A small zoo in north London

EVERY VISIT TO GOLDERS Hill Park in northwest London gives me great pleasure. Now officially part of Hampstead Heath, it contains a lovely feature, its small zoo. This consists of a large paddock containing deer and sometimes a rhea. Close to this, is a series of cages, an aviary, containing exotic birdlife including a laughing kookaburra. These are located next to an enclosure that contains a small group of ring-tailed lemurs. The lemurs’ neighbours are several wallabies and a couple of donkeys, named Sienna and Calypso. The wallabies and the donkeys have a long rectangular sloping field in which to wander.

I have written about the park and the zoo before, and published it elsewhere (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2020/11/19/walking-past-wallabies/). When I wrote that piece, I did not explore the small zoo’s history. It was certainly present well over 60 years ago, when I was less than ten years old. As a small boy, I remember seeing wallabies and flamingos. More recently, the flamingos have disappeared and have been replaced by ibis and various other exotic fowl. Before my time, the flamingos used to reside in the duck pond next to the park’s walled garden (https://londongardenstrust.org/conservation/inventory/site-record/?ID=BAR027).

The zoo’s history is difficult to ascertain. After searching the Google entries relating to the park and its history, I found only one reference that alludes to the presence of the zoo prior to WW2. This consists of a recording of an interview (https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Science/021M-C1379X0029XX-0001V0) with the scientist Sir Anthony Seymour Laughton (1927-2019), an oceanographer. Laughton was born in Golders Green, began his education in Hampstead at Heysham School, a ‘dame school’ (private elementary school) in Branch Hill, and moved to Gerrards Cross during WW2 (https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsbm.2020.0021). As a young child, Laughton lived in one of the small roads that lead of North End Road and back on to Golders Hill Park. He and his brother were often taken to Golders Hill Park where he remembered that there was a small zoo with wallabies. This would have been before 1939, when he and his family moved out of London. So, we can conclude that the zoo was in existence before WW2.

According to Pam Fox, author of “The Jewish Community of Golders Green”, Golders Hill Park was popular with local Jewish families, who went:

“Golders Hill Park on Sundays to watch the peacocks strutting around the grounds of Golders Hill House.”

The House was destroyed in 1941. Laughton did not mention these in his interview and, sadly, there are none to be seen today.

To discover whether the little zoo existed before Laughton’s childhood, that is prior to 1927, I looked at a detailed map, surveyed in 1912. This was after the park was opened to the public by the London County Council in 1899, making it the first public park to have been opened in what was then the Borough of Hendon (now incorporated into the Borough of Barnet). I compared what was on that map with what is on modern maps and found that the park’s layout has not changed much since 1912. The bandstand that you can see today is where there was one back in 1912. Where there is the deer enclosure today, there was a similarly shaped and located fenced field in 1912. The same is the case for the long narrow field where you can see the wallabies and donkeys today. The 1912 map does not show any buildings where the aviary is located today, but apart from that the pattern of land enclosures in the part of the park where animals and birds are kept enclosed today is remarkably similar. The question is, and I cannot answer it, was what is now a deer enclosure, then a deer or other animal enclosure? Here is another as yet unanswerable question: did the long rectangular field where the wallabies live today enclose animals for viewing by the public as long ag as in 1912?

Prior to becoming a public park, Golders Hill Park was the gardens of the now long-since demolished Golders Hill House, built in the 1760s for the merchant Charles Dingley (1711-1769), who traded with Russia (www.leeandstort.co.uk/Stort%20History/Charles%20DINGLEY%20Biography.pdf). I have not found any references to any collections of birds and animals in Golders Hill Park prior to the childhood of Laughton, the oceanographer. It is possible that the merchant Charles Dingley or later owners of the property might have kept deer and even exotic creatures, but there is no evidence to confirm or deny this.

What is important, is that the little zoo, which I remember from the 1950s, is still thriving today and providing enjoyment for children of all ages. Whether the various creatures ‘enjoy’ being caged-up and gawped at is a question I cannot begin to answer.

Diana and the deer

LIKE AN ORIENTAL PASHA with his harem, a large stag with huge branching antlers sat in the shade of a big tree on a warm September afternoon in Bushy Park. Five female deer sat close by, all of them looking at him attentively.

Bushy Park abuts the grounds of Hampton Court Palace, which was built in 1515 for Henry VIII’s former favourite, Cardinal Wolsely, who died in disgrace in 1530 after losing the king’s favour. The area where the Park stands has known human usage since the Bronze Age, maybe as long ago as 4000 years. In mediaeval times, the area was used for agricultural activities.

