... there are more deer bred in Richmond Park alone than would feed all the branches of the royal family and all their households all the year round, if every soul of them ate as hearty as ploughmen, and if they never touched a morsel of any kind of meat but venison!
- William Cobbett. Diary entry on 18 October, 1826.
There is a bit of South West London that hides a very large and significant secret, one that not enough people appreciate. This is a 'lung' of green spaces stretching from the vast open spaces of Sheen Common, Wimbledon Common and Putney Heath to the walled treasure that is Richmond Park. This green lung provides respite for the respiratorally challenged in this part of the Thames Valley with its high incidences of breathing and other upper respiratory difficulties.
Richmond Park has a walled perimeter enclosing an area of over 2,500 acres. Despite being surrounded by suburbia, wildlife thrives here. It borders the very densely populated areas of Richmond, East Sheen, Roehampton, Kingston Vale, Kingston and Ham/Petersham, each with its own impressive set of gates for vehicular access. The gate at Kingston Vale is called the Robin Hood Gate and has controversially been closed to traffic for several years. It gave access to the park from the very busy A3/A308 junction on the so-called Robin Hood 'Roundabout'1 and was used as a rat run for commuters, with the result being several close encounters of the vehicular kind. In fact the vast majority of cars in the park are commuting or using the park as a short cut to a separate destination. They seem to find the 20 mile speed limit, in place to protect the deer, a hugely frustrating obstacle, giving rise to the incongruous spectacle of sneaky speed detectors being trained onto driving cars from behind two particularly large roadside oaks.
It is frustrating. Strangely, the 20 mph speed limit is largely there to safeguard the deer rather than the life and limb of drivers. Roadkill in the numbers of deer was high, which isn't surprising as deer have a very strange mentality. It's the herd instinct coupled with a nervous disposition. As a motorist, you can be driving quite sedately and approach the only couple of deer that can be seen for miles around grazing well away from the road. One of them will suddenly take it into its head to bolt, usually across the road in front of you. The next thing you know, deer are coming out of the woodwork from miles around all following the first one. They cannot have any idea why they’re doing it and suddenly you‘re in the middle of a stampede.
- An h2g2 Researcher.
Richmond Park has a history spanning centuries. The story of the park is imbued with royal whims and the steadfast resolution of local peasants.
In the 13th Century, King Edward I hunted in this space. At the time it was called the Manor of Sheen, its name only changing to Richmond during Henry VII's reign. Henry built a palace here and his successors all hunted here too. Queen Elizabeth I is said to have passed away here in 1603.
While the plague was ravaging London, Charles I brought his court to Richmond Palace. He had first visited it in 1625 and, upon seeing this area of medieval farms and open pasture, is reported to have remarked on its beauty. On his escape from the plague, he turned the open space into a hunting park and populated it with two thousand red and fallow deer. It was Charles who, in 1637, made the order for the park to be walled with eight miles of brick so his deer could not escape; this outraged local farmers and residents who relied on the land for pasture, charcoal and other resources. The protests, supported by the now well-known John Lewis, resulted in the king caving in to local demands and permitting pedestrian right of way.
Later that century, Charles II invested several thousand pounds in repairs for the park. He ordered new ponds built for the deer to drink from. Among these were the Pen Ponds which are one lake divided in two by a walkway. He also allowed digging for gravel in the park.
A hundred or so years later, in the 18th Century, two avenues of spectacular views were created to impress guests with the views of the park and beyond. One vista swept down the grand avenue of Queen's Ride to White Lodge, a hunting lodge built for King George I. The second looked out from King Henry's Mound. This is the highest point in the park, reputedly a spot Henry VIII favoured from which to watch hunting. Today, a stationary telescope allows you to inspect the intricate architecture of St Paul's Cathedral miles away. This view is still protected by an Act of Parliament.
In the 19th Century several small fenced woods were created and firewood collections were banned. British Prime Minister Lord John Russell (1792 - 1878) lived in the park, and his grandson the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872 - 1970) was later raised here. Their home, Pembroke Lodge, is now a café situated at the top of a hill overlooking Ham, Petersham and the River Thames.
The park played an important role in the affairs of London during WWII, hosting the headquarters of a regiment; the officers' mess being Pembroke Lodge and even providing shelter to Dwight Eisenhower in the form of White Lodge. Many soldiers of the time report passing through Richmond Park on their way to postings in Europe and elsewhere.
The Isabella Plantation is a fabulous woodland garden, created after World War II from one of the 19th Century woodlands. Most immediately reached from the Ladderstile pedestrian gate off Kingston Hill, it is organically maintained and protected from the deer by the original fencing perimeter. In the 21st Century, the Bone Wood was created in memory of a local family by the name of Bone.
Flora and Fauna
Today Richmond Park is also significantly important in terms of national and international wildlife conservation. This is the capital's largest Site of Special Scientific Interest, as well as being a National Nature Reserve and a Special Area of Conservation.
