far preferable to the cost and hassle of finding somewhere to park (which is nigh on impossible at peak periods.)
Generally, the park is very level, flat and step-free, which makes it very suitable for wheelchairs and buggies. The footpaths are wide and well-surfaced, allowing plenty of room for pedestrians, dog walkers and cyclists to get along perfectly. Dogs are welcomed in the park, but owners are expected to be responsible and clean up after them, which I'm pleased to say that they generally seem to do. There are plenty of bins for dog waste, along with other, traditional litter bins and it's extremely rare to see discarded litter anywhere in the park. There are a series of public toilets dotted around the park, which, for the most part, are reasonably clean and well maintained.
==What do People Use Regent's Park For?==
The park is hugely popular with runners, so much so that Royal Parks have put together six official routes that can be downloaded from their web site. It doesn't seem to matter what time of day you come to the park, you will always find people jogging (sometimes the odd celebrity if that floats your boat) and the peaceful, flat terrain makes this ideal. Very often, you'll find paths worn into the grass next to the asphalt footpaths, presumably as the runners make their way round pedestrians and dog walkers. There are a lot of the latter too. There's a strong etiquette here so don't bring a dog her if he/she's one of those mad ones that chases every other dog in sight.
The playing fields attract football players, rugby matches, cricket and all the usual summer sports. I like the park on a Sunday afternoon, full of groups of mates relaxing in the sun, often playing around with balls and/or Frisbees. It's also, of course, a haven for summer sun bathers, with plenty of sun traps and shady spots according to personal preference.
If you're a fan of picnics, then Regent's Park is almost perfect. The range of grassy spaces seems virtually endless and in the height of summer, this is a hugely popular place. There are some rules to observe. You can't have groups of more than 40 people, so if you're organising something with school children or work colleagues you might need to plan in advance. The area near the playing fields tends to be a little rowdier. This is where all the 'lads' go to play football and whilst it's not intimidating or unruly it *is* noisier and arguably less suitable for children. The ornamental gardens are more popular with older visitors, largely because there are plenty of benches and it's less of a hike from a car. In fairness, it's quite easy to work out the bit that will suit your group best but common sense comes highly recommended.
The park doesn't actually boast that many places to buy refreshments and so, unsurprisingly, they tend to get extremely busy at certain times of the day. There are currently six places to stop off for something to eat or drink.
The Cow and Coffee Bean - located near the south-east entrance to this park, this is essentially a very small coffee shop serving drinks and snacks. It has no more than a handful of tables, but is ideal for take away soft drinks and ice-creams.
The Honest Sausage - aside from the great name, The Honest Sausage is a great place for food and drink with a tantalising menu of ethical goodies. All the bacon and sausages come from free range sources, whilst the bread and rolls are organic. It's very reasonably priced too for the location. A bacon roll will set you back £3.95; a slice of organic carrot cake will cost you £2.60. The interior is bright, simple and modern but hellishly busy at the weekend.
The Garden Café - offers a much broader menu of meals and snacks, many of which feature locally sourced and seasonal produce. It's a much more expensive affair, but it's in a lovely part of the park (Queen Mary's Gardens) and the menu changes frequently. This is a great place for a traditional breakfast on a Saturday morning especially when the sun is shining and you can grab one of the tables outside. Heaven!
The Boathouse Café - is a bit of a dodgy affair. They sell a basic range of sandwiches and drinks, along with pasta and pizza but nothing to get excited about. The waterside location is very popular however and it is rather nice to sit out by the boating lake.
The Tennis Centre - only has a small café, which, in all fairness, tends to be used mainly by users of the tennis courts.
The Café at The Hub - The Hub comprises a community centre and café and supports a number of sporting activities that take place in the park (it has all the changing rooms and stuff.) I've only used the café once and wasn't particularly impressed although the view over the sports field is quite good.
There are predominantly two key areas of the park where the gardens are very formal and ornamental. They're both glorious throughout the year, bursting colour and fragrance throughout the summer and spring, but still striking and dramatic in the colder months.
The Avenue Gardens, situated at the southeast entrance of the park, occupy a reasonable size, dominated, as the name would suggest, by a large ornamental avenue, in which there are fountains and water features. The Avenue was originally intended to provide access to the grand villas that were to be located in the park under Nash's design, but when these failed to be developed, the area was used for a formal walk, lined with trees and ornamental flowers. In the height of summer, it's a haven for bees and insects and a quiet spot to enjoy some lunch on one of the benches or even just perched on one of the grass verges. The area is popular with lunchtime visitors as it's close to the bustle of Holborn and Marylebone, so expect to fight for space with office workers between 12:00 and 14:00 during the week.
