Ah, London. The sprawling urban patchwork of towering buildings, honking buses and everyday hustle and bustle we all know and love. But it’s a truth universally acknowledged that, every so often, we need to slow down and go outside.
The good news? You don’t need a weekend away in the Cotswolds to swap your crowded commute for quiet green spaces and sedentary flora.
From nature reserves to community plots, we’ve uncovered some of the city’s best-kept secret gardens and, unlike the major green spaces and royal park heavyweights, you’ll find our picks tucked in the shadow of an office building or growing quietly behind a bustling street. No deckchairs, no Boris bikes, and hardly any pigeons at all. These little green squares offer a bit of flowery respite whether you’re looking to escape with a book, go for a wander or find a hideaway for your lunch hour. Isn’t that a breath of fresh air?
Why not visit The Barbican's hidden Conservatory this Sunday?
RECOMMENDED: discover more of secret London
27 hidden gardens in London
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.
INSIDER TIP: Pop into the nearby churchyard of St Giles in the Fields for weekly food stalls and delicious coffee from Rosie & Joes' Coffee Stall.
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. A period of repose among the artfully placed rocks, pebbles and combed sand will set you right - and you will forgive Graham.
INSIDER TIP: Look out for the Kanji character engraved on the garden’s granite water basin for the garden's dedication to forgiveness.
A short walk from St Paul's Cathedral lies one of London's most touching monuments: George Frederic Watts's 'Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice'. Within the quiet Postman's Park, nestled beneath a tiled roof, are just over 50 ceramic plaques, each commemorating an ordinary person who lost their life trying to save others. Many of the descriptions are truly heartbreaking, and you can easily spend an entire lunchbreak contemplating their selflessness.
INSIDER TIP: There's a free app called 'The Everyday Heroes of Postman's Park', which you can use to learn more about each individual memorialised on the monument.
Originally intended to give Southwark children from nearby tenements a space to play, this Victorian garden has been restored to its original design, complete with pond, cottage, bandstand and formal borders. It’s an important fixture in the capital’s social reform history. While relaxing in the restored bandstand, gazing up at the glass prism of the Shard it’s hard to imagine the view back in 1887 when it was surrounded by workhouses, factories and slum dwellings.
INSIDER TIP: Red Cross Garden founder Octavia Hill went on to co-found the National Trust.
Designed to reflect diverse Muslim cultures, these contemporary gardens lean more towards the minimal than the wild. The result? A peaceful collection of landscaped rooftops and courtyards crafted with pleasing symmetry, hard surfaces and geometric shapes. The burbling waterfalls and narrow waterways of the Garden of Life echo the Mughal Empire, while the patterned screens in the Garden of Light are inscribed with Persian poetry and extracts from the Quran.
INSIDER TIP: You can’t drop by the gardens on a whim, so swap the spontaneity for a little forward planning this time and book yourself onto a free 45-min tour.
Creep through the overgrown woods of Abney Park Cemetery, past the crumbling gravestones, and you will eventually emerge into a large central clearing dominated by the menacing shell of a derelict chapel. The impressive gothic-revival building dates from 1840, but was gutted by fire in the 1970s and closed. This of course just adds to its eerie allure, and you half-expect to hear sinister organ chords and a clap of thunder as you step out of the trees and into its shadow.
INSIDER TIP: Among the cemetery's more notable residents are William and Catherine Booth, the founders of the Salvation Army, whose grave is near the Church Street entrance.
At 0.35 hectares this is London’s smallest nature reserve. Snuck between houses in affluent Barnsbury it was originally a vicarage garden. After being abandoned in the 1840s a woodland naturally grew and the Barnsbury Wood is now home to the sixteen spot ladybird. Please note: dogs are not allowed.
INSIDER TIP: Barnsbury Wood was once the garden of George Thornhill, who built the surrounding houses in the 1840s.
Camley Street Nature Park is currently closed to the public and will reopen spring 2019.
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.
INSIDER TIP: Pond-dipping and nature-watching sessions are held for children and its wood-cabin visitor centre is used by the Wildlife Watch Club.
Next to the deer and goats that graze in Stoke Newington's small 'zoo' is a sanctuary for our most beautiful insect family. Native and tropical butterflies flit between flowers and plants in the warm glass dome, which is open for periodic free tours from May to September – just watch where you're treading!
INSIDER TIP: Wander through the park at night on one of its regularly scheduled tours to spot local owls and bats.
Tucked behind the Angel and Chapel Market is this friendly community garden. Residents, local groups, market traders all find refuge amongst the 50 winding plots, with two for disabled gardeners. It may be quite small but it’s still possible to find a quiet spot to enjoy a sandwich or soak up the sunshine. When some flowers went missing the garden’s response was to put up a cartoon artist’s impression of the thief drawn by one of the volunteers. It’s that kind of a place.
INSIDER TIP: Peaceful classes are held in the garden during the warmer months, such as an introduction to edible flowers and screen printing.
Thousands wander across Hampstead Heath's wild and undulating parkland every year, but very few discover this eerie and elegant pocket of faded grandeur on the West Heath. Built by Lord Leverhulme at the start of the twentieth century as a setting for his extravagant parties, it includes impressive gardens and a dramatic elevated walkway, where overhanging plants create a lush canopy and tangled roots twist around smooth stone columns. A little window into the world of the Edwardian super-rich.
INSIDER TIP: Visit in the early evening and you might catch a glimpse of the long-eared bats which roost here.
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.
INSIDER TIP: If you fancy some gravestones with your garden visits, book on for a tour at the nearby Highgate Cemetery.
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.
INSIDER TIP: The garden will open between 12pm and 4pm on June 8 2019 for a summer fete, and at the same time on September 14 2019 for an Autumn flower and produce show.
