SOME OF LIFE’S PLEASURES are seasonal. Such is the case for the explosion of colour that can be seen in the Isabella Plantation in London’s Richmond Park. During late April and most of May, the azaleas and rhododendrons in the Isabella burst into flower. These alongside many other flowering plants, including seas of bluebells, provide a sumptuous banquet of colour for the visitors’ eyes. It is not so much the immense number of flowers that provides so much joy but the way the shrubs and other plants have been planted that creates a visual experience that easily rivals the best of fireworks displays. Even if I were able to express myself better in writing, words cannot possibly recreate the experience of seeing the Isabella Plantation in full bloom. Although I am keen on photography, I feel that even good photographs of the place can only hint at the impact of seeing the flora in real life. In brief, if you can, you must try to visit the plantation when the blooms are at their most magnificent.
The Plantation is in the southwest part of Richmond Park, not far from both the Robin Hood and Kingston Gates. The latter is open to motor traffic currently (May 2021). Richmond Park was a royal deer park, a hunting ground, established by the 14th century when it was part of the Manor of Sheen (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000828). King Henry VII was particularly fond of the park, which he named ‘Richmond’ after his earldom in Yorkshire (Richmond is a town in that county). He also had a palace built there, of which precious little remains because by the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, it was already dilapidated and was never rebuilt. In its heyday, it was one of the few places fitted with a flushing lavatory. This was installed by Queen Elizabeth I’s godson, Sir John Harington (baptised 1560- died 1612; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Harington_(writer)).
The history of public access to the park is of interest (www.trpg.org.uk/perch/resources/newsletter-005.pdf). Between 1637 when King Charles I enclosed the park and the 1730s when Robert Walpole forbade it, there was pedestrian access to the park. In 1758, a certain John Lewis (1713-1792) won a court case that re-established the right of some public access to the paths and roadways within the park. By the mid-19th century, the public could drive their carriages through it. Today, its roadways are popular both with cyclists and motorists.
The history of the Isabella Plantation is detailed on the website of The Royal Parks (www.royalparks.org.uk/), from which I obtained the following information. By the 17th century, the waterlogged area in the south west corner of Richmond Park was known as ‘The Sleyt’, a sleyt being a word for boggy ground or an open space between woods and banks. The area where the Plantation is today was marked as ‘Isabella Slade’ on maps published by 1771. The name Isabella either referred to a lady with that name, or, more likely, it was a corruption of the word ‘isabel’, which as far back as the 15th century meant ‘dingy’ or ‘greyish yellow’, which is the colour of the soil in the area of the park where the Plantation is located.
A Deputy Park Ranger, Henry Addington, Lord Sidmouth (1757-1844), fenced off an area of 42 acres of the Isabella Slade in 1831, planted various kinds of trees for timber, and gave the land its present name, ‘Isabella Plantation’. Sidmouth, a Tory politician, was briefly Prime Minister at the beginning of the 19th century, lived in the White Lodge of Richmond Park from 1801 until his death (https://whitelodgetimeline.royalballetschool.org.uk/1800/item/161/). He had been given it as a residence by King George III, who appointed himself the park’s Ranger and Sidmouth his Deputy. Currently, the White Lodge houses The Royal Ballet school.
Getting back to the Plantation as we see it today, it was created chiefly by the work of the Park Superintendent, George Thomson, done between 1951 and 1971. The Royal Parks website explains that:
“The present garden of clearings, ponds and streams was established from the 1950s onwards. It is largely the work of George Thomson, the park superintendent from 1951-1971. Along with his head gardener, Wally Miller, he removed Rhododendron ponticum from large areas and replaced it with other rhododendron species. They established evergreen Kurume Azaleas around the Still Pond and planted other exotic shrub and tree species.”
The Plantation has three ponds, of which the Still Pond is the most spectacular. Surrounded by azaleas and Rhododendrons, its waters are still, that is they are mirror-like. The flowers of the shrubs surrounding the water are reflected in the water, producing a delightful and dramatic visual effect. The other ponds, Peg’s Pond, and one named after Thomson, have their own charms but lack the drama of the Still Pond. Streams and rivulets lined with ferns and other plants flows across the Plantation. The longest stream was dug in 1960 and includes Peg’s Pond.
So far, we have visited the Isabella Plantation three times. Twice, we saw it in its full floral glory and once a few months before the flowering began. Timing is important if you want to enjoy the full floral impact. So, get there in late April or during the first few weeks of May in order to best experience the forms, colours, and fragrances of this beautiful collection of flowering shrubs.