In 1529, when Henry VIII took over Hampton Court from Cardinal Wolsely, Bushy Park became used for deer hunting. Later, in the 17th century, King Charles I (reigned 1625-1649) ordered the building of a canal, the Longford River, which carries water for 12 miles from the River Colne (a tributary of the Thames) to the grounds of Hampton Court Palace. The man-made waterway, designed by Nicholas Lane (1585-1644) and dug by hand in only 9 months in 1638-39, flows through Bushy Park, supplying water to its numerous water features. The water was drawn from the river Colne at a point (Longford near Slough) whose altitude (72 feet above sea level) was great enough to ensure a fast flow to Hampton Court Palace, which is only about 13 feet above sea level. Today, the water still flows rapidly through the Park’s numerous streams.  Later, the architect of the current St Pauls Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), designed the mile-long avenue (Chestnut Avenue), which runs through the Park, and its water feature as a grand approach to Hampton Court Palace.

During the two World Wars, large parts of Bushy Park were used temporarily to grow much-needed food for the British public. Before it became a royal hunting ground, much of the park was common land, accessible to all and sundry. The general public had to wait to have access to this lovely area until the reign of William IV (reigned 1830-1837), who requested that there should be free admission of the public to ‘his’ park. In 1838, when Queen Victoria opened the grounds of Hampton Court to the people, visits to Bushy Park increased. The park’s popularity grew significantly when the railway reached Hampton Court from London in 1849. Today, judging by how difficult it was to find a space in the car park, Bushy Park’s popularity continues to be great.

We entered the park, driving along the Chestnut Avenue. With its tidily arranged rows of trees, it reminded me of an entrance driveway to a French chateau or one of the opening scenes in the film “Last Year in Marienbad”.  Each tree is protected from the park’s deer by its own fence. We drove off the avenue into the car park near the Pheasantry, café with pleasant outdoor tables and chairs, housed in a pleasing contemporarily designed building (built 2014, designed by Mizzi architects, who have been responsible for many attractive kiosks in Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park and other Royal Parks).

After drinking coffee, we took a walk in the park. There are patches of woodland fenced off from the rest of the park, doubtless to prevent deer from entering. The Woodland Gardens have many trees and bushes. The shady area is dotted with ponds, some of them almost covered with waterlilies, and fast flowing, shallow streams. Small bridges cross the streams in this delightful part of the park and many ducks swim in the water.

We left the woodland area to enter the rest of the park. This consists of wide expanses of grassy terrain with isolated, and, also, clumps of trees. These areas allow the visitor to enjoy wide vistas and huge expanses of sky. It does not take long before you spot deer grazing, some of them quite close to visitors enjoying the park. What at first sight looks like a distant leafless tree branch will suddenly begin moving, proving that what you had spotted was not a piece from a tree but the antlers of a stag. Seeing the deer running wild is a joy that adds to the loveliness of the park. We also saw horseriders and cyclists, but these are not as visually interesting as the deer.

After taking a somewhat circuitous but very picturesque route through the park, we arrived at a circular pond, which is near the Hampton Court end of Wren’s Chestnut Avenue. Part of the original design, the avenue skirts the circumference of the pond. As we approached the pond, a solitary heron sitting on its edge, noticed us and then flew elegantly across the pond, less than 3 feet above the water’s surface.  The middle of the pond is occupied by a fountain surmounted by a gold-coloured statue. The stone plinth on which the statue stands has several more metal statues, which are not gilded. These are most probably, but not definitely, works of the Italian Francesco Fanelli (c1590-1653). The tall stone plinth was designed by, amongst others, Nicholas Stone (c1586-1647).

The gilded figure on the top of the fountain depicts Diana, the Roman goddess associated with hunting. This seems like an appropriate statue to stand in what were royal hunting grounds until the 19th century. However, when the French sculptor Hubert Le Sueur (1580-1658) was commissioned by King Charles I to make this statue to adorn the garden of his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, it stood at London’s Somerset House. There, it stood on a lower pedestal than it does today. Incidentally, Le Sueur’s bronze equestrian statue of King Charles I stands in Trafalgar Square close to the point from which all distances from London are measured. Both Hubert Le Sueur and Francesco Fanelli had had experience working in the Florentine studios established by the Flemish born sculptor Giambologna (1529-1608), who was famous for his bronze statuary.

The Diana statue and the rest of its associated artworks were moved to Hampton Court Palace by Oliver Cromwell during the English Commonwealth (1649-1660). The fountain topped by Diana was moved to its present position during the works carried out to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren. The current plinth was completed in 1713 during the reign of Queen Anne. So, it was not until the 18th century that the goddess of hunting stood amongst the hunters’ prey. Although it is commonly held that the gilded statue represents Diana, some believe that it might depict Arethusa, Proserpina, or Venus. The one person that she does not depict is the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

After the heron had taken flight, we noticed about four black-coloured birds perching on the sculptures on the fountain’s plinth. One of them was on top of Diana’s head. The birds had largeish bodies and long necks that were often in sinuous poses. They resembled cormorants, but none of them had their wings unfolded, which is what these creatures do to dry them.

It was my first visit to Bushy Park, and I hope that many more will follow. I have learnt much about the park whilst researching this essay. Future visits will be enhanced by the knowledge I have acquired. I am grateful that our friends in Richmond have introduced us to yet another part of London that was until recently quite new to me.

Finally, it is useful not to confuse Bushy near Hampton Court with Bushey in Hertfordshire.