You have done the sights, gone shopping, and been to the theatre, so why not do something totally different and refreshing on your trip to London – visit some of the city’s many spectacular and delightful parks.
It is almost impossible to become bored in London. There is so much choice no matter what your interests. One of mine is London’s green spaces or parks. What always amazes me is that in one of the world’s largest and busiest cities, you are never very far away from calm and serenity. But don’t conclude that this open air greenery is just for escaping from the hurly burly. London’s parks also offer many interesting and fascinating things to see and do. I have chosen 10 parks/green spaces for the visitor to consider spending time in – while on a UK vacation – all within striking distance.
To start with, there are 8 Royal Parks of which 5 are in Central London and 3 in the nearby suburbs. Of my 10 choices, I have included 7 of these Royal Parks. They are all “Royal” because they were originally owned by the Monarchy of the United Kingdom for the recreation of the Royal Family (usually for purposes of hunting).
You can’t miss this park
It’s very hard to miss Hyde Park, on a trip to London, as it is close to Mayfair, Oxford Street, and many other major points of interest. This is one of the largest parks in the city with its 350 acres of space. Bang in the middle is the attractive and extensive Serpentine Lake, where you can go boating, swim at the Serpentine Lido, or sit outside of one of the two pleasant restaurants/cafes. Within the park are numerous memorials, statues, and fountains.
Some of these include the Diana Memorial Fountain, opened in 2005, built from over 500 pieces of granite. The memorial is designed to reflect Diana’s life and her quality and openness. The 7 July Memorial is in memory of victims of the 2005 London Bombings and consists of 52 stainless steel pillars (one for each of the victims who died). There is a Holocaust Memorial, which is a garden of boulders surrounded by white birch trees. The Joy of Life Fountain shows two bronze figures holding hands while seemingly dancing above the water, with four bronze children emerging from the pool. In 2008, the Marie Curie Cancer Care Foundation planted 60,000 daffodil bulbs around the fountain.
Speakers’ Corner is something not to be missed for entertainment. It has an amazing history as figures such as Karl Marx, Lenin, and George Orwell have all delivered speeches here. The best time to visit Speakers’ Corner is Sunday morning when anyone can just get up and speak on any subject under the sun. There are other times during the week when you can catch someone delivering their “oration.” Finally, for horticultural lovers on a trip to London, there is the Rose Garden. The best time to see the roses is early summer, although they continue to flower quite late in the year. The flower beds are planted twice a year with spring and summer displays.
Where royalty makes its home
Lying to the west, Kensington Gardens are really an extension of Hyde Park, with no visible boundary between the two. It is slightly more ornate and landscaped than Hyde Park. The Italian Gardens here is an ornamental water garden, supposedly a gift to Queen Victoria from Prince Albert. At the Pump House, you can see Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s initials written on one of the walls. Again as in Hyde Park, there are a number of memorials and statues. The best-known one is the Albert Memorial, located opposite the Albert Hall. This ornate monument commemorates the death of Prince Albert. It shows him holding the catalogue of the Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park in 1851. Around the base of the memorial are depicted celebrated painters, poets, sculptors, musicians, and architects.
At the far west of Kensington Gardens is Kensington Palace, the official London residence of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry. Other residents have included Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. It is possible to tour parts of the palace on your trip to London. The Serpentine Gallery is a small gallery with temporary art exhibitions, mainly contemporary. Exhibitions have included works by artists such as Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Stroll through this park when heading to Buckingham Palace
St James’s Park is the nearest park to Buckingham Palace, with a lake full of geese, ducks, and pelicans. The park actually incorporates The Mall and Horse Guards Parade. There are a number of statues and memorials scattered in and around the park – many of them connected to British Royalty.
Aren’t all parks green?
The Green Park is the smallest of the Royal Parks. Located just off Piccadilly, it is a popular place for picnics and sunbathing in good weather. It will be of interest to Canadians on their trip to London as there is the Canada Memorial to remember the million Canadians who served with the British forces during the two World Wars. Canada Gate here was a gift from Canada. Its metalwork has the crests of the Canadian Provinces and Territories.
