Richmond Park is a unique space. Today it is recognised as a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, but it has always been an oasis of peace for visitors. However, in 1961 it came under threat when Lord John Hope, Minister of Transport, raised the speed limit on Park roads from 20mph to 30mph, and opened the gates to traffic after dark. Accidents increased, with injuries to deer and people.
Two friends, Wendy Macauley and Mary Gueritz, decided to form a campaign group to fight the change, concerned that the move was a first step towards a gradual urbanisation of the Park. On March 27 1961 the inaugural meeting of The Friends of Richmond Park took place, with Mary’s husband Col John Gueritz as Chairman. Within a year there were 500 members.
Across the last five decades the Friends have been involved in many issues. They have campaigned to keep the Park roads separate from the public highway, and to raise awareness of the fragile nature of this special place.
They had some early success, with the Park being closed at dusk once more from 1962, and the old army camp cleared, releasing 53 acres back to parkland. They went on to support conservation work such as the project in the mid-70s to replace trees lost to Dutch Elm Disease. The Friends also raised funds to replace trees lost in the great storms of 1987 and 1990, proceeds of which helped establish Two Storm Wood, a project which not only countered the losses, but provided future tree stocks.
Despite the political turmoil around them in the 1990s - with the maintenance of the Park moving to the Royal Parks Agency, the battle to save Pembroke Lodge from being sold to a private buyer, and the heated traffic debate - the Friends backed projects such as the construction of a cycleway - the Tamsin Trail, as well as the establishment of the Richmond Park Wildlife Group.
The traffic arguments finally subsided in 2004 when the Royal Parks Agency reinstated the 20mph speed limit (achieving one of the Friends’ objectives from 1961), and Robin Hood Gate was closed to all traffic. The Friends were now able to concentrate on other things.
Talks with slide presentations had always been a useful means of engaging the public with the Park, as were guided walks. These walks were developed from 2005, some being accompanied by a wildlife specialist and popular courses on such topics as birdwatching have also been introduced. Additionally, in 2007 the Visitor Centre was opened, run entirely by a staff of volunteers.
The Friends attained charitable status in 2009, which helped them to focus clearly on the public benefits they provide. The Richmond Park History Project was set up to catalogue and digitise the vast Hearsum Collection, consisting of materials related to the Park, with a view to putting them online for public access.
In March 2011 the Friends celebrated their 50th birthday in the good company of their President Lord Brian Rix, new patrons Sir David Attenborough, Baroness Susan Kramer, and Dame Jacqueline Wilson, alongside many members and colleagues who have contributed their efforts so generously over the years.
At the same time, the Friends first publishing venture came to fruition and the first ever Guide to Richmond Park has just been published featuring a foreword by Sir David Attenborough and nearly 150 pages on the history, wildlife and environment of the Park. This will shortly be joined by Family Trails which will feature a foreword by Jacqueline Wilson as well as wonderfully described walks for families and young people.
And the Friends’ mission for the future? It remains the same as it ever was:
“To protect and conserve our unique Park for future generations”.
The Friends of Richmond Park now has nearly 2,000 members and If you would like to join them, you can find full details at www.frp.org.uk/friends/get-involved Membership prices are £6 per for an individual or £10 for a household and benefits includes free walks, talks and courses, discounts on books, three newsletters per year, monthly electronic or print bulletins, education and courses for children and young people, special news and publications and the opportunity to help and volunteer. Most importantly, you’ll be helping London’s most special Park and a unique environment.
– written by the Friends’ historian Mary Pollard