The best parks in London right now

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London is a green city. Miraculously green. For every building, street and pavement, for every concrete block and brick wall, there’s about as much green space, garden, park and field. Should 8.4 million Londoners spontaneously decide to hug a tree, there’d be a tree each for them to do so. Go for a walk in London and every fifth step, on average, you’ll be under the cover of a tree. Our capital is actually so wooded that, following one United Nations measure, it counts as a forest. In this excerpt from An Opinionated Guide to London Green Spaces, discover some of the best parks in London – plus we asked London expert Tristan Parker to add his top tips on what to do in each park in winter.

  • The best parks in London right now

    ST JOHN’S LODGE GARDENS

    Meditative beauty in the bosom of Regent’s Park

    Some places are too special to go in a guide book. This garden may be one of them. Designed in 1888 as a locus of meditation for the (now private) St John’s Lodge, the garden is no place for crowds – perhaps why its entrance features no formal sign. Your only clue is a beguiling pergola festooned with clematis and wisteria leading to a buffer of sombre yew hedges. Beyond, you’ll find a sunken lawn and a series of interlinking circular enclosures, screened by rings of pleached lime trees, perfect for putting the rest of the world from your mind. Now you’re an initiate, don’t tell!

    Why visit in winter?


    There are a few winter-specific plantings to admire, including the flowers around the large stone urn, which change seasonally, but the fact that the gardens are not well known means they’re even quieter in the cold months than in summer, offering space and genuine respite from the hubbub – two rare things in central London. Tristan Parker

    Address: St John’s Lodge Gardens, Regent’s Park, NW1 4NX


    Website: royalparks.org.uk


    Opening times: open daily, 5am–dusk

  • The best parks in London right now

    CHISWICK GARDENS

    Birthplace of the English landscape garden

    Chiswick Gardens arguably spawned England’s most influential cultural export, second perhaps to The Beatles (who happened to film one of the first ever music promos here). In the 1720s, architect and designer William Kent experimented at Chiswick, inventing what became known as the English landscape garden. He loosened the fussiness of the formal garden, introducing a far more natural feel – sweeping lawns and lakes, classical temples and monuments nested in banks of trees or hedges. Swiftly spreading to the great estates of Europe, the style soon became the model for public parks across the globe. And it all started here.

    Why visit in winter?


    Because you can shelter from bad weather in the gorgeous conservatory, which holds an impressive camellia collection, including one of two Middlemist’s Red specimens, believed to be the only ones in the world. If the weather does play ball, the art and statuary on display add a cultural fix to a walk here, and as you’d expect from a place with Chiswick’s horticultural pedigree, everything looks superb, whatever the season. TP

  • The best parks in London right now

    HORNIMAN GARDENS

    Family-favourite hilltop museum gardens

    Is it odd that gardens so deliberately educational are such a monster hit with children? You don’t need to study the UK’s largest exhibit of musical instruments in the Horniman Museum to enjoy whacking giant xylophones outside in the sound garden. Or peruse the huge natural history collection to appreciate meeting live alpacas and chickens on the animal walk. Like everything else in the gardens, the impressive displays of medicinal and functional plants stand on their own merits, yet unite perfectly with what’s indoors. Then again, maybe it’s just a fantastic garden to run up and down the paths and enjoy knockout views.

    Why visit in winter?


    Because those showstopping views across the Square Mile and beyond take on a whole new dimension in the winter months, and you’ll be able to reach that visual wonder about 60 seconds after entering. You’ll need to get there in the daytime, as the gardens close at 4.20pm in winter, but it makes for a very fine weekend jaunt. TP

    Address: Horniman Gardens, Forest Hill, SE23 3PQ


    Website: horniman.ac.uk


    Opening times: Mon–Sat 7.15am–dusk, Sun 8am–dusk

  • The best parks in London right now

    HOLLAND PARK

    Graced with Japanese harmony and tranquillity

    From the walkman to bonsai, the Japanese have a talent for the exquisite miniature. The Kyoto Garden, the jewel of Holland Park, is a case in point. Cradled by colourful maple and cherry trees, a stepped waterfall spills beneath a bridge towards a pond patrolled by sleepy koi. Occasionally peacocks strut across the lawn. This gift of simple serenity from Kyoto to Kensington is a firm favourite, but don’t miss the formal Dutch gardens that skirt the remains of the old Jacobean Holland House (which also makes the backdrop for the park’s summer operas). And kids love the giant seesaw in the new adventure playground.

