The marriage of heron and hell

I often think the success of a party can be judged by the voyage home. If it was a lame party, the voyage home will be undertaken in a state of sobriety on the Tube. If it was a good party, the voyage home will be undertaken while in a total mess and may well involve a degree of unrelenting horror. Possibly the following morning.

So it was on New Year’s Eve. The party was held in rural Oxfordshire (somewhere called “Bicester” or possibly “Bister”), which for some reason is not served by night buses. Therefore, I had to crash and make my way home the following morning. You get some pretty funny looks when you’re making your way home in a tailcoat, a silver waistcoat and a scarlet top hat, I can tell you.

The train came in at Marylebone, and the quickest route home would have been to simply jump on the Bakerloo line and change at Elephant and Castle, but I felt like a bit of a stroll – I thought I’d walk to Euston, shooting up Baker Street and swinging through Regent’s Park as I went.

This is perhaps not the park at its best.

Regent’s Park is perhaps my favourite of the London parks (though Hyde Park takes some beating). Particularly in the summer, it’s a delightful place to walk when you have nothing particular to do, and it’s easy to get to from Chalk Farm, Camden or the West End. The park was originally land swiped by Henry VIII and used for hunting. In 1818, the Prince Regent (later King George IV) took it over and envisioned it as a rather extravagant town home for himself and his friends, commissioning his friend, the now-legendary architect John Nash, to design the whole shebang. Nash is worthy of an entry in himself, so I won’t go into too much detail beyond saying that he defined the Regency style of architecture more-or-less singlehandedly. His grand plans for the area included a palace and several large villas, but were scaled back into the park we see today. It was, for the time, extremely innovative – the standard concept of the urban park, such as it was then, consisted of rigid, regimented grids. An up-yours to nature. Nash’s concept was the first real attempt to recreate an area of natural beauty within the city, and as such set a trend for urban parkland that would last right up until the present day.

Although the park was open to the public, it was on the basis of an admission fee – well, after you’d spent all that money, you didn’t want just anyone coming in. The fee was abolished in 1835, though the park was still only open two days a week.

Fortunately, we live in more enlightened times (perhaps) and now it’s open to the public all the time. Despite this, on that New Year’s morning there were few people about. The lake was frozen over, which had I known about it at the time might have reminded me of the occasion on 15th January 1867 when the ice on the lake collapsed under the weight of skaters. The Royal Humane Society had stationed icemen nearby, equipped with hooks, ladders and hot baths, but with two hundred in the lake they were utterly overwhelmed. Local boatbuilder William Archer managed to save seven in his boat and Abel Thomas swam out and rescued two (a third attempt being foiled by the intense cold). The master of the Marylebone Workhouse, George Douglas, played a key role in organising the medical care for the victims. Despite these and countless other unacknowledged efforts, forty were killed in the disaster.

Seven years later, the park would bear witness to another disaster, though fortunately with far smaller loss of life.

Following the 1867 disaster, the water level of the lake was reduced somewhat. This might be what made it so very attractive to herons. Herons, specifically grey herons, can be seen all over the place in London, helped in no small part by the number of little rivers, canals, docklands and ponds. They hunt in shallow water, standing motionless, sometimes for hours, before striking. One thing you can’t really say about them, though, is that they’re particularly social birds. It’s quite rare to see more than one at a time. Now, in the above photo, you can see seven. That wasn’t even all of them. There were ridiculous numbers of herons in this place. A little bit freaky, actually. I don’t know if herons are capable of cooperating to, say, bring a human down, but I wasn’t too keen to find out, and left mystified.

I found the answer on my trip to the Greenwich Peninsula a little while ago – it turns out that Regent’s Park is the only breeding colony in London for the grey heron. So all those herons I’ve seen, in Brentford, Merton, Whitton, Hackney, Kingston and so many other places, all came from the same place. Incredible.

No word on whether they can bring a grown man down, though.

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Filed under 18th century, 19th century, Baker Street and Marylebone, Disasters, Geography, History, London, Parks and gardens, Plants and animals, Regency

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