The animals like this park – they call it home
Regent’s Park was designed by the British architect, John Nash, and covers 395 acres. The park is home to excellent sports facilities which include the largest outdoor sports area in Central London. It also has an open-air theatre and contains the London Zoo. A rather strangely-named fountain can be found in here called the Ready Money Drinking Fountain, one of the largest drinking fountains in London. Situated on the northern edge of Regent’s Park, the London Zoo houses a collection of hundreds of animal species, making it one of the largest in the United Kingdom. Queen Mary’s Gardens is London’s largest rose garden with literally thousands of roses consisting of 85 single varieties. The time to see them at their best is in June. The park has well laid-out pathways and beautiful ornamental lakes, plus several places to have a cuppa or perhaps a cream tea – a must on your trip to London. Immediately to the north of Regent’s Park lies Primrose Hill. This grassy area has some spectacular views across the centre of London to the south. It used to be a venue where duels were fought and prize-fights took place.
London’s largest Royal Park
In a nearby suburb of London lies Richmond Park, easily reached by the London Underground rail system. This is the largest of the Royal Parks and has been designated a site of Special Scientific Interest, a National Nature Reserve, and a Special Area of Conservation. It is also known for its deer population, numbering around 650 who roam freely for all to see. The park was created by Charles I in the 17th century as a deer park. Naturally, it is enclosed by a high wall and several entrance gates. There are 30 ponds in the park, some with interesting names such as Bishop’s Pond, Gallows Pond, and Leg of Mutton Pond. The park contains some buildings of historical and architectural interest. The White Lodge, once a royal residence, is now the home of the Royal Ballet School, where future professional ballet dancers are trained and educated. Pembroke Lode was the home of a British Prime Minister as well as philosopher, Bertrand Russell. There is a hill in the park from which you can enjoy panoramic views of the Thames Valley to the west and St. Paul’s Cathedral to the east.
The park where time begins
The last Royal Park of the seven I have suggested to visit on a trip to London is Greenwich Park, situated a little way down the River Thames in East London. It is home to the Royal Observatory and the Meridian Line, where GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) begins. Close by and considered part of the park are the National Maritime Museum and the Old Royal Naval College. Again, from a hill in the park, you have wonderful views of the River Thames and St. Paul’s Cathedral. There is an excellent rose garden, a flower garden, and a herb garden. The Millennium Sundial, situated next to the Meridian Line, not only tells the time but also the direction of the sun. Not to be outdone by Richmond Park, there are around 30 deer who roam around.
Special but not Royal Parks
Moving on from the Royal Parks, Hampstead Heath, 6 kilometres/4 miles to the north of Central London, is a large rural expanse – a mixture of grassland and woodland – where you feel you are a thousand miles away from the city. The Heath has some of the highest and best viewing points you’ll find on your trip to London. From here you can see St. Paul’s, the London Eye, the Gherkin (the unusually designed office tower in the City of London), and other major landmarks. It is rich in wildlife which includes foxes, rabbits, squirrels, frogs, kingfishers, jackdaws, and bats. Kenwood House was formerly a stately home but is now open to the public. It is known for its art collection which is mainly devoted to British artists such as Turner, Gainsborough, Reynolds, etc.
Kew Gardens, also known as the Royal Botanical Gardens, is a short ride on the Underground on the way to Richmond. I have to confess that even though I had lived in London, I had never visited Kew Gardens until a recent visit to the UK capital. I was absolutely blown away by this amazing homage to nature. I can’t see anyone, no matter how uninterested in flora, that could not enjoy this extensive “Floral Garden of Eden.” Let me quote the gardens’ own literature, “There are over 100 world-class attractions to enjoy at Kew Gardens, from iconic buildings and glasshouses to inspirational gardens and landscapes. Discover 250 years of history at the world’s most famous Gardens.” It contains the world’s largest collection of living plants, with more than 30,000 different types, and the herbarium, which is one of the largest in the world, has over seven million plant specimens. It is no wonder Kew Gardens is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. One could write a book about all that there is to see. In the interest of space, here are a few of the highlights that I enjoyed, on my recent trip to London. There are many pavilions which house specific items. One is the building which houses a collection of cacti from around the world – very colourful. Another is the Treetop Walkway, 18 metres/60 feet above the ground and reached by stairs or elevator, and which sways in the wind. The Queen’s Garden has a collection of plants that existed up to and including the 17th Century. There is a Bee Garden, a Japanese Garden, a Pagoda, and an art gallery devoted to botanical art. And on and on.
Holland Park, near Kensington, is a park not often discovered by out-of-town visitors. It contains areas of woodland which contain abundant wildlife. There are large gardens, the best known being the Kyoto Garden, a Japanese garden donated by the Chamber of Commerce of Kyoto. The Ecology Centre in the park runs a series of events, activities, and workshops.
There are more parks to immerse in all the greenery (Battersea Park, Clapham Common, Osterley Park, to name more), but the above should keep most people occupied on their trip to London.