A tour through the literature
I first got to know the park in the 1950's, when I was
living near Baker Street with my sister. It became a favourite place for
both us. Coming across a description in a book or a poem seeing
how someone else had perceived it was always rewarding, and I'd
copy out anything that particularly appealed to me.
Bear in mind that it was written in 1992 and some aspects of the park have changed since then, as will be apparent from my photos (note: click on an image for a more detailed view). If you are interested in an up-to-date walk, without the literary bits, you can't do better than visit 'a walk from Clarence Gate and onwards', where there are several laid out for you, handsomely illustrated.
No writer has evoked Regent's Park more frequently, more perceptively, or more lovingly than Elizabeth Bowen. Her two best-known novels both open with a chapter set entirely within the Outer Circle, and it provides the background for several short stories.
'I had always placed this park among the most civilized scenes on earth', she wrote, in an essay, London 1940. She was an air raid warden at the time and living at 2 Clarence Terrace, near the Baker Street corner of the park, her home for sixteen years. 'The Nash terraces look as brittle as sugar actually, which is wonderful, they have not cracked; though several of the terraces are gutted'. But successive bomb blasts were to weaken Clarence Terrace beyond restoration, and the building we see now is a 1960's replica of the original Decimus Burton facade (right).
The Death of the Heart (1938) begins with two people walking around the Boating Lake.
'That morning's ice, no more than a brittle film, had now cracked and was floating in segments...On a footbridge between an island and the mainland a man and woman stood talking.' The bridge is probably the one by the Boat Shed, and it is here we start our tour, but as it makes a rather dull photo I've chosen another view of the same area (left). We follow Anna and St Quentin around the lake to Clarence Gate.
The three poplars have gone, but otherwise it seems to be much the same today. Anna's house figures extensively throughout the book. It's given a fictional address but is generally agreed to be an exact description of the author's own house. She seems to have been fond of the poplars. They appear again in a short story about a weepy small boy and his awful mother, Tears, Idle Tears (1941); but now it is May and they have become 'delicate green brooms' instead of frozen ones.
Another short story gives a clue to their demise. I Hear You Say So concerns the unsettling effects of the first nightingale, in the week after the war in Europe ended. 'Just inside the park three poplars, blasted the summer before by a flying bomb, stretched the uncertain leaves they had put out this year towards those of the unhurt trees.'
This same corner of the park is depicted in a more sinister light in Patrick Hamilton's trilogy, Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky (1934). It has often been said that these 424 acres resemble the parkland of a stately home, rather than a recreation ground for city dwellers. This would have struck a chord with Bowen. She had inherited her family's estate in Ireland; and her fictional couple, well-to-do sophisticates, share something of their creator's proprietorial concern for the land. Hamilton and his characters, a much put-upon barmaid and her grotesque, ageing suitor, occupy a very different world.
Here the park seems to reflect Hamilton's own darkness of the soul; a biographer described him as 'one of the chronically dissolute and distressed who wander the dingy London streets and find refuge in its pubs.' Perhaps it was the hangovers that gave him such a sour view of things. In another chapter the same couple
We have reached the Broad Walk via the footpath beside the Outer Circle. Now we head north towards the Zoo, but turn left at Chester Road and enter Queen Mary's Rose Garden. It provides the title for a poem that Sylvia Plath wrote about 'this wonderland / hedged in and evidently inviolate', in 1960, when she was living in Chalcot Square, Primrose Hill. She must have been a frequent visitor to the park, particularly after her first child was born in April. The poem will never rank as one of her greatest, but it wins a place on our tour for the wry affection it shows. The first of four verses goes:
It turns out that this is a 6am visit, with 'no walker and looker but myself.' Baby isn't mentioned, but one wonders whether an outing at this time of day resulted from the disturbed routines of pregnancy and motherhood. Another poem, Morning Song, describes an early morning feed while 'the window square / whitens and swallows its dull stars.'
We return to the Broad Walk, the setting for several scenes in Virginia Woolf's novel, Mrs. Dalloway (1925).
My limitations as a photographer will be evident here, but I am pretty sure the viewpoint is right. Clean Air regulations have banished the smoke, and the dipping slope would have been more apparent before layers of bomb damage rubble from World War Two were spread over the playing fields (above).
