In your London working life, surrounded by office blocks and chewing gum-plastered pavements, it's easy to forget that our glorious capital is one of the greenest cities in the world. With over 8 million trees and around 47% green space, we're never that far from a little bucolic escape. Rambling heaths, woodlands, streams, wetlands, rolling hills, hidden gardens, even lavender fields – is there anything this fine city doesn't offer? If you're craving a trip to the countryside, first check out what's on your very doorstep. Grab your picnic provisions, walking shoes or waders and set out to one of these 11 rural-feeling London greenspaces.
RECOMMENDED: Outdoor London
Walthamstow Village might feel like a bougie bit of the Cotswolds, but for a real country vibe it has nothing on the nearby marshes. A Site of Special Scientific Interest (meaning it’s protected land) the area was historically used for growing crops and grazing cattle. Now it’s one of the last few remaining areas of semi-natural wetland in Greater London, and home to loads of wildlife. Fun fact: it’s also where pioneer plane designer Alliott Verdon Roe completed the first all-British-powered flight back in 1909.
In the 1970s and ’80s this north London wooded area was rumoured to be haunted by a ghostly ‘goat man’ – but don’t let that put you off. At 2.5 miles long, this route follows the former railway line from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace, and is the longest nature reserve in the city. It’s an amazing place to spend a lazy Saturday exploring hidden tracks and closed-off tunnels shrouded in lush vegetation. Look out for the weird statue of a spriggan (a type of Cornish fairy) near the disused Crouch End station.
Some of London’s most ancient woodland, parts of this green space in Shooter’s Hill, Greenwich are a staggering 8,000 years old. For that full countryside school-trip vibe, Oxleas is also home to a small eighteenth-century folly called Severndroog Castle that reopened to the public in 2014. Climb to the viewing platform at the top for fantastic views all across London. Or if you’d prefer to pretend you’re not in the city at all, take the Green Chain Walk through woods of oak, silver birch and coppice hazel.
The second largest of London’s Royal Parks (Richmond Park is the biggest), Bushy Park is a sprawling 1,099 acres and it’s full of free-roaming deer, 320 to be exact. You’ve got Henry VIII to thank for them. He established the park as a deer-hunting ground back in the sixteenth century. But if it’s specifically flora, not fauna, that you’re after, then make a beeline for the park’s lush Waterhouse Woodland Garden.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the WWT London Wetland Centre was deep in the Fens or somewhere. This urban oasis is home to kingfishers nesting, butterflies fluttering over wildflower meadows and even water voles popping up on the pond edges. Best of all, you can see adorable otters foraging for food, playing with stones and grooming each other. Their feeding times are 11am and 2pm every day. Go along: it’s otterly brilliant (sorry).
Venue says Award-winning nature reserve in the heart of the capital. Enjoy fantastic views, wildlife, lakes, gardens. Plus shop, café and playground
If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise… as in middle of Sydenham Hill Wood, there’s the hidden remains of a Victorian ornamental garden – a gloomily unusual picnic spot. There are more than 200 types of trees and plants in the woods, as well as rare fungi and birds such as tawny owls and kestrels. The Nunhead to Crystal Palace railway line once passed through here, and you can follow the track bed to a disused tunnel that is now a registered bat roost. Just be careful not to disturb them – they’re protected by law.
For many, Richmond Park is still famous for Fenton the dog – the mischievous little scamp who went viral after chasing deer in 2011. His owner could have saved himself a whole lot of bother if he’d only taken his four-legged friend to the Isabella Plantation – a wooded area within the park first developed in the nineteenth century as a deer-free zone. A lush 40-acre garden known for the bold azaleas that line its ponds and streams, it’s a real haven of tranquillity away from the hustle and bustle of west London.
Stressed? For a hit of the purple stuff, head to Vauxhall Park, where you’ll find a small, but perfectly formed, lavender garden – right in Zone 1. It’s the perfect place to inhale some calm before you cram yourself on to a Victoria line train. Fancy seeing what an affordable home in London looks like? Pay a visit to the tiny model village too.
Blur frontman Damon Albarn rates this bit of Epping Forest so much, he wrote a song named after it on his 2014 solo album ‘Everyday Robots’. It’s easy to see why: with its deep blue waters and rich green foliage, the manmade beauty spot in Leytonstone is absolutely stunning. The best way to explore is by rowing boat, and you can hire them on weekends up until September. It’s the perfect date scenario – just make sure you have some basic oar-plying skills. There’s nothing less cool than having to be towed back to land.
Though not as famous as its show-off cousin Highgate Cemetery, Abney Park Cemetery isn’t any less outstanding – in fact it’s one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ that were created in the Victorian era to solve the problem of overcrowding in London’s parish graveyards. It was the first combined cemetery and arboretum in Europe, and the fact that internments are now rare has allowed nature to take its course. Amy Winehouse thought it was so beautiful she filmed the video for ‘Back to Black’ there.
Although the name suggests otherwise, Queen’s Wood isn’t one of London’s Royal Parks. Instead, it’s 52 acres of ancient woodland in Haringey, and is believed to be one of the direct descendants of the original ‘wildwood’ that covered Britain more than 5,000 years ago. For somewhere so close to central London, there’s a wide range of nature, from bluebells to woodpeckers and rare jewel beetles. Arachnophobes may want to give it a wide berth though, as over 100 species of spiders have been spotted here.