Architecture: More royals under threat: Regent's Park and London's other great open spaces face tasteless theming, warns Verina Glaessner

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IN RECENT years, there have been fears that the royal parks - including Regent's, Hyde, St James's and Green in London - might be hived off to the private sector and turned into theme parks. Might there be charges at the gates, a ban on dogs and games? Might the old, the poor, the lonely, the dispossessed be forced away from where they have been able to find beauty, nature and solace for free?

These fears led Michael Heseltine, then Secretary of State for the Environment, to set up the Royal Parks Review Group (RPRG) in 1991, chaired by Dame Jennifer Jenkins. Last week it published its report on St James's Park, Regent's Park and Green Park.

As a direct result of the RPRG's first report last year, a chief executive of royal parks, David Welch, has been appointed. Mr Welch, who takes up his post this month, is blooming with ideas for regenerating the parks in his care. While his enthusiasm is to be applauded - he is clearly in love with flowers - some of his plans are along the lines of theme parks.

Mr Welch wants litter in the parks, for example, to be collected by carts pulled by shire horses; he wants people to ride around in horse-drawn traps and he talks of restoring a 'Victorian splendour'. He also wants to build a 'giant indoor English Paradise garden' in Regent's Park, in the form of a neo-Victorian winter garden.

While the RPRG's latest report calls for the creation of a royal parks promenade - the parks connected by green walks, effectively creating a seven-mile park through the centre of London - and is encouraging the Government to make London a greener and more natural place, there is still the danger that the parks might end up overplanted and overwrought.

The royal parks are not pleasure gardens or theme parks and should not be treated as such; each has its own particular character and needs careful tending. Above all, it is Regent's Park that is most in danger of being 'themed'. This is partly because of uncertainty over the future of London Zoo, which may yet be turned into a Disney-style meet-the-animals experience, and because of the paradise garden that might be built nearby.

Despite their exalted status in the public imagination, the royal parks have never had the protection of scheduling afforded buildings of historic interest, and have only recently been designated conservation areas. Their management has devolved upon various committees and officials, but has mostly been in the hands of park superintendents. Regent's Park has drifted over the years from the control of the old Department of Woods and Forests to the Department of Works, the Department of the Environment and eventually to the Heritage Ministry.

Regent's Park needs nurturing much more than it needs theming; the pressure on the park is enormous, and not just from the volume of visitors. Recent planning applications from the embassies and owners of villas inside and around the park have sought permission for the construction of a 14ft bullet-proof Perspex fence around one of the more security-conscious homes, and the installation of state-of-the-art television surveillance equipment with cameras protruding into the park and watching everyone walking and playing there.

Other half-baked plans suggested for the park include a pseudo-historic railing around the park to make it look more 'royal' (as, for example, in the new 'royal-style' traffic lights, railings and bollards in Regent Street), liveried attendants and 'talking guides'. Everone, it seems, wants Regent's Park to a be a giant floral playpen.

Yet it has always been far more than a recreational space. It was conceived by John Nash, the Prince Regent's favourite architect, as part of a bold plan for London that would begin at Carlton House Terrace on the Mall and takes in Whitehall, the Palace of Westminster, the fine Georgian squares of St James's, the sweep of Regent Street and Portland Place - extending as far as the canal to the north and west.

The park was planned as an estate of more than 50 villas constructed within a series of concentric circles of terraces of highly distinctive design. There were to be waterways, a barracks and, central to the whole project, the Regent's Palace. By 1827 the number of villas had dropped to eight and the idea of a canal route through the park had been abandoned. The park, however, was never meant to be simply a pleasure garden.

Nash worked closely with Humphrey Repton, the landscape gardener, on a planting scheme to create an illusion of seclusion. In this, perhaps, lies Regent's Park's most enduring and charming characteristic - the vagueness of its spaces, the deceptiveness of its perspectives, the indefiniteness of its very size - disturbed only recently by the high-rise buildings popping over the tree tops. There were to be birch and plane, sycamore and oak, larch and chestnut, which would screen the villas. Clusters of trees would frame views - of water, of Primrose Hill. In the event, the palace was not built, and under Queen Victoria the park took on a different aspect, with the introduction of formal plantings and increased public access.

In its scope and the particularities of its mix of urban planning and country park landscaping, Regent's Park is unique. It would be a pity if, while responding to Nash's grand plan of creating a green sweep from Camden Town to Westminster, the new masters of the royal parks demeaned Regent's Park itself by transforming it into a royal version of Alton Towers.

(Photograph omitted)

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