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Trenches dug in Kensington Gardens, St James’s Park lake drained to build government offices, the Albert Memorial boarded up, and flowerbeds outside Buckingham Palace planted with potatoes.

It might sound fictional, but more than 100 years ago it is exactly what happened in the Royal Parks.

To mark the centenary of the First World War, The Royal Parks and The Royal Parks Guild have joined forces to explore the vital role the parks played during this period of history.

Made possible by money raised by National Lottery players, this project will transport people back to wartime Britain with a series of events that will recreate key moments in the parks during the First World War.

When hostilities broke out in 1914, the Royal Parks were managed by His Majesty’s Office of Works, a government department. The parks were used extensively by the government to aid with the war effort, including growing crops to help with the national food shortage including 150 acres used across Richmond and Bushy Parks, storing aircraft parts in The Regent’s Park, hosting recruitment rallies in The Regent’s and Hyde Parks, and rehabilitating soldiers in newly-built hospitals in Richmond, Bushy and The Regent’s Parks.

The beautiful displays of flowers that people who visited London’s Royal Parks had come to expect were shelved. To reflect the wartime economy, spring bedding was abandoned and ‘showy plants kept out of sight’. Many employed across The Royal Parks joined up to fight, and 24 did not return.

The project, which was awarded a £90,000 National Lottery grant through the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), will allow visitors to discover how writer H G Wells’ idea of an aerial ropeway came to fruition in Richmond Park, and find out how the ‘biggest wooden structure in the world’ in The Regent’s Park kept up troops’ morale.

The first events of this project will take place in September when Britain’s first Camouflage School will return to Kensington Gardens for the first time in 100 years and showcase how the army experimented with different ways to disguise and mislead the enemy. Discover a world of camouflage in war – from disguising horses as zebras to building tanks out of cardboard.

During two public events between 11am and 4pm on Sunday, September 17 and 24, visitors will have the opportunity to go on an immersive tour of Kensington Gardens’ very own trench and join the 10th Essex Living History Regiment to discover how the army recreated the Somme in the park for camouflage practice.

The First World War project runs until June 2019, to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles, with a host of events being organised in the Royal Parks over the next two years.

Simon Richards from The Royal Parks said:

Little is known about the Royal Parks’ important contribution to the outcome of the First World War. For instance, camouflage methods devised in Kensington Gardens - one of London’s eight Royal Parks - saved many lives on the battlefield. This project will not only look at the parks’ contribution to the Great War, but also the people that worked for them.”

David Ivison, Vice Chairman of The Royal Parks Guild, said:

“So much of the knowledge relating to how the Royal Parks were used during World War One has been lost over time. Research organised by the Guild has revealed a wealth of information about the way government authorities utilised the parks to aid the war effort. It is not just about the parks, but also those who worked in them.

“A ‘eureka’ moment came when the official list of Royal Parks’ war casualties was found in The National Archives. The subsequent discovery that the 24 names of The Royal Parks’ war dead were included in His Majesty’s Office of Works memorial, situated in the Treasury building opposite St James’s Park, was a truly heart-stopping moment.”

Stuart Hobley, Head of HLF London, said:

“This fantastic programme of events will highlight the significant but underexplored role that the Royal Parks and their staff played in the First World War, bringing to life the wartime stories of some of the UK’s most recognisable landscapes. Thanks to National Lottery players, the Heritage Lottery Fund has already invested more than £86million to more than 1,700 projects marking this global Centenary and helping people to understand the lasting legacy of the conflict.”

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