Claremont Revisited

Times have changed. From when I was around 9 or 10, I was out on my bike most free days in the Summer, sometimes with my friends, but more often on my own (they weren’t as keen on going any distance) exploring the area around where I lived in the west of London. Mostly I would ride out into the countryside around, in Middlesex, Surrey and Berkshire. Often I’d ride around 30 or 40 miles, but occasionally I’d make sandwiches for a longer ride, perhaps up to 80 or 90.

These were the days before motorways (later we had just one, the M1, which came nowhere into my territory), but I often rode on the main routes, the A4 and A30 which ran through the area I lived, and the A3 a little to the south. They may have been full of traffic, but often they were the shortest route.

One of the places that I discovered on the A3, just past Esher, was an overgrown park called Claremont, with a large lake and hillsides covered with rhododendrons. It wasn’t too far away and I persuaded my friends to ride there with me, and we hid our bikes under some bushes just inside the entrance and spent hours chasing each other around through the dense undergrowth, playing Cowboys and Indians or whatever took our fancy.

Apparently the National Trust had owned the park since 1949, but didn’t have any money to tidy it up and left it to the local council to administer as public open space. It had once been famed for its gardens, said to be one of William Kent’s major works, but years later when the NT finally found some money and started work they found the picture was more complex, with several of the great gardeners, including Capability Brown having left their mark. So their restoration tried to keep something of all their work. You can see some of my pictures from a walk around the renovated park, my first visit for around 50 years, in A Day Out at Claremont on My London Diary.

© 2011, Peter Marshall
Most of the rhododendrons and laurel that largely covered the park are gone

One remote link to my own family came through the man who was in charge during some years of the nineteenth century, a now largely forgotten Scottish born gardener called Charles McIntosh (or M’Intosh), one of the leading gardeners and garden writers of the age, who from 1829 to 1838 was the head gardener to the owner of Claremont, Prince Leopold, another of the Saxe-Coburgs who was married to the heir to the British throne, Princess Charlotte. In 1830 or so he was elected to be King of Belgium, and McIntosh looked after his garden in Belgium too. One of the visitors to Claremont who often talked to the head gardener was a Princess Victoria who later became Queen, Charlotte having died young. McIntosh’s obituaries write of him having made a number of improvements to the gardens at Claremont, and doubtless one aspect of the renovations has been the removal of these! Certainly there is  no mention now of his work at Claremont.

The A3 is now a much quieter road to travel on, thanks to the M3 taking most of its traffic, but in the unlikely event of any ten year old being allowed to cycle far from home, they would find Claremont closed unless they coughed up the NT entrance fee, and far less fun with most of the overgrown areas cleared, and certainly running around through the remaining parts frowned upon – there is a special play area with wooden forts and slides rather than the acre upon acre of undergrowth which we made our own country. Though he could of course go across the road a few yards to a common, but this does lack the feeling of a secret garden and the surprise of coming across the lake that I found at Claremont well over 50 years ago.

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