Ancient trees abound here, particularly oaks. The trees and their debris of decaying wood are home to endangered species of fungi and a huge range of scarce creepy crawlies such as the cardinal click beetle and the stag beetle. More than a quarter of the list of British beetles are represented in the park.
This environment has evolved over centuries of grazing by herds of Red and Fallow Deer. Richmond Park is the most important area of fragile lowland acid grassland in London, a 'priority habitat in the Government's UK Biodiversity Action Plan'.
The bird population is also a source of pride. There are well over 100 species, over 60 of which are breeders. Here you will see kestrels, woodpeckers, jays, owls, waterfowl and, especially, the hordes of rose-ringed parakeets which are so prolific they are periodically culled by Richmond Borough. The story is not all happy for the birds:
Several ground nesting species that breed in the acid grassland of the Park have suffered a serious national decline, including the Skylark, Reed Bunting, Stonechat and Meadow Pipit. The Grey Partridge is another threatened grassland bird that was once common in the Park; however the last known breeding was in 1997.
In just six years the Park Rangers have managed to double the ground breeding numbers near the Pen Ponds, simply by persuading visitors to keep their dogs on short leads and pick up after them. This is proof of the impact the visitor has on this fragile environment.
Picnicking is a special treat on a warm sunny day. Lyme disease is not common in the UK but it is still advisable to keep an eye out for ticks after spending time in any wooded area, Richmond Park included.
Twice a year it is particularly dangerous to approach the deer. In the autumn is the famous rut, or breeding season, when the fallow bucks and red stags in all their glorious antlered fury will challenge their rivals (and cars, dogs, horses or people who stray too close) in their search for the perfect mate. In spring, the young are born. They are hidden in the vast fields of bracken by their mothers who are very skittish and protective.
Up until the late 1990s, Richmond Park tolerated the presence of a heavily polluted stream called Beverley Brook. To be fair, the stench was not Beverley's fault. The brook first appears in the middle of a recreation park in Worcester Park and makes its way through Wimbledon Common, Richmond Park and Putney, until it reaches Putney Bridge and the sanctuary of the Thames. The problem was that there was a sewage works in Worcester Park. This was replaced by a water treatment plant in 1998. Enough said, really. Today, however, Beverley is a sweet-smelling, fecund brook. The recovery of the micro ecology has taken several years but today Beverley's successful comeback is assured by the presence of several creatures and plants that do not tolerate pollution. Absolute proof comes in the presence of the Banded Demoiselle Damselfly. She's very particular about her environment, she is.
People using the park during the latter part of the 20th Century will tell you of a curious sight. A man (a very old man, he died at 84 in 2004) with no legs, on a manual tricycle wheelchair-type contraption, belting it from Richmond Gate towards Sheen and back again every single morning, for decades. Charlie Hankins was a giant in spirit and heart. Aptly, he was awarded an 'Unsung Hero' by the Celebrities Guild of Great Britain, just one of many awards he received for his life's work.
After being raised in Wimbledon, Charlie lost his legs, an eye and bore gunshot wounds to the chest during his service with the Black Watch in North Africa in 1943. It was not until the 1960s that he finally came to live at the Royal Star and Garter Home on Richmond Hill. Even with all the terrible injuries, he continued to work. The trike and the daily exercise were part of a regimen (that also included swimming) that he set himself in preparation for the many and various fantastical fundraising challenges he completed. Charlie pushed himself from Land's End to John O'Groats2; he travelled the length of the Thames in a floating trike that he built himself in the basement of the Home; and he parachuted out of airplanes right up until the ripe old age of 83. What a legend! Even after his death, his memoirs continue to raise funds for his 'Home on the Hill'.
The main vehicle gates open at 7:00am in summer or 7:30am in winter and close at dusk. There are also a series of pedestrian gates giving immediate access to local residents living around the park - these are usually open at all times. All the entrances greet you with a map of the park and a watering trough. It is important to note that any trade vehicles need permission from the Park Rangers to enter the park.
Today, the park also hosts a ballet school, two public golf courses and the Stag Lodge Riding Stables. Apart from the educational programmes and fun activities run by the Friends of Richmond Park, you can buy ice cream, you can rollerblade, fly your kite, play rugby or football, or you could cycle, walk, even practise your skiing or Tai Chi in the park.
There are several trees which are very popular with the younger generation, being easy to climb; and on a summer's evening, you can sit and dine to the accompaniment of the Lodge's Jazz evenings. There are several car parks for the convenience of the visitor, and small fenced gardens, seasonally planted and dressed with benches. Dogs are not permitted in here, providing a welcome haven for mums who are able to allow their toddlers to roam freely within the confines of these small gardens.
If you are planning on visiting the area especially to come to Richmond Park, it is best to check on the cull dates first. The park is closed overnight to pedestrians during the month or so of the cull. Savvy residents know where to find the royal venison, so if you like game, make local friends and influence some people.