    Why visit in winter?


    Padding your way through the Kyoto Garden when there’s frost or mist around (or just on an unapologetically bracing crisp morning) is a special experience, upping the already zen-like serenity of the park. And if you’re lucky enough to be there when it snows, you’ll feel like you’ve won the winter jackpot. TP

    Address: Holland Park, High Street Kensington, W8 6LU


    Website: rbkc.gov.uk


    Opening times: open daily, 7.30am–30 minutes before dusk

  • The best parks in London right now

    OSTERLEY PARK

    Timeless country estate on the tube

    The essential dignity of this old country estate seems impervious to the modern world. Even the M4, which cost the park half its grounds in 1965, and low-flying planes on their way to Heathrow, can’t upset the stateliness of Osterley Park, its pastures and gardens, towering oaks, chestnuts and cedars, its willow-ringed lake whose stillness is occasionally broken by a line of passing swans. A cycle-friendly trail circles the park, perfect for children (bike hire available) – and if you don’t mind paying, the lustrous interiors of the house and beautiful gardens are a must.

    Why visit in winter?


    To see the meticulously designed winter garden in all its glory. The trees, shrubs and bulbs here – including some rare species – have been specially selected for their colours in months with low light levels, when they look their best. Add to that the all-weather paths for avoiding muddy boots, plus dog-friendly formal gardens, and you’ve got a genuine winter gem. TP

    Address: Osterley Park, Osterley, TW7 4RD


    Website: nationaltrust.org.uk


    Opening times: open daily, 7am–7.30pm

  • The best parks in London right now

    RICHMOND PARK

    Deer, wildlife and miles of space

    Free-roaming red and fallow deer have been nibbling this rare grassland habitat into existence since at least 1637, when Charles I enclosed it. It’s London’s largest nature reserve, topped off with a protected view that cuts a line between ancient oaks to St Paul’s Cathedral, 10 miles distant. Away from the roads and cycle tracks (it’s great for a spin), few places in London feel so open and wild. The landscaping isn’t all left to the deer: the Isabella Plantation is a sizeable woodland garden crammed with flowering azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons that look their stunning best in mid spring.

    Why visit in winter?


    This is a real favourite winter walking spot for Londoners, and rightly so. The sunsets above all that wide, open land are beautiful and if you’re an early bird, the sunrises are even better. But let’s be honest: winter in Richmond Park is all about the deer, whose coats take on a slightly new colour this season (faded grey brown or red). The chances of snow and spotting a deer in the park, frolicking in said snow, may be slim, but if it happens, it’s something you won’t forget in a hurry. TP

    Address: Richmond Park, TW10 5HS


    Website: royalparks.org.uk


    Opening times: Open 24 hours to pedestrians, except Nov and Feb; 7.30am–8pm during deer cull

  • The best parks in London right now

    VICTORIA PARK

    Serial winner of the nation’s most popular park awards, this mainstay of East London downtime since 1845 continues to recruit new generations to its enormous band of devoted fans. Vicky Park is simply amazing for young people. A blinder of a playground features the best slides in town and a host of other original swinging, climbing and larking-about equipment – plus the extensive summer splash pools. Meanwhile, older kids get top-grade music festivals, a mouthwatering Sunday market and an excellent café in each of its two parts. And that’s without mentioning the lakes, pagoda, gardens and everything else!

    Why visit in winter?


