Best of London’s park life
With the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics turning the eyes of the world towards London, it’s a great time to roll up a picnic blanket, pack the Chardonnay (and an umbrella) and experience something that London does better than perhaps any capital: the park.
There are nine royal parks covering over 20 square kilometres and a plethora of smaller green spaces; this is the pick of the bunch.
Richmond is a revelation. As you cycle or walk into it for the first time, the racket of London falls away and within minutes, you are surrounded by ancient woodland containing oaks up to 700 years old.
Deer leap across the path, startled by human presence in this wildwood that remains unchanged in some parts since 1625 when King Charles I enclosed it with walls (then swiftly had to create gates and ladders to avoid a revolt by the excluded peasants).
It was originally a royal hunting ground but escaped much of the taming by successive monarchs which turned the other royal parks into formal gardens.
A walk here followed by a traditional Sunday lunch at one of the surrounding pubs, particularly if it’s of the wood panelled, open-fire variety such as The Marlborough (Friars Stile Road, +44 (0)20 8940 8513) is one of London’s great pleasures.
Getting there: Take the Underground or train to Richmond Station then walk or catch the 371 or 65 bus to the gate at Petersham.
Top tip: Earn your roast dinner by hiring a bike near Roehampton Gate to see more of the park and get some exercise.
Most people come to Regent’s Park for the first time to visit the zoo.
It was built around the Victorian era so some of the enclosures are a bit on the small side, but the zoo is now doing some outstanding conservation work breeding rare species; the new exhibits such as the Rainforest Lookout and B.U.G.S reflect this.
There is more to Regent’s Park than the gorillas and anteaters, however. The park is steeped in history.
Henry VIII originally appropriated it to use as a hunting ground (of course) and it was surrounded by nothing more than a ditch and a rampart.
He’d have trouble recognising it now as forest and glade have given way to multiple sports grounds and gardens, including a wildlife garden, allotment and running routes.
Hire a quintessentially British striped deckchair to admire the view here and you might find the scenes strangely familiar; Harry Potter, About a Boy and Bridget Jones’ Diary all had parts filmed in the park.
Primrose Hill is within the boundary of the park and is a favourite haunt of celebrities; even if you don’t see anyone famous, it’s worth going as you’ll get a near 360° vista of London at the summit.
Getting there: The park has its own tube stop, but you can also get off at Great Portland Street, Baker Street, St John’s Wood and Camden.
Top tip: Between May and September, you can attend a performance at the outdoor theatre (www.openairtheatre.org).
You are likely to find yourself strolling through Hyde Park (which virtually converges with Green Park) en route to Buckingham Palace.
In the summer, Brits fling themselves into the lido here (although the Maltese are likely to be put off this particular tradition by the chilly temperatures and thoughts of the clear blue Mediterranean).
In 2004, the ‘Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Fountain’ was built in the park, allegedly with “the best materials, talent and technology”.
To celebrate Diana’s life, people would be able to leap in for “quiet wading and contemplation”.
After three hospitalisations and a variety of other debacles, including a “rogue leaf”, the €4 million taxpayer-funded fountain was shut.
It is open again now, so you can make your own mind up as to whether it’s an appropriate tribute or a spectacular waste of cash. The Diana Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens (another Royal Park) is probably more fun for the under 12s.
Getting there: Catch the Underground to Lancaster Gate, Marble Arch, Hyde Park Corner or Knightsbridge.
Top tip: Take an eco-friendly trip on the solarshuttle, a ferry which glides along the historic Serpentine Lake powered by the sun.
Barnes Wetland Centre
Not, strictly speaking, a park but
rather a chance to discover London’s wild side.
The centre might be hemmed in by housing on three sides, but the creators have managed a miracle here; a haven for wildlife within a stone’s throw (and a bit) of the centre of London.
The cleverly designed hides mean it’s pretty easy to see kingfishers and bitterns in the right season and a whole host of other species including migratory birds, water vole, sand martins and bats make their home in the seasonally flooded wetlands.
A visit here lifts you right out of the urban grime and into a watery world that feels a million miles away from London’s sprawl.
Getting there: Take bus 283 (stand K) from Hammersmith bus station to the centre between 9.30 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Top tip: Check out the schedule of events on www.wwt.org.uk/visit-us/london/events to pick from activities like pond dipping days and wildlife photography courses.