Gardens to Gables

A wild adventure doomed to early failure

Regent’s Park, established around 1811, covers 410 acres in the north central London. It is, by far, my very favorite park in London.


 Before Henry VIII’s seizure and subsequent dissolution of the monasteries, the land belonged to Barking Abbey (a wonderful name). Alas, the monk’s fertile farmland became a hunting park, later transformed by architect John Nash into a idyll of gardens, open parkland, a canal, and the setting for my second journey to England. Today the park is home to the London Zoo, Primrose Hill, and the Open Air Theatre – not to mention throngs of pale and pasty Brits in all states of undress when the weather is warm and sunny in the summer. 

A profusion of delphiniums in Regent’s Park. 

My middle sister spent her junior year abroad, and having sampled England all-too-briefly on my trip to visit her, I knew I had to go back. Centre’s program was based at Regent’s College, an institution founded in the early 1980s primarily to provide American students with a study abroad experience. Luckily, (at least for those of us whose ideas of academia consist of ivy-covered, red brick buildings set within a park-like landscape), the college acquired the former campus of Bedford College in Regent’s Park.

      Reid Hall, which accommodated both the ladies of Bedford College and my
classmates. Our predecessors had coal fires, and washstands in their rooms.
We had a shared telephone  in the hall (no cell phones for us, though the
EBS students had them) and  we hung our cider and beer in bags outside
the windows to keep cold. 


Our room had a fireplace too, but wasn’t nearly as cozy as this one appears. 




Although it was January when I arrived at Regent’s College for the first time (and discovered that my earlier winter experience had not been a fluke: central heating in Britain is not the same creature as it is in the States), I immediately fell in love with the campus. The buildings date to the early 20th century and were designed by Basil Champneys. The campus was opened by Queen Mary in 1913. The rooms in which I shivered, drank too much cider, puzzled over the lack of blankets (we had a sheet and a duvet) and in general, lived life to giddy excess, had in earlier decades housed the ladies of Bedford College.
 
 
The buildings of Regent’s College at the time of its dedication. 
 
 
 

Our antics could not have been too far removed from the Bedford ladies, though I doubt they went to the Vidal Sassoon training school for a three-hour, 5 pound haircut. I loved that haircut… 
They also probably did not have a pub inside the school, conveniently placed en route to class. (A half-pint was 80 pence, and a pint was 2 pounds…I think) They were, however, trailblazers at a time when education at any level was typically reserved for males of a certain social standing, both in England and in the States. Higher education for women was not guaranteed, and even when it was achieved, it was thought to be a path by which women could become better mothers, wives and housekeepers. Those goals informed my college and post-grad work not at all….





The first home of Bedford College in Bloomsbury.

The history of Bedford College is much more interesting than my college-student debauchery. Founded in 1849 by Elizabeth Jesser Reid, an anti-slavery activist and social refroms, the college’s first home was in Bloomsbury.  Reid, together with a “circle of well-educated” friends, sought to improve education for women and provide a “liberal and non-sectarian” education. The novelist George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) attended classes at Bedford from 1850-51. (One of Charles Dickens’ sisters did as well, but since I know nothing about her other than her sibling, who I think created the most one-dimensional female characters and was sort of an ass, I don’t think her attendance does much for this story)






This news article, however, does add some depth to the tale of the ladies of Bedford College, which seems to have been “scornfully” viewed and “deemed by most to be wild adventure doomed to early failure.” And yet it is was the first university college for women in Britain – pre-dating Girton Collge, Cambridge (1869), which has a much sexier reputation. In 1985, Bedford College (by then co-ed) merged with another one of the University of London’s colleges – Royal Holloway College, and now commonly goes by that name.





Girton

 

As a historian, I always want to know the stories of the places I visit. It isn’t enough to look at the architecture and marvel over the aesthetic qualities of a particular building – though I admit, I do that quite freely. But we are predisposed to like “pretty” things, which is maybe why I often seek out the humble or utilitarian buildings to study. There people lived out the mundane stories of their lives…mundane, perhaps, to the beholder. But those stories are of course full of the drama, agony, love and joy that is part of everyone’s existence. While I was a student at Regent’s College, I loved the park and the red brick buildings as part of my story, and the amazing experience of being able to study abroad. But I wasn’t a revolutionary, or a great thinker, or champion of an causes beyond my own enjoyment…and yet I was there due to the efforts of many men and women generations ago who sought to provide access to education to men and to women. Layers upon layers of stories, little hinted at from the exterior.
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