    Because the boating lake (the West Boating Lake, that is, not the model boating lake at the east of the park) takes on a new life in the colder months and somehow looks even better than it does during the height of summer. And with fewer crowds, it’s much easier to bag a prime bench by the water (assuming you’re suitably wrapped up, of course) to take in the lakeside views – you’ll probably notice those two sculptures by Romanian artist Erno Bartha properly for the first time, the birds that are still around and the fountain in the middle. For something completely different, winter is also a great time to follow the Memoryscape Trail, an audio-guided historical tour with snippets from local fans of the park. TP

    Address: Victoria Park, Bethnal Green, E3 5TB


    Website: towerhamlets.gov.uk


    Opening times: open daily, 7am–dusk

  • The best parks in London right now

    HAMPSTEAD HEATH

    The greatest countryside escape in London

    This ancient expanse of common land straddling a high ridge between Hampstead and Highgate is, perhaps, London’s most beloved open space. Its rolling hills and meadows, copses and glades, glittering ponds and views conjure a deep sense of the rural that simply doesn’t exist elsewhere. A summer’s picnic in the long grass, kite-flying on Parliament Hill or tobogganing down it in the snow, a splash in the bathing ponds, a Sunday ramble to emerge muddy-booted at a village pub or Kenwood (no.3) – these are sacred institutions for many, many Londoners, who would probably lay down their lives for the Heath if they had to.

    Why visit in winter?


    Less sunlight has its downsides, but watching daytime fade out from Parliament Hill makes the dark seem a whole lot better. It’s a classic sunset spot, made even more enjoyable by an extended daytime walk prefacing it. And the Heath’s hilly geography and open expanses make it the ultimate snowy playground for anyone keen to use a sled or toboggan. TP

    Address: Take the overground to Hampstead Heath or Gospel Oak


    Website: cityoflondon.gov.uk


    Opening times: 24 hours

  • The best parks in London right now

    CRYSTAL PALACE PARK

    Simple pleasures from a bygone age

    They’re not the most anatomically accurate dinosaur sculptures ever made, but from 1854 they are the world’s first – and youngsters go crazy for them. They, like the fiendish maze (considerably less fiendish in winter when the hedges are bare), were among the many attractions of the cutting-edge Victorian pleasure grounds created to surround the Crystal Palace, relocated from Hyde Park (no.22) to the top of Sydenham Hill. Not all have survived; the palace itself burnt down in 1936 – but the simple pleasures that remain, combined with many later additions (including an urban farm and skatepark), make for a charming and idiosyncratic park.

    Why visit in winter?


    Because sometimes it’s fun to get lost, and Crystal Palace Park allows you to do just that without ever needing to break out Google Maps. The numerous different levels and zigzagging paths enclosed by greenery mean that you can trek through an entirely new winter wonderland at practically every corner. TP

  • The best parks in London right now

    BONNINGTON SQUARE GARDEN

    It lifts the soul to see what a passionate community can achieve when it works (damn hard) as one. The jam-packed ‘Pleasure Garden’, created from an old bombsite, is a masterclass in use of space. But the true pleasure here is how the horticultural enthusiasm erupts from its tiny confines to virtually every free surface of the square. An exuberance of flowering trees, vines, creepers, climbers and palms turns this patch of high-Victorian London into a semi-tropical wonderland. Pause a moment in the square’s two fantastic cafés, and you can almost imagine marmosets clattering across the treetops.

    Why visit in winter?


    There’s something marvellous about strolling past palm trees, yuccas, banana plants and other exotic specimens in the depths of winter, particularly while you’re still in central-ish London. It really does create a sense of escapism, which is especially welcome at the moment. TP

  • The best parks in London right now

    WATERLOW PARK

    Delightful hillside park in London’s leafiest village

    It’s not just the height of Highgate Hill that makes you look down your nose at the rest of London. The air tastes sweeter up here, the trees are leafier, and everything is a bit less, well, Londony. And Highgate’s loveliest spot? Without doubt, Waterlow Park. Its sloping lawns descend beside the terraced gardens of Lauderdale House (a Tudor building reborn as a café and community arts venue) towards tantalising glimpses of the city across willow-draped ponds. It’s just right that the statue of Sir Sydney Waterlow gets the best view, the man who, in 1889, gave this lopsided marvel to London for posterity.

    Why visit in winter?


