A walk as long as you like, ours was 8 miles (13 kilometres). March, sunny and cold, with lovely son, but no dog
Since 1625 Richmond Park, the largest of the London royal parks, has been the place for various monarchs to come to and take pot shots at roe and red deer whilst in town. Charles I was the first to escape here whilst the plague ravaged London and come up Richmond Hill for a bit of considerably fresher air. Even after they gave his head the ultimate airing by chopping it off, the deer park passed down the royal line, at least until an act of parliament in 1872 gave the people of Richmond full rights of access. For a park it is huge, at 3.7 square miles, from time to time we like to exercise our right to wander about in it.
What we did not do this time was bring Mr Shovell. Although the deer are not quite ready to give birth, we were hoping to get up close so we decided to leave him at home where he can safely get up to no good, and worry the builders over the road instead. He would almost certainly start some kind of stampede with his usual hairy barking extravaganza at the sight of an animal bigger than he is.
We begin, as we so often do in London, by the river. The Thames here is beginning to get properly wide on its way to the sea, and is tidal. It’s outside my mudlarking permit area but as usual there is very little foreshore. I also know a place to get a particularly good victoria sponge cake, a little out of the way but a perfect spot, at Eileen’s. So naturally this is where we are heading first, alongside old father Thames.
Eileen does a proper home made cake with fresh cream, essential fortification against the climb up Richmond Hill, and there’s always a seat. I don’t know why it’s not as popular as the inferior places downstream. We gorge, finish up and head on up top. As we reach the huge park gates there’s a sign warning of the deer cull which happens at this time every year. Because the deer breed so successfully it’s deemed necessary to keep the herd healthy by reducing their numbers. The venison is then sold on. Son and I debate the alternatives, I believe I have the best solution which is to reintroduce wolves and bears.
It’s an odd landscape. It feels as though there aren’t enough trees. And the ground is often dry and threadbare, the work of the deer and thousands of people I presume. It’s only March after all, and it looks parched. All the evidence shows sapling trees have a hell of a job getting going with the deer around, and the sward is nibbled within an inch of its life. It gives the park an otherworldly feeling. There are also a preposterous number of fallen trees and limbs making me wonder if I slept through a particularly brutal storm. But there’s also something appealing about the landscape which I can’t describe, I think it has to do with its relative open vastness so close to the city. It just doesn’t feel busy and has something of the savanna about it. The park’s website extols its diverse wildlife, but where the deer decimate the landscape extensively there is very little biodiversity. Or groundcover for anyone else.
We head for Pen Ponds, right in the centre. There are plenty of water fowl, Egyptian geese, black headed gulls, heron, the usual ducks and coots. Lovely son still has a bag of duck food, the only person I know who keeps a variety of bird food and nuts in his coat pockets, and occasionally live mealworms. The black headed hills go wild.
Having watched the greedy gulls for a while we head off in search of deer. You can never be quite sure where to find them. In summer they will be often in amongst the thicker woodland areas, decimating the bracken and leaves. In spring the females may be hiding in undergrowth in copses. But on a cold late winter’s, or early spring (take your pick) afternoon they will be likely sunning themselves somewhere. We wander off in search. We are always drawn to the trees, no matter where we are. There are hundreds of troubling green parakeets who have taken up residence, exploiting the gap in the bird market. I can’t help worrying about who left them such a big gap, these things are everywhere.
Richmond has some of the Great Trees of London, I don’t think this one is on that list but it is fine and ancient, and reminds me a little of the Hardy Tree in St. Pancras Old Church which we have recently lost. We head towards Isabella plantation before spotting a sign nailed to a tree, asking people with dogs to stay away from particular areas because of the deer so we study it and decide to make for Spankers Hill Wood.
We wander through the wood, inhaling March and all its fallen limbs. The trees are sparce, not thick to get lost in trees, but always in sight of the sky trees, with plenty of bracken undergrowth. We go carefully and son spies a fox who runs up the hill, but I don’t see her. What I do see as we turn up the hill towards White Lodge is an enormous herd of deer, sitting at the top of the hill, lying in the weakly sun.
At first we hide behind a tree, not knowing whether they may be skittish at our approach, like cartoon spies we make for another tree which is closer, as if the deer aren’t watching us with suspicion. What kind of passer by hides behind trees and stares at us? So instead we walk in an arc to move both closer and further away from the main herd. They are completely unperturbed.
There are perhaps 50 deer and they eye us as we walk around them. One stands up on guard as another walker passes by a little closer than we are, but they are calm and relaxed. We watch them for ten minutes, glad for once that Shovell isn’t here. He couldn’t stand still and quiet. Eventually we leave them to their convivial peace and head off towards the café.
As we come over the hill there are more deer close to the road which bisects the park. A couple are having a butting match, it doesn’t look too aggressive but they are clearly establishing the correct order of things. It’s not hard to see the power behind the moves, and in rutting season the deer will injure each other, even to the death.
It’s a privilege to see this smaller bunch close up. We are no closer than the cars and bikes which pass occasionally, still this group isn’t at all bothered by our presence. I wonder if they make it to the café some times. By the time we do, it’s late in the day and they are sold out of most things so we don’t stop. We decide to head back to the ponds, walk a little on the other side and head out to take our chances back in the real world, back outside the park where the deer can’t follow.
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There’s really nothing to it, we travelled to Richmond station by overground (it’s also on the District line), then walked along the Thames until we got to Eileen’s At Buccleuch Gardens, and then up Richmond Hill to the deer park. From here you can, and should, wander at will. If you’re having trouble finding some deer you can ask a local.
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