Autumn in the Royal Parks
Richmond Park, south west LondonMy original plans for a walk in Kent on this day were abandoned due to massive disruption to train services after a fatality at Swanley, but rather than head home and waste a day of glorious autumnal sunshine, I decided to head back into London and then south west to Richmond Park. At this time of year, the Park has two very unique spectacles on offer: the vivid autumn colour of the Isabella Plantation, and the astonishing display of deer in rut when the stags and bucks vie for status and mates in an often violent fashion. I last visited Richmond Park back in May, but the Park changes with each season and, as I mentioned before, it is somewhere for which I have great affection, so a return visit could never come too soon.
Start: Petersham Gate TQ182732
Finish: Richmond Gate TQ184737
Length: 4¾ miles – allow plenty of time for deer-watching!
How to get there: I took the train to Richmond (from London Waterloo or Clapham Junction, with South West Trains), but could also have caught the District Line or Overground. Then, from the bus stop just outside the station entrance, I jumped on a 65 bus towards Kingston, alighting at The Dysart Arms; the 371 runs along the same route. The bus stop is adjacent to Petersham Gate, a pedestrian-only entrance into the Park. At the end of the walk, as it was a pleasant evening, I strolled from Richmond Gate down Richmond Hill back into the town centre, but if you’ve walked far enough the 371 stops just outside Richmond Gate. Alternatively, turning left and walking down Star and Garter Hill takes you to the Dysart Arms bus stop to pick up the 65.
Off the bus, through the gate and up the hill. The steep climb through the impressive cedars of Petersham Park is quite strenuous (some people are even running up the hill – are they mad?), but is rewarded by the spectacular view over west London. In the gardens of Pembroke Lodge the change of season is announced by the planting of wallflowers for next Spring’s bedding display. But even though it is feeling distinctly Autumnal today, the recent mild weather has given the roses one last chance to perform. The rich crimson flowers and dark green foliage of a bed of Deep Secret – my favourite Hybrid Tea rose by far – hint at the memory of a prolonged summer that has clung on to the last but is now finally ceding to Autumn. I can’t pass by without stuffing my nose into one of the velvet blooms and breathing deeply of the gorgeous sweet scent.Out into the Park proper. I skirt along the perimeter of Sidmouth Wood as far as the entrance to Oak Lodge, then strike out east towards Queen Elizabeth’s Plantation. The oak trees, though widely spaced, form a canopy overhead, not dense, sufficiently open to allow autumn sunlight to filter through the foliage to burnish the golden bracken below. Between the bracken and the browse line, the view towards Pen Ponds is like peering through a letterbox: Richmond Park in widescreen. Looking back, the edge of Sidmouth Wood is a riot of colour: buttery yellow birch, fiery-orange beech and crimson-pink Sorbus.
A dark shape, silhouetted in shadow, moves amongst the scattered oaks to the east. The form of a red deer stag becomes apparent – russet coat, pale-tipped dark antlers. He meanders slowly beneath the trees, now reaching up, neck gracefully arched, to browse on oak leaves, now bending down to graze. I edge closer cautiously, aware that in recent weeks in Richmond’s sister Park, Bushy Park, several visitors who have foolishly approached too closely have experienced the belligerence of a testosterone-laden stag. But this solitary fellow, perhaps too immature to be clashing his four-pointed antlers for position of dominant male just yet, seems content to stroll nonchalantly amongst the trees. Nonetheless, I keep my distance.I spend some time discreetly watching. The stag is aware of my presence, his glassy eye stares directly but briefly into mine, but having dismissed any negligible threat I may pose as completely insignificant, he returns casually to feeding, entirely disinterested in me. Only once, when the distant bellow of a stag in rut reaches both our ears, does he quicken, head raised, all senses alert – which sends me scurriedly tiptoeing to take cover behind the stout trunk of an oak. I am careful to treat the stag with the respect he deserves, yet other Park visitors seem oblivious to this majestic creature, and the potential damage those formidable antlers could do: a family led by Dad in loud coat with even louder voice bimble along close by in the direction of Pembroke Lodge, while an elderly jogger puffs past towards Leg-of-Mutton Pond.
Eventually, the stag scrapes at the ground with a foreleg, turns round, and drops down with an audible grunt-sigh to settle in the tall grass. Through the binoculars, I watch his eyelids droop, then snap open, head twisting, to survey his surroundings before settling once more.
