Big cities are hectic! Let's face it, at times they can be hell. The clamour, the rush, the traffic, the continuous movement of people who need to be somewhere else.This can be difficult for people whose main objective is to wander around enjoying the sights, sounds and history of a large city. London's visitors can be faced with the same problem. There must be an escape from the 'madding crowd'. Well, in London. there is! Lot's of escapes! For an area supporting a population of over 7,000,000 people, London has a host of lovely parks and gardens that offer the peace and tranquility that calms fevered brows, and where nature's sights, sounds and scents will restore and revive you.
Like many other locations it seems, Hyde Park was once a hunting ground for Henry VIII. Hyde Park's main feature is the Serpentine Lake, an attractive stretch of water providing a home to birds of every description and a recreational area for swimmers and people messing about in boats. Sand covered byways such as Rotten Row, on the southern boundary of the park, are well known horse-riding areas, where visitors can watch the guards from nearby Kensington Barracks exercising their horses. Speaker's Corner, by the Marble Arch entrance, is the place to listen to soap-box orators giving vent to their feelings on every imaginable subject on a Sunday morning. Hyde Park is also popular for its sports and open-air concerts epitomised by the 2007 'Make Poverty History' concert featuring many of the most iconic bands of the last 45 years. The border between Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens is somewhat vague, but the characters of the parks are quite different.
Kensington Gardens were once part of Hyde Park, until William IV enclosed it to become the gardens for Kensington Palace to the west (somewhat selfish we would have thought!). Kensington Gardens are more orderly and formal than Hyde Park, with a sunken garden and a rectangular pond by the palace. By Long Water is a statue of Peter Pan, whose author, JM Barrie, donated the children's swings nearby. As we have said, Kensington Gardens is also the location of Kensington Palace, home of the late Princess Diana and where once the adulation of the people for this beautiful and tragic young lady following her death manifested itself in a sea of scented blooms covering an area the size of a football pitch.
Regent's Park lies to the north of London and contains London Zoo, the world's oldest scientific zoo. Regents Park was once the royal hunting ground (yes, another one!) of Marylebone Park. The park was redeveloped under the Prince Regent, who later became George IV. The Inner Circle now contains Queen Mary's Garden, fed by the underground Tyburn River. There is space for sailing, tennis, archery, and boating on the Regent's Park Canal.
Primrose Hill, to the north of Regent's Park, stretches to 62 acres positioned on a high hill offering wonderful views of the London skyline. The area was once part of the same royal forest as Regent's Park.
Green Park lies just to the northeast of Buckingham Palace. The area now covered by the park was the area where Charles II used to take his daily stroll, his 'constitutional'. Indeed, Constitution Hill, on the northern border of the park, commemorates Charles' excursions.
St. James's Park is an oasis of calm in the bustle of London's West End. The park is bounded by The Mall and Birdcage Walk. To the east, lies the sandy expanse of Horseguards' Parade while the western end lies virtually beneath the windows of Buckingham Palace. The area was once a deer park under Henry VIII. It became a formal garden under Charles II, but was later converted present relaxed air by John Nash in 1828. The central lake is home to large populations of ducks and pelicans.
The 183 glorious acres of Greenwich Park lie to the south-east of London close to the River Thames. Greenwich itself is a very attractive place to visit with a great deal of history. The area is host to the famous tea clipper, the Cutty Sark (at the time of writing undergoing repairs following a near fatal fire), the National Maritime Museum and the world famous Greenwich Observatory, home of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). The park, full of undulating hills (some steep), paths, gardens and a boating lake, rises from virtually the river front all the way to Blackheath. Blackheath itself, is a huge grassy area, once the haunt of highwaymen and nowadays, the starting point of the London Marathon. One of the finest views of London can be seen from General Wolfe's memorial on top of the hill by the Greenwich Observatory.
Victoria Park (or 'Vicky Park', as it is known locally) is a large open space in Tower Hamlets in the East End of London. In this working class area of London, for children in Victorian times, Victoria Park was probably the only area of 'countryside' they ever saw. And they could learn to swim in the old Bathing Pond ! Over time Victoria Park became known as the 'People's Park' becoming a centre for political meetings and rallies with many soapbox orators holding forth on the pressing issues of the day.
The Chelsea Physic Garden is a botanical garden in west London. The garden was founded in 1673 to investigate the medicinal role of plants. The Chelsea Physic Garden played a major role in the development of the sciences of botany and horticulture. There is a garden shop selling plants.
Hampstead Heath lies to the north of London and is the largest open space in Greater London. Once, like Blackheath, the haunt of highwaymen, Hampstead Heath is today a multi-purpose green space presenting what some feel are the best panoramic views of London. Historic Kenwood House is on the northern border of the heath. Here, during the summer months, visitors can enjoy classical musical concerts by the lake.
Clapham Common is a park in South London of almost 90 hectares. This green space has three large ponds and a beautiful gazebo (photo). In addition to the aforementioned musical events, other activities such as sports are held in its surroundings: for example, it has a skatepark, tennis courts, and matches of the Latin American Football League and it is the official headquarters of the great final of the British Australian Rules Football League.
The world-famous Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew occupy 300 acres lying on the south bank of the River Thames between Richmond and Kew. Originally owned by the Royal Family, the gardens were landscaped in the 18th century by Capability Brown. Under one Joseph Banks, put in charge of the gardens by George III, Kew Gardens flourished. Banks dispatched botanical collectors across the globe to gather rare, unusual, or simply interesting botanical specimens. Kew Gardens became a depository of the world's plant species and a centre of botanical research. In the early 1800's, however, the gardens fell into disrepair and were handed over to the state in 1840. From that point, Kew Gardens started to flourish. In 1848 the Palm House by Decimus Burton was added, a wonder of glass and iron. Burton followed this in 1860 with the construction of the Temperate House. Today, Kew Gardens comprises a heady mixture of landscaped lawns, formal gardens, and greenhouses. Kew remains a botanical research centre and maintains the largest plant collection in the world. The various greenhouses display plants from across the world in climate controlled environments.
Queen Charlotte's Cottage (open only in summer) is a pretty summerhouse situated by a lake and the Chinese Pagoda continues to stand guard. A small glass building, Evolution House, contains displays setting out the evolution of plant life on earth. The Grass Garden has over 600 varieties of grasses, and the Wood Museum explains the manufacture of paper and shows examples of inlaid wood cabinetry. Kew is, today, one of the world's premier public gardens.
And in conclusion….
There are many, many more smaller gardens, and even quiet churchyards, within the borders of London.
All of these parks and open spaces are free to all of us to enjoy, to rest gratefully beneath their trees, to take small boats out on their lakes, to feed the ducks, the birds and the squirrels.
They give us the chance to recharge our batteries, to revive us and ready us for the challenges to come. At some point though, we all have to leave their iron gates behind and face the big city.