Watching south-west Londoners mistake chugging around Richmond Park in their 4x4s for a day in the country isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, but the traffic-free Isabella Plantation is a real oasis. Established during the 1950s, the ornamental woodland garden consists of clearings, ponds and streams and is planted with ferns, exotic trees and shrubs. It’s particularly striking during April and May when the azaleas and rhododendrons put on their annual show.
Richmond Park (nearest gates Ham or Ladderstile), Surrey (www.royalparks.org.uk)
A well-kept south London secret, this pocket of green space is a leafy paradise. In summer the 19-acre garden springs into life and becomes a riotous confection of colour and scent. The 1936 art deco house has been restored by English Heritage and is a delight in itself, and as a day out it's a worthwhile alternative to the royal parks of central London.
Eltham Palace, Court Yard, SE9
The Geffrye Museum's garden
Just as the Geffrye’s period rooms trace the development of the British domestic interior from the sixteenth century to the present, its ‘garden rooms’ illustrate changing planting styles across half a millennium, from modest designs for Elizabethan townhouses to hothouse exotics loved by the Victorians, and the Edwardian template on which many modern gardens are based. There’s also a traditional herb garden that examines the various uses of over 170 specimens and includes arbours with secluded seating in its traditional, geometric scheme.
Geffrye Museum, Kingsland Rd, E2 8EA
This is a picture-perfect hidden spot lies just off the larger Lincoln's Inn Fields. It's open to the public in office hours, so you can enjoy its manicured gardens, fountains and sweet-scented plants.
New Square, WC2A 3QH
Red Cross Garden
This charming, hidden backstreet garden in Southwark has been restored to its original Victorian glory with cottage and pond gardens, exotic shrubs and herbaceous borders.
Red Cross Garden, Redcross Way, SE1 9HR (7403 3393/www.bost.org.uk)
Enter Holland Park via the Abbotsbury Road entrance and in the centre you'll find this small but perfectly formed Japanese garden, with waterfall, koi carp and a stone bridge. It was created by Japanese artists in 1991 to celebrate the Japan festival, was refurbished in 2001 and remains one of London's most tranquil spots.
Kyoto Garden, Holland Park, W8 7QU
Possibly the City’s most sequestered spot is the garden in the bombed-out remains of the medieval St Dunstan-in-the-East, which was destroyed in the Blitz. Wall shrubs and climbers spill in through the derelict arched windows and scale the defunct steeple, while the tinkle of a fountain in the former nave drowns out yonder traffic.
St Dunstan-in-the-East Church Garden, St Dunstan’s Hill, EC3
Ebury Square Gardens
A canopy of plane trees makes this park at the south end of Buckingham Palace Road (turn right up Semley Place) a perfect hideaway. You could believe you’re in the countryside as you gaze at the lilac trees, tulips, bluebells and allium that carpet the flowerbeds. A fountain in the centre completes the idyll.
Ebury Square Gardens, SW1W 9SU
Westminster Abbey Gardens
Follow the signs from the tube to the abbey. In contrast to the abbey itself, the cloisters feel quiet and intimate. The Little Cloister has a garden and ornamental fountain, while the College Garden contains a seventeenth-century knot garden.
Westminster Abbey Cloisters and Gardens, Westminster Abbey, Victoria St, SW1P 3PA
Across the road from the better-known Highgate Wood, there is something more magical and quiet about Queen’s Wood – witness its hilly pathways through the oak, beech, mountain ash and cherry trees. It might be only a few hundred metres from Highgate tube station, but native bluebells, wood anemone and countless species of small animals and creepy crawlies make this a wonderful retreat.
Queen’s Wood, Muswell Hill Rd, N10 (www.fqw.org.uk)
Morden Hall Park
While the grand old buildings here are now used by local artisans, the peaceful parkland is the real draw. Its meadows, islands and wildlife are all thriving, thanks to the River Wandle, which runs through it. Keep a look out for kingfishers landing on the water – a fantastic sight. Family events are held on the first and third Sunday of each month. A rose garden is among the other attractions.
Morden Hall Rd, Morden, SM4 5JD (8545 6850/www.nationaltrust.org.uk)
Created in a churchyard in 1880, this little memorial garden is shockingly quiet – despite being bracketed at either end by major, traffic-fizzing City thoroughfares. Victorian painter and philanthropist GF Watts created the monuments under the walled roof area as a tribute to the otherwise unsung everyday people who lost their lives saving the lives of others. They add a reverential and sombre air to the surroundings making Postman's Park not a place for rowdy Frisbeeing and such, then, but a pleasant hideaway in central London to remind oneself of the simple pleasures in – or rather, of – life.
Postman’s Park, King Edward St, EC1A 7BX
Bonnington Square Gardens
Bonnington Square, just spitting distance from the main drag of Vauxhall, is an unexpected idyll: a snug garden square with a close-knit community that seems incongruous amidst the surrounding sprawl. The square’s gardens are tended by the residents, and while you're there you can pay a visit to Bonnington Café where the locals take turns to cook.
Bonnington Square, SW8 (www.bonningtonsquaregarden.org.uk)
Dalston Eastern Curve Garden
Summer events at this Dalson gem include collaborations with local chefs, as well as pizza-making in the outdoor wood-fired oven, using herbs and veg grown in the garden. ‘Get Buzzy’ activities will highlight bee-friendly planting and offer Dalston honey tasting. If that all sounds too energetic, sit back, relax, and enjoy a homemade lemonade or mojito from the new Botanical Bar.
