Photo competition winner Steve, his son Elliott and his grandson Toby had a guided tour of Richmond Park in October as part of his prize. The park has been a constant backdrop to their lives.
Elliott was visiting from New Zealand and it was Toby’s first time seeing the park that meant so much to his family. Accompanied by Wildlife Officer Tony, we took a tour of the locations linked to some of their most important family memories.
Steve and his family lived in Surrey for much of Elliott’s childhood and even shared a garden wall with Richmond Park for several years. He and his wife Greta would take Elliott and his brothers there regularly, the huge expanse of the park the greatest back garden a young group of adventurers could wish for.
“There used to be a tree that had fallen over that was a short walk from Sheen Gate” said Elliott. “Kids used to play and climb on it. We went there often and it became famous in our family. We named it our ‘Thinking Tree’, borrowed from Winnie the Pooh stories.”
As Elliott grew up, the park grew up around him. The natural playground he’d seen through the filter of childhood became a place to exercise, relax and meet friends.
“Right the way through my teenage years I spent hours in the park going on bike rides, walking the dog, or just hanging out with friends. We had many picnics, birthday parties and New Year’s Day walks around the park close to the pedestrian gate on top of Kingston Hill.”
A special moment
The park meant so much to Elliott that he chose it as the location for one of the most important moments in his life.
“I wanted a place that was very personal to me. I had always loved climbing a particular tree when I was younger, and I had regularly gone to Pen Ponds as a child. It has a lot of significance for me. I remembered that tree to be in a quiet, private and beautiful area. Perfect for a proposal with just me and my girlfriend in beautiful surroundings.
“One summer’s day I prepared a picnic for the two of us and set off on a walk, arriving at that tree. Once we had finished the picnic, when the moment was right, I got down on one knee. She said yes. Now, each time we come back to the UK we try to visit that tree to remember that moment.”
The visit was a special time for Toby, his first time seeing the place where his mum and dad had decided to spend their lives together.
A place of remembrance
Not all the family memories connected to the park are such happy ones. In 2008 Steve’s wife Greta passed away after a three-year battle with cancer. Wishing to remain connected to the park that she loved so much, before she died Greta chose the location for a bench dedicated to her memory.
“Mum was ill with cancer for a few years” said Elliott. “Whilst it was terrible to go through, it did give her time to consider carefully how she wanted to be remembered. She chose the location for her bench herself. It was within walking distance from our old house and a place we used to go to frequently.
“Right next to the bench there is a small copse of tall thin trees planted very close together and surrounded by a fence in an oval shape. There is something about the way the light falls through the trees that makes it a very special place. Mum used to say that it reminded her of the Narnia books. You almost expect to find a lamppost or a wardrobe magically hiding in the middle of the copse somewhere.
“The bench is also positioned in such a way that if you sit on it, you can barely see any trace of human interference. All the paths are hidden by vegetation and the roads are not visible. When nobody is around it looks as if you have stumbled on some long-forgotten, untouched corner of the park.”
Following Greta’s death, the family took her around the park one last time. Steve said:
“After she passed away we held her memorial at Pembroke Lodge and we got permission to have her driven around the park on one last lap of this most amazing place. Greta’s favourite place in the park was without doubt the Isabella Plantation, particularly in spring when all the azaleas came into bloom.”
More than just a park
As a National Nature Reserve and London's largest Site of Special Scientific Interest, Richmond Park’s wildlife shares its 2,500 acre home with over 5 million visitors a year. It’s easy to see why the park is so loved, with people coming from near and far. For many it holds a special place in their lives. Elliott put it this way:
“The thing I value the most about the park is how it has been a constant in my life. To me it is much more than just a park. It is the place I grew up, my childhood memories, my proposal to my wife, and the place I remember my mother. Being able to share that with my son is hugely important to me and something I find very rewarding.
“Often when you show your children things from your past, like the area you grew up in, the school you went to, or an old house you lived in, it has all changed. Buildings are constantly being renovated or rebuilt. Streets are changing. It is hard to connect to that place in the same way. Because it’s so well cared for and preserved, that doesn’t happen in Richmond Park. It is constant.”
The images above are Steve's. He has an immersive photography and music website, set up to support his favourite charities. You can see more here: https://www.photosforgiving.com/