Did you know London Town is home to 3,000 public parks? All told, that’s a lot of parkland for a place that’s best known for chock-a-block traffic, a switched-on cosmopolitan culture and all that never-ending hustle-bustle of work-day commuters and globetrotting visitors.
Indeed, said visitors to the UK capital, then, (wherever they’re staying – a boutiquey B&B, say, or one of those chic hotels near Paddington Station) won’t have much trouble finding a park in which to picnic or pause for a rest, but may have trouble when it comes to choosing *which* park to visit! In which case, here’s our guide to the very best parks to give a whirl in London…
St. James’s Park
Just as it’s teeming with parks, in general, London is teeming with Royal Parks, too – sovereign-owned parklands that were, once upon a time, granted public access so they could be enjoyed by all and sundry. The oldest of all the Royal Parks is, this one, St James’s Park; it’s not the largest but, truly, it’s pretty as can be and always a winner with the kids.
That may be because, across its 57 acres, it features not just greenery but colourful flowerbeds, elegant sculptures and memorials, fine fountains and a footbridge (on which you can snap an awesome shot of Buck Palace right ahead of you) and sundry wonderful life; including swans, ducks, pelicans and ridiculously friendly squirrels who’ll eat mixed nuts out of your hand. Absolutely perfect for picnicking families, this park also boasts a playground, a café, snack stalls, those all-important toilets and even deck chairs available to rent for an hour or two.
Central London’s behemoth of a park, Hyde Park offers up more than 300 acres of glorious greenery and comprises pretty much everything St James’s Park does (see above) – and more besides. The Big Smoke’s answer to the Big Apple’s Central Park (and then some), this destination stretches all the way from, yes, Hyde Park Corner to the Notting Hill/ Marble Arch area at the eastern-most edge of West London. Home to a big man-made lake, the Serpentine, in which some like to swim and on which others like to row boats (and peddle, well, pedaloes), it’s also packed with pristine ornamental gardens and is always popular with the sporty – in-line skating and horse-riding are always going on – and with, of course, bookers at hotels near Hyde Park.
The natural jewel in the crown of North London, Hampstead Heath is a welcome retreat for locals and visitors alike who fancy getting away from it all and venturing into a rustic universe for an afternoon, while not leaving the city limits. That’s because this, well, heath (to use the correct term; rather than a park), is effectively the countryside within the capital’s borders – all 791 acres of it. With at least three different lake-like ponds popular with swimmers, a perfect spot on which to pause and take in a panorama of the city away to the south (on the summit of Parliament Hill) and thousands of picnic spots, Hampstead Heath is just heaven, frankly.
Victoria Embankment Gardens
Ideal for a pause at lunchtime, where you can stop and eat that sandwich during your day of Central London-sightseeing away from your Hyde Park accommodations, these hidden-away and really rather lovely gardens are perfectly situated for exactly that aforementioned purpose. Lying across the road from the Thames on the Victoria Embankment (the river’s north embankment), more or less between Embankment and Temple Tube stations and with grey-brick UK Government buildings of importance behind them, these nicely kept gardens make for, surprisingly enough, rather a serene little spot for repose amidst all the hurly-burly activity going on around them.
Potters Fields Park
Resplendent with the giant glass-filled squashed tomato that’s City Hall (the workplace of the city’s mayor and many other elected officials) on one side and the brilliant Victorian Tower Bridge on the other (and, beyond that, on the other side of the river, the medieval magnificence that’s the Tower of London), these gardens are far from the biggest in London and far from its most serene, but for an afternoon picnic after strolling along the South Bank (and maybe after having picked up a snack at Borough Market?), they’re ideal. They’re extremely atmospheric, too – and terrific for people-watching. Plus, if you’re extremely lucky, maybe while there, you’ll catch Tower Bridge opening up to let river traffic through, as it sometimes does. You never know!
Another of the capital’s ridiculously excellent Royal Parks, Regent’s Park is one of the world’s greatest parks, surely. Having been open to the public for more than two centuries now, this destination isn’t just filled with acres and acres of perfect picnic spots, it’s also somewhere that caters for all kinds of ball games (tennis, table tennis, football, basketball, netball and so on), which ensures it’s always popular with athletic types.
Additionally, though, its simply marvellous rose garden (featuring, yes, 12,000 individual roses in spring), its world-renowned open-air theatre (which puts on productions of musicals and Shakespeare plays in summer) and – best of all? – the globally-renowned ZSL London Zoo means culturally-switched-on types at the likes of hotel Park Grand London Hyde Park could enjoy an entire day and evening out, here, without even leaving its grounds.
Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park
Originally one of the enormous, ‘magnificent seven’ Victorian cemeteries dotted around the capital, this East London landmark became a resting place for souls in the year 1841. Today, it can claim to be the final destination (as it were) for hundreds of thousands of Londoners.
However, truth be told, owing to how filled up it became in the 20th Century, it’s no longer in active use as a cemetery and has, for several decades now, been retooled – maybe most fittingly – as a wonderful nature reserve, its tombs, gravestones and grounds all rather marvellously overgrown with wild flowers, trees and all the trappings of unbridled, verdant nature. It’s a fine location to head to, then, for quite another kind of tranquility – the sort you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the city, you might say.