St Mary's Gardens occupy a more central position in the park. Similar in terms of the formal design, the gardens are less regimented and the paths twist and turn around the shrubbery to give the place an air of mystery. The area was formally the headquarters of the Royal Botanic Society and is arguably now the focal point of the entire park. The grand Jubilee Gates at the southern entrance are akin to the gates of Buckingham Palace and there's a fantastic sense of dimension as you make your way up the main path towards the main gardens. The rose garden here is world famous, with literally thousands of blooms (there are more than 400 varieties here for the enthusiast) and is at its best in late May early June. If you find the main gardens a bit too busy, you could always try sneaking into the gardens at St John's Lodge, just north of the Queen Mary Gardens. Only a small part is open to the public but it tends to be pretty quiet compared to the rest of the park.
This isn't just about the formal gardens though and there are plenty of places to suit all tastes. I love the community wildlife garden, which is supported by local school children that come and look after the plants and try and encourage a few animals. It's a fairly simple, scruffy affair, but peppered with colourful signs and displays to share tips with home gardeners and wildlife fanatics. There's a fantastic giant crocodile, made from turfed soil with tiles for his eyes and teeth (although he looked a bit sorry for himself the last time I wandered through.)
To the right of the Avenue Gardens, you'll find the English Gardens. These are rather less formal and lovely in the summer because of the cover of trees and shrubs. Not surprisingly a popular spot for picnics, the patches of long grass attract a lot of bugs and insects so be prepared to share your lunch. The Winter Gardens at Regents Park were the first of their kind in the UK, originally comprising a large glasshouse full of tropical plants and shrubs. The existing Winter Garden is rather less grand, but has a good selection of conifers and trees that don't seem quite so bare in the middle of December. Located to the west end of the park, this is a popular spot for walkers at Christmas and in the New Year and was particularly lovely when we had all the snow.
==Water, Water Everywhere==
Water plays a big part in the landscape at Regents Park and crops up in many places. From the canal at the north end that skirts around the edges of the park to the fountains and water features in the ornamental gardens and through to the boating lake in the southwest - water is never far away. One of the most romantic things about the park is the array of beautiful bridges built to cover the various waterways and ponds. York Bridge, for example, typifies the regency design of the park. It's a relatively small, ornate design that looks beautiful nestled in amongst the trees and greenery.
The boating lake is glorious and quintessentially English. The wooded banks of the north shore are a cool respite from the sun in the middle of winter, but the sun-worshippers can make their way to Holme Green where they can sit and cook themselves to their hearts' content - it's a real sun trap. At the southern end, towards York Bridge, the lake is shallower, and teeming with birds throughout the year. The proximity to nearby offices makes this area very popular at lunch time but it's also a favourite with young families who come and feed the birds. The views up towards Regent's College are glorious and it's one of the busiest parts of the park. The main part of the boating lake makes a good circular walk (or run) and the café is well-positioned in the middle of it. Hanover Island at the northwest tip has a couple of water features although is not as impressive as the pictures in guide books would lead you to believe. Regent's Canal skirts the park to the north and north west - that probably deserves a review of its own.
==Activities and Things to Do==
The boating lake is a popular spot in the summer, where you can hire rowing boats or pedalos. Take a man - it's hard work otherwise - and relax as you float serenely across the water. It's not cheap though. Hire is charged in thirty minute blocks per person and for a couple, an hour on the water will cost you around £20. There are family deals that work out better overall, and directly opposite the main boating lake is a children's pond with similarly over-priced hire available. It's a rather expensive trip, but at the right time of day, it's very relaxing and actually quite romantic.
The open air theatre has been a feature of Regents Park since the 1930s and remains hugely popular. Traditionally offering Shakespeare productions, the theatre company has diversified in recent years, branching out into musicals and even offering small concerts. Times of productions vary but are normally in the evening - which befits certain productions even more as the light fades and darkens. You are, of course, entirely at the behest of the elements but I think that's half the fun. You can book tickets online - and there's no booking fee! There's an enormous range of prices starting at £5 for the really cheap seats. They'll also throw in picnics and barbecues at a price and there's a real sense of occasion to it all.
London Zoo sits at the very north of the park and is open from around 10:00 until 17:00 daily. It's really worth booking tickets online in advance to beat the queues. It's an expensive day out. A peak season adult ticket costs £18; a child's ticket £13.70 (under 3 go free). If you book online you can get a family saver which costs about £55 for two adults and two children or one adult and three children - but it's still a lot of money. The zoo is hellishly busy during the summer holidays and deserves a review in its own right but the kids are almost guaranteed to enjoy the spectacle.
What are you waiting for? Regent's Park is an enormous oasis of quintessentially British beauty. There's a part of the park for every age and taste and what's more it's free. Don't feel that you have to be lured by the zoo and the concerts. Just enjoy the rose gardens or the boating lake and marvel at how close you are to nature when the bustling city is just a stone's throw away. In a hectic, capitalist, 'nothing for free' kind of world, it's nice to know that Regent's Park is there for everyone.
I guess I might see you there!
Summary: A favourite haunt of mine
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