The Regent's Park we know today is a masterpiece of landscape design and town planning. But for much of its history it was isolated farmland and hunting chase on the wrong side of town.
The area was originally part of the vast forest of Middlesex and was called Marylebone Park after the village and manor nearby. There were thick woods, particularly going up the slope towards Primrose Hill. But on the lower ground the woods were more open and were perfect for deer.
This caught the eye of King Henry Vlll. In 1538, he seized the park from the owner, the Abbess of Barking, and turned 554 acres into a hunting chase. A ditch and rampart kept the deer in and poachers out. For the next 50 years, it was one of several royal Parks in London where the king or queen entertained visiting dignitaries.
The park remained largely unchanged until after the Civil War. Between 1649 and 1660, the Commonwealth Government under Oliver Cromwell chopped down many of the trees to pay debts from the war. When Cromwell died and Charles II became king, the park returned to the crown. But by then hunting was going out of fashion and for the next 150 years the land was leased to tenant farmers.
In 1811, the crown spotted a financial opportunity. London was spreading rapidly and more money could be made by building on Marylebone Park than by farming it. At the same time the new Prince Regent, later King George lV, was determined to make his mark. He wanted a new summer palace in north London set in exclusive grounds. The leases on Marylebone Park were not renewed and architects were invited to produce designs for the area.
John Nash, a government architect, produced a scheme that was bold enough to appeal to the Prince. The area, renamed The Regent's Park, was designed as a huge circle with a lake, a canal and the new royal residence inside. It would be linked to the Prince's other home at St James's Palace by a fine processional road. To pay for it, Nash planned 56 villas in the park and a series of grand Regency terraces around it.
The complete plan was never implemented because the Prince turned his attention instead to improving Buckingham Palace. The idea of a summer palace was dropped. Only 8 villas were built. And the canal was moved to the northern boundary of the park. But many elements of Nash's scheme survived. The processional route to St James's Palace was built and became Regent's Street. In the park, each villa was surrounded by trees to make the residents feel they were living in a private estate. The terraces looked out on what appeared to be a country park.
At first, the only people allowed in the park were residents of the villas and terraces and the 'carriage set' who took part in the weekly carriage rides. In 1835, the east side the park was open to the public and eventually people could visit the whole park and Primrose Hill nearby.
Local societies leased the space left by the unbuilt villas. One of the first to move in was the Zoological Society, which employed its own architect, Decimus Burton. The Royal Botanic Society laid out the Inner Circle with lawns and a lake. The Royal Toxophilite Society introduced archery to the park. Between them, the societies created the mix of gardens, recreation and formal buildings, which remains today.
Little has changed in the past 150 years. In the 1930's the Royal Botanic Society decided not to renew its lease and in its place the park laid out the formal rose beds of Queen Mary's Gardens. At about the same time, the Open Air Theatre began performances, which continue today. The park was bombed during World War 2 and rubble from buildings destroyed in the blitz was dumped on the lawns. But the damage was put right and the park still gives visitors a taste of what elegant life would have been like in Regency London.