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WORDS: Max Leonard
On the Outer Circle’s northerly drag towards Camden, the eighth time today – the 15th time this month – visions of mountain roads run through the mind. Yet so does another thought: without John Nash, cycling in central London would be very different.
For London's road cyclists, Regent's Park is both a blessing and a curse. One of the city's green lungs and located more or less in the middle of town, its 4.4-kilometre Outer and 1.1-kilometre Inner Circles are hamster wheels upon which we take our exercise – often while wishing to be somewhere more exciting. Yet with giraffes poking their heads over the railings at the zoo, a trapeze school in the summer and smooth, relatively quiet tarmac, it's not a bad a place to train.
Mainly because it happens to have a revolving view of some of the capital’s finest architecture, courtesy of Nash, whose vision, under the protection of the Prince Regent, transformed central London.
Nash was an ambitious man with a bold plan, whose projects needed the deep pockets and aesthetic extravagance of a patron such as the Prince. He was commissioned in the early 19th century to create a royal ‘processional’, from the Prince’s mansion, Carlton House (where Carlton House Terrace now stands), up to an area known then as Marylebone Park.
Starting in Regent's Square (later renamed Piccadilly Circus), he set down the genteel curve of Regent Street and followed the existing wide expanse of Portland Place, where it blossoms into Park Crescent, Park Square and then the carefully manicured park itself.
In the fledgling stages of his career, Nash had been forced to flee London for Wales a bankrupt, having failed to convert some of his earliest designs into hard cash. It was in Wales that he began to rebuild his reputation, working first on local prisons and then, through alliances with influential people such as Humphry Repton, the landscape gardener, on country houses. From working for the landed gentry it was a swift route back to London, where Nash proceeded to cut a swathe between the immigrant slums of Soho and the genteel debauchery of Mayfair as he modelled the city to the Prince’s wishes.
No doubt Nash had many more grand designs but his influence was short lived. When George IV died in 1830, the Nash-designed Buckingham Palace was almost three times over its £250,000 budget. Without royal protection, Nash’s profligacy was no longer tolerated and his career was at an end.
Sitting on the Soho fringes of the Regent’s route, close to the gentlemen’s outfitters of Jermyn Street, is the new, permanent Rapha Cycle Club. Housed in the Art Deco splendour of the old Regent Palace Hotel, the Club is open for espressos, gourmet snacks, live race screenings and of course, the chance to browse the latest collection of Rapha apparel and accessories. Even now, Soho’s dense maze can be difficult to navigate. You either have to work there or be a courier to cycle smoothly through its one-ways and dead-ends but it has a cycling pedigree. Not so many years ago, the Italian cafes and newsagents here were the only place to come for news of the Giro, in the fabled pink pages of the Gazzetta Dello Sport.
So after your Regent’s Park ride, why not spin down to the Cycle Club for coffee and cake? On your way, try to ignore the buses and the taxis and imagine what it would have been like, when traffic was horse-drawn and moved at a more sedate pace. Compare Nash's grand boulevards and terraces, the prince's folly that has become a cyclist's playground, with the narrow warren of Soho’s streets and think: without John Nash, cycling in London might all have looked like this.