London is famous for its museums, historic architecture, theatres and nightlife —but is also home to some very special parks. The British capital has more than one thousand green spaces, including notable public parks and commons. While some are well known, others are quiet, secret places. Described as the "green lungs" of London, parks help to reduce pollution. They also make it easy to forget that you are in the heart of a noisy, fast-moving city of more than 9.3 million people. Parks provide clean air and natural beauty; a relaxing escape from the pressures of modern urban life.
First public park
London is not the greenest city in the world (that honour goes to Moscow, which is 54 per cent green space) but its parks are distinctive and varied in size and character. In 1845, Victoria Park, in East London, opened as the city’s first public park. Battersea, Finsbury and Southwark parks opened soon after, bringing the opportunity for fresh air and green, open space to an increasingly urban population. Other parks and gardens have been created with specific aims, such as enhancing wellbeing, for medicinal purposes, entertainment or for holding exhibitions.
By contrast, London’s commons —of which there are more than a hundred spread across the city— are much older. Many date back to the eleventh century and were once used for common grazing of farm animals. As London’s population grew, private landowners enclosed former open land. Fortunately, some of the city’s common lands were protected by successful campaigns that ensured famous green areas such as Hampstead Heath, Wimbledon Common and Clapham Common were kept open to subsequent generations of Londoners.
Hyde Park offers something for everyone. It’s a place of performance, from Speakers’ Corner to rock concerts and fairgrounds. At its centre is London’s oldest boating lake, The Serpentine, with facilities for swimming and swans gracing its surface. The Serpentine Gallery offers free renowned contemporary art exhibitions within a short stroll of the Albert Memorial and the serenity of Christopher Wren’s Italian Gardens. There’s time for remembrance in the Holocaust Memorial Garden and reflection at the Princess Diana Memorial Walk and fountain. Nearby Kensington Palace was once Diana’s home and today is the official residence of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate.
Parks, of course, are much more than just open spaces filled with grass and trees. They are places for relaxation, activity and entertainment, to observe nature, meditate or to meet friends. One week a park could be a venue for a music or food festival, the next for a park park run event or a pop-up art exhibition. Popular in all weathers, London’s parks have been particularly important to support city residents’ physical and mental health during the Covid crisis restrictions. Many people have relied on London’s parks for much-needed exercise and escape. And, of course, because they are free of charge to use.
An ancient common, Hampstead Heath has been described as “the greatest countryside escape in London.” A wild, natural area of meadows, ponds and woodland, just six kilometres from the city centre, it’s perfect for an energetic hike or ramble. Parliament Hill, with an elevation of 98 metres, provides views taking in the London skyline. To the west of the heath are the fairy-tale terraces, columns and arbour of the Hill Gardens and Pergola. To the north, near Highgate, stately Kenwood House’s impressive interiors are filled with artwork. For the brave, Hampstead Ponds are three freshwater swimming areas where regulars enjoy a dip in the chilly waters all year round.
The largest of the central London parks and famous for its zoo, Regent’s Park is full of surprises. The site of popular food and art festivals, open-air theatre and music, the park offers excellent sports facilities, beautiful gardens, sculptures, boating lakes, rare wildlife and quiet corners. Enjoy a peaceful trip on a canal boat or head north to Primrose Hill for spectacular views across the capital. Garden enthusiasts can marvel at the four hundred varieties of rose in Queen Mary’s Gardens or take a winding walk around the Japanese Garden Island. Designed in 1888 as a place of meditation, St John’s Lodge garden is a hidden gem at the heart of the park.
St. James Park
Picturesque St. James’s Park in Westminster is within easy reach of Buckingham Palace, Horse Guards Parade, Big Ben and Trafalgar Square. There are fountains and ornate gardens filled with colour and birdlife. Its famous flower beds provide a backdrop to many royal ceremonies, while the Blue Bridge spans the large lake and offers excellent photos of the surrounding attractions. In summer the lawns are filled with deckchairs, sunbathers and picnickers. When James I became king of England in 1603, he had the park landscaped and filled with exotic animals. Today’s most unusual inhabitants are the park’s famous pelicans —these big-billed water birds were a gift to King Charles II from Russia in 1664.
The largest of London’s Royal Parks, Richmond Park is famous for the herds of red and fallow red and fallow deer which have been grazing its grasslands since the days of King Charles I. Located to the southwest of the city, the park has many ancient trees and supports a wide range of rare species including fungi, birds, beetles, bats, grasses and wild flowers. The Isabella Plantation is a woodland garden bursting with colourful blooms. A favourite with dog walkers, the park also has bike hire and a twelve-kilometre cycling route around its perimeter. If you prefer four legs, there are stables with horses to hire. Visitors can refuel at Pembroke Lodge tearooms and enjoy the distant view of St. Paul’s Cathedral from King Henry’s Mound.
New City Park
London’s newest park is Exchange Park near Liverpool Street Station. When complete, the pint-sized 0.6-hectare green space will feature trees, a stream and amphitheatre seating. The perfect spot for busy City workers and rail travellers to take a to take a break.
Postman’s Park is a rare quiet space in the City of London. Located close to St. Paul’s Cathedral, it contains a Victorian memorial to everyday heroes. Under a small loggia, the Watts Memorial is a collection of fifty-four ceramic tiles telling the true stories of ordinary people who died trying to save others.