Between the generous expanse of Hampstead Heath and the bustle of Royal Free Hospital is a small garden with noble ambitions. The World Peace Garden actually does fulfill it's name, it's a really peaceful woodland glade with three ponds and a wishing well. Residents and traders are responsible for rescuing what had been a wasteground area alongside Hampstead Railway Station for over a century, their words and hopes are immortalised in glass and ceramic tiles running across a wall. The garden is also a venue for tea parties, puppetry shows, jazz evenings and regular chess tournaments.
Four unassuming walls near the western edge of Brockwell Park enclose one of the most enchanting – and perhaps only – respites from the buzz of Brixton. The urban clamour melts away as you meander along stone pathways, between beds of vibrant plants and flowers, to discover bubbling fountains and secluded benches. This was once the kitchen garden for Brockwell Hall but is now an oasis of calm in an area of London that needs it more than most.
INSIDER TIP: Make your way uphill, towards Brockwell Hall, for a beautiful view over central London.
This network of head-scratching hedgerows is almost as old as the dinosaurs – the Crystal Palace dinosaur sculptures, that is (had you going there, didn't we?). Dating from around 1870, the puzzle is tucked away near the park's northern lake. After falling into disrepair, it was renovated in 2009 to commemorate the centenary of the Girl Guides. The movement was founded at a Scouts rally in the park after some young ladies demanded that Lord Baden-Powell do 'something for the girls.'
INSIDER TIP: Head to the Canada Gates to discover the movie location where Michael Caine blew more than the bloody doors off in 'The Italian Job'.
The bright colours in this woodland garden are so vibrant that any visiting hippy might be forgiven for thinking he's in the throes of an intense acid flashback. The rich reds, pinks and purples of blooming rhododendrons and azaleas line the pathways amid hidden ponds and tranquil clearings. Richmond Park as a whole is a delightful place, but this enclosed 42-acre space would give any garden in the world a run for its Monet.
INSIDER TIP: Climb up King Henry's Mound for one of London's most famous protected views: of St Paul's Cathedral, ten miles in the distance.
If you can’t resist squeezing lavender when you pass a front garden then you will be in your element here. This small square field of purple buds and fragranced green foliage can be found between the rose pergola and miniature model village in Vauxhall Park. Plus point is the benches surrounding the garden.
INSIDER TIP: There’s a community lavender harvest at the end of the summer, which is then distilled to produce litres and litres of lavender oil.
Kingfishers perch on reeds by the riverbank, and an old-fashioned waterwheel is slowly turned by the gentle current. It sounds more like an idyllic country village than a public space just a few minutes' walk from the Northern line, but therein lies the charm of Morden Hall Park. Once the sprawling estate of a wealthy family, it's still home to watermills that used to grind tobacco into snuff. So, to all you Morden naysayers: stick that up your hooter!
INSIDER TIP: Don't miss the lovely Victorian stableyard at the centre of the park, which was renovated in 2011 and turned into a café and secondhand bookshop.
Just escaping the shadow of Canary Wharf’s glass and concrete towers lays this U-shaped nature reserve. Wildflowers now cover what was an ironworks, shipyard and coal wharf. A DLR track carrying commuters almost cuts the ecology park in half and adds to the surreal peace of being able to watch the rush of the city from a distance.
INSIDER TIP: Visit in the summer for the chance to spot rare breeds of dragonfly, which tend to appear from early June to late August.
Step away from the aggressive redevelopment of Dalston Junction into this community garden. A bark-chip path winds through plots, patches and picnic tables. If you feel the chill there are water bottles available in the kiosk alongside a seasonal menu. Visitors are welcome to bring their own food but no alcohol.
INSIDER TIP: The garden is open until 10pm on summer nights and quickly becomes the perfect dinner-picnic spot on a warm evening.
The thick stone walls of this bombed-out medieval church have been almost smothered by nature and it makes for a curiously peaceful experience within the throb of the City. Leaves, vines and branches poke, cling and climb to this Grade I listed ruin. Perfect for atmospheric folk/prog-rock band photos and some quality daydreaming.
INSIDER TIP: Remember in 'Friends' when Ross marries Emily in a crumbly church with fairy lights? Well, St Dunstan-in-the-East is available to hire for events of up to 45 people. Just saying.
This award-winning secret garden just around the corner from Hoxton Overground has a focus on food-growing and promoting wellbeing – many of the passionate team of gardeners have long-term health issues. It may only be 0.7 hectares but boasts working beehives, a polytunnel, woodland, wildflower meadow, a pond populated with newts and is completely accessible to wheelchair users.
INSIDER TIP: St Mary's Secret Garden is a stone’s throw away from the tasty offerings of the 'Viet-Mile' restaurants.
The oldest botanic garden in London quickly became a world leader in natural medicine after opening in 1673. Its location next to the Thames in Chelsea is no accident – the river’s proximity creates a warmer microclimate meaning rare and endangered species are able to thrive. Within its walls 5,000 different edible medicinal plants grow including the world’s most northerly outdoor grapefruit tree.
INSIDER TIP: The garden is also home to Britain's first garden of ethnobotany (the study of the botany of different ethnic groups and indigenous peoples).
A picturesque waterfall flows into a peaceful rock pool, where koi carp dart beneath the surface and peacocks stalk past on the banks. It might sound like the setting for a Japanese fairytale, but this is, in fact, one of west London's most serene spaces: Holland Park's quaint Kyoto Garden. It's the perfect spot to unwind with a book, linger with your thoughts or fight your samurai rivals to the death.
INSIDER TIP: Round off your visit with some property porn. Wander through one of London's most fancy postcodes, filled with grand Victorian townhouses and city mansions.