    The wide, concrete paths mean you won’t get stuck in any muddy, wet patches, even in the worst weather. Speaking of which, there’s also a small shelter where you can take refuge from the elements. The park closes at 4.30pm in winter, but on a weekend there’s still more than enough time to combine a tour with a daytime wander that covers adjoining Highgate Cemetery and the ever-charming stretch known as Highgate village. TP

    Address: Waterlow Park, Archway, Highgate, N6 5HD


    Website: lauderdalehouse.org.uk


    Opening times: open daily, 7.30am–dusk

  • The best parks in London right now

    QUEEN ELIZABETH OLYMPIC PARK

    Big, bold and new – powering regeneration

    The 2012 Olympics was all about ‘legacy’, remember? Well, here’s our inheritance – Europe’s largest new urban park. Its network of looping paths and levels between waterways and sporting venues is occasionally bewildering, but also refreshingly different. Kids love the promenade of play areas, splash fountains and landscaped planting. For wilder, quieter places, head to the north park, where riverside reed beds and wetland wildlife zones await. Few traces remain of the industrial area that went before, but this is a brand new bit of London full of potential and opportunity, with an exciting new park at its centre. Gold medal!

    Why visit in winter?


    It’s a great place to spot winter wildlife, including some unusual critters such as the blue underwing, a distinctive moth with a hefty wingspan of 10cm. Elsewhere, keep an eye out for goldcrests – the UK’s smallest bird – plus redwings and fieldfares, both of which visit the UK during winter from Scandinavia. The park is open 24 hours and is well lit, with security patrols. TP

  • The best parks in London right now

    HYDE PARK

    London’s premier park

    Hyde Park is London’s beating heart. It’s where Londoners go to express themselves – to rally, protest and say their minds at Speakers’ Corner or to share the excitement of the big event, such as the Rolling Stones playing to half-a-million fans. Summer rock concerts and the Winter Wonderland funfair are only the latest incarnations of crowd-pleasers stretching back to the grisly carnivals that accompanied executions at Tyburn Tree, now Marble Arch. Most of the time, however, the park is simply a huge and peaceful place to jog, ride, rollerblade, practise tai chi, swim in the Serpentine, have a picnic or do whatever it is Londoners do to feel free.

    Why visit in winter?


    To ramble the Dragonfly Trail, where you’ll look out for winged wonders as you pass woodland, grassy and watery hideaways (the trail itself is entirely on pathways, making it accessible for wheelchair users). The loop takes just over an hour, or you can dip into sections. It’s part of the Welcome Winter campaign by the Royal Parks charity, encouraging city folk to get out and explore their local green spaces even in chillier months. TP

    Address: Hyde Park, W2 2UH


    Website: royalparks.org.uk


    Opening times: open daily, 5am–midnight

  • The best parks in London right now

    KENSINGTON GARDENS

    Refinement, elegance, culture and family fun

    Queen Caroline nabbed about half of Hyde Park (no.22) in 1728 to furnish Kensington Palace with landscaped grounds. With intersecting avenues of limes and elegant formal planting firmly behind prim black railings, Kensington Gardens has retained a different air from its more unbuttoned neighbour ever since. No rock concerts here – only highbrow art at its two Serpentine Galleries. Royal associations abound in its fabric, perhaps nowhere more so than in the palace’s showpiece sunken garden, where Princess Diana loved to sit. A short hop up the Broad Walk, the playground created in her memory is so popular that queues are all but guaranteed in summer sunshine.

    Why visit in winter?


    As it’s somewhere that’s overflowing with tourists in sunnier months, there’s something satisfying and peaceful about seeing Kensington Gardens stripped of both its crowds and its leaves, giving the whole area a rare tranquillity. The grounds close at 4.15pm in winter, but if you can drag yourself into central London when the gardens open at 6am, you are assured a sublime sunrise (on a clear morning) as the light suddenly reveals itself over the shimmering Round Pond. TP

    Address: Kesington Gardens, W2 2UH


    Website: royalparks.org.uk


    Opening times: open daily, 6am–dusk

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  • The best parks in London right now

    Battersea Park

    Feature-filled playground for all ages

    At 200 acres it’s not exactly a secret, but Battersea is seriously, bizarrely, undersung in London’s park hierarchy. It’s a shame, because this Victorian marvel is teeming with history-laden features and fun stuff that lift it way beyond mere green-space status. Perhaps most impressive is the London Peace Pagoda, an exquisite Buddhist temple with an inspirational story (it was the brainchild of the founder of a Japanese Buddhist order who pledged to build pagodas worldwide to promote peace after the Hiroshima atomic bomb) and fantastic river views. But give yourself time to explore the other treasures along its maze-like paths. These include a sub-tropical garden and the gorgeous Old English Garden, sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, a boating lake, the Pump House contemporary art gallery, a handsome bandstand, a sizeable adventure playground, a lakeside café… If ever there was a day out wrapped up in a park, Battersea is surely it.

