One of the best things about London is its abundance of open spaces. What's more, spending the day exploring the city's majestic parks is absolutely free. You're sure to find the perfect spot, whether you're up for a wander or a picnic, want to burn some calories or simply kick back and let nature revitalise you.
Parks in central London
The green, triangle-shaped expanse of leafy land just beyond the Ritz is Green Park. Penned in at two corners by St James's Park and Hyde Park, it was enclosed by Charles II in 1668 as a hunting ground before opening to the public in 1826. Today, the mini park plays host to lunching commuters and tourists in almost equal measure; the latter often found to be lounging on Green Park's alluring stripy deckchairs before being stung with a small fee by the roaming ticket man.
At 1.5 miles long and about a mile wide, Hyde Park is one of the largest of London's Royal Parks. The land was appropriated in 1536 from the monks of Westminster Abbey by Henry VIII for hunting deer and, despite opening to the public in the early 1600s, was only frequented by the upper echelons of society. London's oldest boating lake, The Serpentine, is at the bottom of Hyde Park. It's not especially beautiful but is home to ducks, coots, swans and tufty-headed grebes, and is also of great historic interest.
St James's Park was founded as a deer park for the royal occupants of St James's Palace, and remodelled by John Nash on the orders of George IV. The central lake is home to numerous species of wildfowl, including pelicans that have been kept here since the 17th century. The pelicans are fed between 2.30pm and 3pm daily, though they have been known to supplement their diet at other times of the day with the occasional pigeon. The bridge over the lake offers very snappable views of Buckingham Palace (head that way and you'll see Green Park, the beginning of a relaxing stroll that will take you under trees as far as Hyde Park Corner).
Parks in north London
Wild and undulating, the grassy sprawl of Hampstead Heath makes a wonderfully untamed contrast to the manicured lawns and flowerbeds found elsewhere in the capital – and it will feel even more delightfully rural if the City of London Corporation's 'aspiration' to graze sheep on the heath as a flock of organic lawnmowers comes to fruition. The heath stretches across 791 acres of woodland, playing fields, swimming ponds and meadows of tall grass in north London from Hampstead to Highgate, and has provided the inspiration for countless films, books and poems.
Regent's Park is one of London's most popular open spaces, covering 410 acres in north-west London. Attractions run from the animal odours and noises of London Zoo to the enchanting Open Air Theatre. Various food and music festivals pitch up here over the summer and rowing boat hire, bandstands, beautiful rose gardens, tennis courts, ice-cream stands and eateries complete the picture. Regent’s Park has several playgrounds, but the most interesting is at Hanover Gate where, in 2010, a timber treehouse area for older kids was built within a large sandpit next to the boating lake and existing playground.
Parks in south London
Battersea Park has so much going for it that it's almost unfair. What other green space in the capital can boast Thames views, an art gallery (The Pump House) and a zoo. Battersea Park also has a superb adventure playground, with plenty of original and imaginatively-built features. The climbing structures, slides and high climbing nets present unusual challenges for children aged 5+, and there’s a separate area for younger kids too. But really, it's all about the animals. An enclosure apparently containing deer (they're elusive) is fun, but Battersea Park's ace is its family-run zoo, complete with lemurs, meerkats and pygmy goats. Oh, and there's the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home too.
Clapham Common provides an oasis of peace amid the busy traffic of south west London, with Holy Trinity Church, which dates from 1776, at its perimeter. A number of cafés, sporting facilities, two playgrounds and a skate park make the common a lively recreational facility for locals. Originally built in 1890, Clapham Common’s bandstand is the largest in London. After falling into disrepair in the 1960s, the bandstand was restored and reopened and now hosts a variety of open-air concerts during the summer months.
Greenwich Park boasts the honour of being the oldest enclosed Royal Park. Formerly a hunting ground for Henry VIII, the park still maintains a 13-acre grassland enclosure, which provides an urban sanctuary for deer, foxes and over 70 species of bird. One of the largest green spaces in south east London, Greenwich Park offers a wide range of facilities and points of interest, including a child-friendly boating lake, six tennis courts and the National Maritime Museum just on the perimeter. The Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park is home to the Greenwich Meridian Line which represents the prime meridian, relative to which world time is calculated and the distance to every place on Earth is measured. The views from the top of the hill across to Canary Wharf and beyond are spectacular, and well worth the trek.
Parks in east London
Victoria Park sprang to life as a Royal Park but became municipal in 1887; it's rougher around the edges than its western counterparts and thus a great expanse to kick back and let nature revitalise you. Vicky Park is wonderful for youngsters too: the V&A Playground is equipped with swings etc, and the fantastically designed Pools Playground encourages creative play. Wildlife includes a deer enclosure, moorhens, grey and Canada geese and squirrels, while, by the lake, you'll find The Pavilion Café serves tasty, locally sourced food from breakfast to tea-time. In recent years the park has hosted Winterville and Field Day, and every November park-goers in their thousands are treated to a wildly ambitious theatrical fireworks display which is laid on by Tower Hamlets Council.
Parks in west London
Situated just north of Hampton Court Palace, Bushy Park is one of several vast open spaces that sprawl across the borough of Richmond-upon-Thames. Named after the large number of hawthorn bushes that grow within its boundaries, the area now known as Bushy Park has been a settled site since the Bronze Age. Later enclosed by Henry VIII as a hunting ground, Bushy Park is still home to herds of both red and fallow deer. The park is also famed for its Christopher Wren-designed Chestnut Avenue, where locals gather annually on Chestnut Sunday in May for a festival to celebrate the blooming of the trees.
At the end of the seventeenth century, William III – averse to the dank air of Whitehall Palace – relocated to Kensington Palace and consequently, a corner of Hyde Park (Kensington Gardens) was sectioned off to make grounds for the residence. Nowadays, Kensington Gardens is only delineated from Hyde Park by the line of the Serpentine and the Long Water. Princess Diana's presence in Kensington Gardens is strong: Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground is a favourite for children, especially its massive wooden pirate ship, complete with accompanying ‘beach’, teepees and play sculptures. The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, a shallow stone ring of trickling water, is also popular for paddling. For adults, the Serpentine Gallery, the sunken garden and the beautiful flower walk provide alluring ways to while away a sunny afternoon.
Richmond Park is the largest of the Royal Parks, occupying some 2,500 acres. There are hundreds of red and fallow deer roaming free across it, presumably much happier without having to listen out for the 'View halloo!' of one of Henry VIII's hunting parties. Within the park's bounds are the Palladian splendour of White Lodge and Pembroke Lodge, childhood home to philosopher Bertrand Russell and now a café. From the park's highest point, there are unobstructed views of St Paul's Cathedral, over 12 miles in the distance.
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