I leave the stag to his slumber, to head south across open parkland. The delicate seedheads of grasses on long but dainty stalks form a golden veil over the grassland, obscuring the hummocky tufts, causing me to nearly stumble.On the eastern edge of Hamcross Plantation, a large group of red deer are gathered. The stags, with antlers of any number of points – from one-pointed prickets to more mature stags with candelabra antlers – recline lazily in the tall grass. Occasionally they haul themselves to their feet to saunter amongst the group to feed, or browse and rub antlers on the lower leafless branches of red oaks. Others – seemingly mostly hinds – stand in a close group under the cover of the trees, appearing a little nervous and appreciative of the safety of the herd. Quite a crowd of spectators has gathered, forming a loose perimeter around the herd, some standing, some astride bikes, others even settled down on a rug with a picnic. I lie in the grass amongst a few scattered bright blue harebells, as close as I dare while keeping a safe distance, and snap away with camera, all the while wishing I had a better zoom lens.
All is mostly calm and settled; a few younger males lock antlers but with little aggression. But then a small group of stags approaches from the south and crosses the road to join the herd. This appears to unnerve the dominant male who until now has been relatively placid, trotting amongst his harem and reminding the stags of his presence, pushing aside any who don’t yield. Now, he enlivens, reacting to this new threat to his pre-eminence, and is soon rushing through the herd in a near-frenzy of aggression and sexual frustration, rushing at the stags, chasing the hinds with tongue flicking in and out rapidly to taste their scent on the air, even attempting to mount one or two.Head thrown back, he begins to bellow. A deep, guttural testoterone-laden rumbling groan of belligerence, re-asserting his superiority and challenging any who wish to usurp him. Faint wisps of breath emerge from his open mouth, formed into an ‘o’ beneath a shining black nose. Agitated hinds scatter from his path. Stags sprint away at his approach, none willing to clash with his majestic but potentially lethal seven-pointed antlers. It’s an enthralling sight – one which almost has me riveted to the spot, but I sensibly retreat further away from the tangle of trampling hooves. At one point he glances in my direction and I’m sure we make eye contact, but I feel obliged, almost subconsciously, to look away in deference.
This is unquestioningly his domain. Such is the stag’s omnipotence over this scene that even time seems to pass unnoticed. So absorbing is this fantastic spectacle, that I realize with some surprise that I’ve been engrossed for nearly an hour. Time to move on. Reluctantly I drag myself away quietly and head towards the Isabella Plantation.After the relative drabness of the rusty-brown bracken and autumnal grasses in the open parkland, Isabella is an immediate and ostentatious contrast. Just inside the gate by Peg’s Pond, a clump of Wing-barked Euonymus forms a bright splash of crimson-pink, almost unnaturally vivid. I make my way through the bog garden past rich purple-stemmed dogwoods, to Thomson’s Pond, where the orange-red leaves of a superb specimen of Tupelo, set ablaze by the low sun, are reflected in the pond’s surface, the two elements of fire and water combined. Thomson’s Lawn is fiery with deep maroon Sweet Gum, rich butter-yellow Tulip-tree, salmon-pink Guelder-rose, and golden Persian Ironwood. I’ve seen this display many times before, but even so…wow.
A young couple are admiring the burnished coppery trunk of a Tibetan Cherry. I join them to marvel at the smoothness of the bark, peeling in delicate curls, irresistibly demanding to be touched and rubbed and polished. They’re first-time visitors, and we discuss the Isabella and its beautiful collection of trees and shrubs, and the Park, and the deer, and the ancient oaks for which Richmond is famous. I worry I’m being a little over-enthusiastic, but as we part, I sense that they are falling in love with the place as I did many years ago.I continue through the Acer Glade, where Japanese Maples dazzle even under the shade of the oak canopy, then past golden-leaved Witch-hazels, clashing vibrantly with a clump of crimson Wing-barked Euonymus, to the exit from Isabella back into the open park. Up the hill towards Gibbet Wood, then downhill to meander through the ancient oaks to Pen Ponds.
The light is fading and the sun has disappeared behind cloud, leaving a bleak chill in the air. Ducks and geese drift somewhat despondently across the water, while a big black crow flaps along the water’s edge cawing – there’s a sense of melancholy about this scene. I continue around the muddy perimeter of the upper pond, crossing the dam that separates it from the lower pond by a huge collapsed willow, to where a family are feeding bread to a flapping mass of squawking seagulls.
Then northwards, over Queen’s Ride with its magnificent vista. To the west, the land rises through Saw Pit Plantation, silhouetting other walkers on the distant skyline, while in the opposite direction, an avenue of trees leads the eye to the stately façade of White Lodge, home to the Royal Ballet School.Ahead lies the wide open plain of the Flying Field (so named for kite flying although none are airborne today), featureless save for a solitary stag standing perfectly still in the middle of the grassland. The juxtaposition of a magnificent red deer stag against the backdrop of the tower blocks of Roehampton Vale is almost surreal – only in Richmond Park. I edge closer in the hope of photographing him, and as I do so his gaze swings round to watch me intently, quite unnervingly. He begins to stride purposefully in my direction, seemingly as fascinated by me as I am by him but probably with an entirely different reason – I am an interloper on his patch. I decide a change of course would be in order to give him a wide berth. He loses interest and heads towards Queen’s Ride.