Entrance to the garden is next to the Hackney Peace Carnival Mural, 13 Dalston Lane, E8 3DF (www.dalstongarden.org)
Hill Garden and Pergola
Stroll through the Pergola in the Hill Garden at Hampstead Heath and you’ll feel as though you’re a million miles away from the city. The beautiful Pergola was constructed between 1906 and 1925 and is covered in fragrant flowers including jasmine, honeysuckle and lavender. To get to it, head west over the meadows from Golders Hill and look for a spiral staircase through the gate in the railings.
Hill Garden and Pergola, Inverforth Close, off North End Way, NW3 7EX
King Henry's Walk
The party queen of community gardens. Apart from thriving organic fruit and veg and stunning flower beds, there’s a host of activities, including wine tasting, a tea club, and talks on everything from medicinal herbs, to ice cream making. Annual keyholder membership is £10; free public access is on weekends from May to September, and Saturdays throughout the year. The garden will open between 6pm and 9pm on July 3 for an evening of music, wine and art.
11C King Henry's Walk, N1 4NX (www.khwgarden.org.uk)
Mobile Gardeners' Park
This garden began as a lunar landscape of rubble on the edge of a redevelopment site. Planting is in wooden wheelie crates which can be moved to another location in a couple of years’ time, when the serious building work gets underway . When the locals aren’t planting you’ll find them dancing the ‘carwash’ at regular ‘Sunset’ parties: the next one is on July 21 and will feature a mobile disco, food – and gardening, of course. ‘Our parties are when we freak out to disco and dance to Nile Rodgers amongst the vegetables,’ says Richard Reynolds who helped set up the enterprise 18 months ago.
East end of Wansey St and north end of Brandon St, SE17 1JP (www.mobilegardeners.org)
London might seem like a concrete jungle sometimes, but it’s still unexpected to find a slice of tropical rainforest in the City. It’s there, however, housed in the Barbican’s huge glasshouse (open to the public on Sundays and bank holiday Mondays only). Designed in 1980 to disguise the Barbican Theatre’s flytower, the lofty conservatory is home to thousands of exotic plants, as well as huge koi carp swimming in clear pools – very zen.
Silk St, EC2Y 8DS. www.barbican.org.uk Barbican tube.
Camley Street Natural Park
With all those wide-open public spaces and all that statement architecture, King’s Cross has really transformed of late. That’s brilliant, but sometimes the heady buzz of progress can start to grate. Find a bit of peace and quiet close to the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras in this two-acre garden on the banks of the Regent’s Canal. London Wildlife Trust volunteers help maintain the pond, meadow and woodland, making it a haven away from all the hectic commuters.
12 Camley St, N1C 4PW. King’s Cross tube.
This ancient woodland was once part of the Forest of Middlesex, which is mentioned in the Domesday Book. These days it’s run by the Corporation of London, which originally tried to impose order on unruly nature by turning it into an urban park, with paths and ornamental trees. A welcome change of municipal heart means respect for the wood’s essential woodiness has now prevailed. Around 70 different species of birds show their approval of this state of affairs by frequenting the hornbeam and oaks.
Muswell Hill Rd, N10 3JN. Highgate tube.
Japanese Roof Garden
You’re sitting at your desk, fuming. Graham in accounts hasn’t processed your expenses claim, again. Oh, Graham! Time to head to the Japanese Roof Garden at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Built in 2001, this serene space is dedicated to forgiveness (there’s a Kanji character engraved on the garden’s granite water basin that says this). A period of repose among the artfully placed rocks and pebbles and combed sand will set you right, and you will forgive Graham.
Brunei Gallery, SOAS, Thornhaugh St, WC1H 0XG. Russell Square tube.
Tucked behind Charing Cross Road, this is a super spot for a leafy lunchtime break. Look out for frogs and sparrows, which are thriving thanks to an enthusiastic conservation initiative. The garden closed last autumn for redevelopment work (which has been delayed) but has reopened in time to take advantage of our long-awaited spell of improved weather.
21 Stacey St, access via entrance on St Giles Passage, WC2H 8DG (www.thephoenixgarden.org)
St Mary's Cemetery
When you long for a place where no one much goes, head for St Mary’s Cemetery, a lovely old graveyard tucked away beside Bolingbroke Grove in Battersea. It’s shaded by mature trees, including an avenue of ornamental cherries, and the weathered stones are smothered in flowers that have seeded and done their own thing; right now there are lots of what look like daisies. You may have to share the space with squirrels and blackbirds, sometimes even a woodpecker, but there’s absolutely no danger of any bootcamp colonel bellowing ‘drop and give me five’.
Battersea Rise, Bolingbroke Grove, SW11 1HE. Clapham Junction rail.
Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park
Originally created as one of seven sprawling Victorian cemeteries for the growing metropolis, this graveyard doesn’t have the impressive headcount of Highgate Cemetery. But among those whose final resting place is there are the original owner of the Cutty Sark, John ‘White Hat’ Willis and one Alfred Linnel, who was trampled by a police horse during a demonstration in Trafalgar Square and whose funeral was organised by Annie Besant and William Morris. Closed to burials in 1966, today it’s a place of deep green shadows, of woodland and wildlife and 3,000 volunteers help look after it. But not all at the same time. So it’s a haven for east Londoners in search of peace on earth.
Southern Grove, E3 4PX. Mile End tube.