The couple who sit down and survey this scene are a shell-shocked ex-soldier and his Italian wife. The doctor has assured her that Septimus 'had nothing whatever seriously the matter with him but was a little out of sorts.' The man later commits suicide, as his author was to do, and in these pages Virginia Woolf expresses the anger she felt at the way her own bouts of insanity were treated. The wife, Rezia, is in despair:
The fountain has been rather knocked about since then, and the water cut off, but the eroded features of Sir Cowasjee Jehangir, wealthy Parsee gentleman, are just about discernible (right). The inscription tells us that it was a gift to the people of England in gratitude for the protection enjoyed by Parsees under the British Rule in India. That was in 1869. Some forty years later Virginia, wearing a turban and moustache not unlike Sir Cowasjees's, went aboard the flagship of the Home Fleet pretending to be an Abyssinian prince in the retinue of an equally bogus Emperor. They were received by the Admiral and given a tour of inspection with full naval honours. It became known as 'The Dreadnought Hoax'; there was a great row about it and questions were asked in Parliament.
For another character in the novel, a stroll in the Broad Walk awakens childhood memories:
The air-balls toy balloons have gone, but the absurd statue is probably the Indian fountain. The author's memories of it would have dated back to the period fifteen years earlier when she lived in nearby Fitzroy Square. On the morning of Christmas Eve 1909 she was walking alone in the park when she suddenly decided to go to Cornwall. It was 12.30pm and the train left at 1. She returned home, packed a bag and got to Paddington in time to catch it: try doing that today!
A few yards on from the Indian fountain we come to the Zoo. I'm excluding it from our tour because writers tend to use it as a metaphor in itself, without reference to the surrounding parkland. Ted Hughes is an exception in this respect; the title poem of his 1989 volume, Wolfwatching, firmly relates the animals to the world outside. The wolf enclosure is beside the Broad Walk: they can see passers-by in the park, cycling or walking their dogs. The poem begins:
He is contrasted with a young wolf, with
At the end of the Broad Walk we cross the Outer Circle to a canal bridge, scene of a tragic and disturbing incident described by Charles Dickens in The Uncommercial Traveller. It's not far from the main entrance to the Zoo, depicted in a contemporary engraving on the left. One afternoon in the winter of 1861,
Dickens runs after the cab, which stops at a bridge 'near the cross-path to Chalk Farm'. The body of a drowned woman is on the towpath, broken ice and puddles of water 'dabbled all about her...The dark hair streamed over the ground.'
The bargees' behaviour suggests that canal drownings were not a rarity in those days. Another unpleasant feature of the park, 'ruffianism', had upset Dickens some twenty years earlier. Recalling this in The Uncommercial Traveller he says,
At that time he was living at 1 Devonshire Terrace (now the corner of Marylebone High Street and Marylebone Road), and according to another writer the 'near interest' refers to Dickens's own family: 'his nurse and children were insulted and molested by tramping women and girls.' Nowadays one is unlikely to encounter anything worse than the occasional alcoholic dosser.
We are still at St. Mark's Bridge, and can now descend to the towpath and walk westward along the canal, coming up again at Primrose Hill Bridge. Pause here to look right towards the next bridge, Macclesfield, popularly known as Blow-up Bridge. A decade after the canal drowning that Dickens witnessed this was the scene of a tragedy on a larger scale. 'The sleep was broken by one of the most terrible explosions of gunpowder, powerful enough to throw down masses of stone', in the words of a local resident, Giuseppe Campanella. In An Italian on Primrose Hill (1875) he describes the night in October 1874 when a barge laden with gunpowder blew up, killing the crew of three. The bridge was rebuilt as a replica of the first one, depicted (above) by T.H. Shepherd c.1828.
From the Outer Circle we head south across the long slope and over a bridge. A short walk along the Inner Circle brings us to the Rose Garden restaurant, scene of a farcical encounter related by John Mortimer in his autobiography, Clinging to the Wreckage (1982). He is very vague about dates but it must have been some time in the Sixties when he arranged to meet his wife, the novelist Penelope Mortimer, to discuss their divorce.
Suddenly Penelope freezes, looks horrified, sweeps up her belongings and rushes off. Mortimer sits on, musing at this turn of events, and absent-mindedly bites into the half-eaten spare-rib. Unfortunately he has had a tooth capped that morning, and part of the cap breaks off. At that moment he is called to the phone. It's Penelope, apologising.
And here we end our tour.