The land climbs to the eastern edge of Saw Pit Plantation, the elevation giving rise to a spectacular view over the bracken and tree tops towards the landmarks of central London – the Shard, the London Eye, the Post Office Tower, the Gherkin. On the edge of the wood, a large herd of fallow deer, Richmond’s other specie of deer, are nestled in the grass. Again, a crowd has gathered to watch, arranged in a semi circle, some perched on fallen logs, other sitting on the grass at deer-eye level. The majority of the herd are prostrate, resting placidly, legs tucked beneath their bodies, but a few of the bucks are sparring, clashing antlers, but even this seems half-hearted. Their coats are surprisingly variable in colour, many a light fawn with the characteristic pale spotting and chestnut stripe along the spine, but others sport a much darker coat, muddy-brown, near-black in one individual.One dark-faced buck is clearly the dominant male, trotting amongst the herd to remind them of their place in the social order, but none seem particularly impressed and the herd is little agitated by his efforts. He begins to bellow, but his is not the deep, resounding ethereal bellow of a rutting red deer stag, more a croaky staccato bark, like a dog with laryngitis. Compared to the captivating stag of earlier in the day, the buck seems far less threatening, tamer, maybe even a little pathetic, cuter. A pony to the stag’s stallion.
I’ve been sat on the grass observing the herd for some time, but the dampness of the ground beneath and the fading light encourage me to press on. I wind my way through the ancient trees in the gloom of Saw Pit Plantation, swishing through the crispy leaves lying deep on the ground. The trees here, mostly oaks and sweet chestnut, are of considerable age – many of the chestnuts have fat bulbous butts, possibly a result of centuries of deer browsing at the adventitious shoots arising from the base. A grey squirrel, feeding on the last of the fallen chestnuts, scampers away in a flurry of leaves, tail flapping wildly to scramble up a stout trunk into the canopy, from where he chatters his annoyance at being disturbed. Then, peering through the darkness, I catch a glimpse of movement: three fallow bucks. I try to photograph them, the flash from my camera rebounding from their retinas, pinpricks of light, before they trot away into the dusk. The flash also draws my attention to a small engraved brass plaque screwed to a fallen log: ‘Ulrike, Willst Du mich Heiraten? James.‘ An unusual way to propose, it reminds me of Greg’s engagement to Louise in the ancient yew at Crowhurst.I cross Queen’s Ride once more, for a last view along the avenue to White Lodge, then, emerging from the trees onto an open area recently cleared of bracken, I come upon a group of four red deer, two stags, two hinds. Their eyes track me as I pass but unlike the fallow bucks, there is no sense of alarm, and they remain at ease lying on the peaty ground. Following the curving fenceline that surrounds Sidmouth Wood, I become aware of the smell of woodsmoke. The source soon becomes apparent: amongst the trees, a throbbing mechanical excavator is stacking brushwood onto a blazing fire, sending sparks dancing into the sky. A notice attached to the fence explains that this is an ongoing project to eradicate Rhododendron ponticum, a dense non-native shrub that smothers other ground flora and can be a source of infection of sudden oak death, which, if it took hold, could devastate the valuable collection of ancient oaks for which Richmond is world-renowned. The resulting open birch and oak woodland, ghostly corners of which are tantalisingly briefly illuminated by the flickering flames, will be a much more suitable habitat for wildlife too.
As the sun disappears below the tree line, I cross the road to Pembroke Lodge, the car park now largely empty save for a few lingering visitors. From the viewpoint on King Henry’s Mound, the light is too dim and the air too hazy from the woodsmoke emanating from Sidmouth Wood for St Paul’s Cathedral to be visible through the keyhole. But in the opposite direction, the lights of west London are laid out like a glittery carpet in the twilight. Now fading to black in the gloom, I can just make out some of the landmarks beyond the dim silhouettes of the Cedars in Petersham Park immediately below: the steely ribbon of the twisting Thames, reflecting the little remaining daylight; Ham House, Twickenham Stadium and Heathrow Airport, above which twinkling navigation lights in the darkening sky mark the trajectories of steeply ascending aircraft, only a few miles distant. Framed by the graceful limbs of shadowy beech trees, the leaves of which rustle soothingly in the gentle breeze, this must be one of the finest views in London. Beautiful.
Postcript: While the deer can be aggressive to humans, especially during the rut and calving period, they are themselves at risk from attack by dogs, which for the deer can lead to injury and even death, and for the owner, internet notoriety. Dog owners are of course welcome to enjoy the Park, but, please, be responsible and ensure your canine friend stays well clear of the deer and other vulnerable wildlife. More information on the Royal Parks’ ‘Dogs On Leads’ policy can be found here and here.