8 Surprisingly Serene Outdoor Spaces in London

Amidst the urban bustle of the UK's most populous conurbation, here is just a few of many green spaces that underline our capital's new status as a National Park City.

By Simon Ingram
Published 23 Jul 2019, 18:22 BST
The spectacular view from Primrose Hill, just north of central London. The city has long since ...
The spectacular view from Primrose Hill, just north of central London. The city has long since flowed around the minor eminence, but it retains its podium-like atmosphere.
Photograph by Eric Nathan, Alamy

In2019 London became a National Park City – the first in the world – and the culmination of a campaign spearheaded by National Geographic Explorer Daniel Raven-Ellison.

The movement was born to make Londoners and visitors ‘greener, healthier and wilder’ – and while it has had its sceptics, the campaign has invited everyone to consider the city in a different way to a purely urban metropolis. The figures back it up: according to the Greenspaces Initiative for Greater London, 47% of the city is considered ‘green’ with 33% of this constituting natural habitats within open space, and 14% vegetated private or domestic garden land. 

Now, in the greenest season, the trees and open spaces of the capital aesthetically contrast with the buildings to maximum effect, and this can be appreciated to the full. Here are eight places that can help you do just that.  

Chiswick House's 'canal' was once a natural brook that was widened to resemble a river.
Photograph by Neil Setchfield, Alamy

Chiswick House Gardens, Chiswick

Their situation under the flightpath of Heathrow doesn’t detract (much) from the splendour of the historic Chiswick House and its accompanying gardens. Definitely falling under the category of ‘manicured’, the gardens are notable for the presence of Atlantic blue cedar trees, some of which originated in Lebanon, and a canal running its length. The Beatles filmed several music videos here, and like many such open spaces in West London, there is a healthy population of London’s feral parakeets – descendants, it’s believed, of domestic escapees – which lend the birdsong an occasionally tropical ambience. 

King's Wood, in Croydon, has been the site of Iron age earthworks and is referenced in the Domesday book.
Photograph by John Bradshaw, Alamy

King’s Wood, South London

Covering 147 acres in the London Borough of Croydon, Kings Wood is a deceptively ancient woodland. Evidence of Iron Age infrastructure has been found here, the wood was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, and has been roughly at its current size since Tudor times. Plundered for timber during the Second World War, the intersecting ‘rides’ of the wood – a grid-like pattern of paths – is a relic of when they were used for hunting. Today they are a little-known backwater in the southern greenbelt of the city.

Allowed to 'rewild', the cemetery at Abney Park was a burial ground for religious 'dissenters', and today the memorials, slowly being colonised by vegetation – speak of an inclusive space.
Photograph by Ludwig M Brinckmann, Alamy

Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington

A serene environment of big, old trees and brimming biodiversity, Abney Park was originally a burial ground for dissenters from the established church – and the site wears its non-denominational heritage proudly. Closed to burial in 1970, the cemetery has since flourished as a semi-wild environment for rare birdlife, buglife and a notable variety of plants and fungi – many of which are rare in Britain, not just London.

Night falls on Primrose Hill.
Photograph by Londonstills.com, Alamy

Primrose Hill, Central London

One of medieval soothsayer Mother Shipton’s dark predictions concerned Primrose Hill, when she wrote that if London’s streets ever encroached the edges of the 63-metre high green dome the city would run with blood. It would perhaps be a stretch to presume this was in recognition of the importance of green space in a city (Primrose Hill was well on the outskirts in those days) but today the eminence retains its slightly detached feel, despite being just north of central London. It has a protected view – one of six in London established in 1938 to allow perpetual sightlines to the city’s key landmarks – and it’s an expansive one, stretching over the aviaries of London Zoo to encompass the entire skyline of the capital.

On the South Bank of the Thames, Battersea Park was an early example of a park designed for an urban space.
Photograph by Londonstills.com, Alamy

Battersea Park, Wandsworth

Ornate and inescapably human-crafted, it’s difficult to think of more varied use of open space in a city than the historic Battersea Park, covering 200 acres on the south bank of the Thames, opposite Chelsea. Opened in 1858 on marshland reclaimed from the river, the park is a patchwork of everything quintessential in a British park, from bowling greens and bandstands to playing fields and memorials. But they are woven into a varied landscape that also includes protected wild woodland, open spaces and a beautiful lake, complete with islands.   

Epping Forest comprises many pockets of woodland extending from north-east London into Essex.
Photograph by Ilyas Ayub, Alamy

Epping Forest, North-East London

Formerly a royal hunting forest – and notorious as the hideout of highwayman Dick Turpin – today Epping Forest covers just under 6,000 acres lodged into North-East London, like a spear flung from neighbouring Essex. Also giving its name to a district, the forest proper is spread over around sixteen deciduous miles, beginning on the edge of London’s Forest Gate. While patchy at its London end has within it some impressive stretches of ancient woods complete with ancient trees, numerous deer, and fungi colonising the deadwood – as well as an important population of stag beetles, which – at up to 8cm long – are Britain’s largest.

Once a sacrificial lamb to the pollution of industry, the River Lea and the Lee Valley have benefitted from conservation projects in recent years to help restore wetland habitats for mammals, amphibian, waterfowl and many invertebrates.
Photograph by A.P.S. UK, Alamy

Lee Valley, East London

London’s second river, the Lea, has suffered greatly since the urban and industrial expansion of the 19thcentury reclaimed the grassland habitat that once dominated its banks. Abused with industrial pollutants, today the ecological importance of the Lee (or Lea) Valley is being recognised and is the subject of rewilding projects intended to provide a toehold for species such as otters, voles and waterfowl to re-establish the area’s biodiversity. This starts in the city itself – a fine example being the East India Dock Basin, a former cargo port which is now a wildlife preserve with saltmarsh meadows and wildflowers. The opening of the 26-mile Lee Valley Park, a cross between a park and a path, provides a tranquil corridor through the post-industrial landscapes of East London into ever-rural environments. 

Though small and born from the intersection of rail tracks, the Gunnersbury Triangle nature reserve is an important asset to both residents and the creatures that populate it, including bats, birds and fungi colonising the deadwood.
Photograph by June Green, Alamy

Gunnersbury Triangle Nature Reserve, Chiswick

So called because of the shape it makes between intersecting trainlines, the 6-acre Gunnersbury Triangle was created in 1980 as a sanctuary for animals and invertebrates within the domestic bustle of West London. Managed by the London Wildlife Trust, this pocket of birch willow is an important habitat for sparrowhawks, newts, hedgehogs and bats and is as charming as it is unexpected. 

Read more about London becoming a National Park City here


Note: The name of the Lee Valley Park has been corrected.


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