    Why visit in winter?


    For the Winter Garden, opened in 2011 and designed to bloom at a time when surrounding nature is drooping and dreary. It is full of vibrant specimens that come alive in the colder months, such as colourful chaenomeles and iris lazica. Lights dotted all over the park also make it easier to visit and navigate in the dark.

  • The best parks in London right now

    Greenwich Park

    Sweeping green expanse with superlative views

    Greenwich has the peculiar benefit of feeling like two different parks, loosely divided by the Royal Observatory and a steep incline/decline depending on which way you’re heading. The upper/south section that blends into Blackheath is great for aimless strolling, with its complex of winding paths and towering trees, while the lower/north section’s sprawling slope offers some of the best views in London, over the Maritime Museum and Old Royal Naval College to the heart of the City. But although many know Greenwich Park primarily for that view, there’s lots more to be enjoyed that few people really take advantage of. We’re talking London’s oldest deer park (albeit enclosed), a beautiful rose garden, London’s largest herbaceous border and an orchard growing everything from quince to nectarines.

    Why visit in winter?


    The slope isn’t quite as appealing to drape yourself on in winter, but you can still ogle those sublime vistas by standing in front of the General Wolfe statue next to the observatory. Seeing London from this spot on a frosty morning is beyond a treat.

    Address: Greenwich Park, London SE10 8QY (south/Blackheath side)


    Website: royalparks.org.uk


    Opening times: 6am-6pm daily. Opening times change throughout the year, check royalparks.org.uk for updates

  • The best parks in London right now

    Kew Gardens

    UNESCO-approved horticultural paradise

    Ok, it’s not technically a park, but it most definitely is one of London’s foremost green spaces. Speaking of technicalities, its proper title is actually Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, but when did anyone last call it that? However you refer to it, Kew is a glorious day out, and with 300 acres and 50,000 plants, you could go every week of the year and discover something new every time. There’s a rich and fascinating history behind the site, involving everyone from the Suffragettes and Captain Cook to kangaroos, but you don’t need to know any of that to appreciate the wonders here, from the globe-spanning Rock Garden and the indoor rainforest at the Palm House to the Great Pagoda and the sky-high Treetop Walkway. If you need any more convincing, consider that Kew is one of only four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in London.

    Why visit in winter?


    Kew’s annual winter light trail is always a welcome sight, transforming sections of the gardens into various twinkling paradises after dark (all with extra safety measures in place this year). Seek out the illuminated singing rose garden and stay for the grand finale light show at the Palm House pond. But a daytime visit is just as rewarding, as you can admire Kew’s array of wintry treasures, including a vast holly collection, towering trees still full of colour and berries in the peaceful Pinetum, and winter shrubs and flowers, including witch hazel, snowdrops and many more.

    Address: Kew, Richmond, London TW9 3AE


    Website: kew.org


    Opening times: 10am-3.15pm daily; evening light trail, 4pm-10pm

  • The best parks in London right now

    Primrose Hill

    Refreshingly simple set-up with a neighbourhood feel

    It may be awkwardly set above Regent’s Park, but rather than the add-on it almost became (it was intended as a Regent’s Park extension after being purchased from Eton College in 1841), Primrose Hill is now entirely its own green entity, with plenty of local character. With a summit of 63 metres above sea level, this mighty slope of a park also has city views to rival those of its northerly sibling, Parliament Hill. It’s a stripped-back affair – no fancy bandstands or tropical gardens here – but more appealing because of it, as the many locals who line the slope in summer months (plus various delighted newbies who stumble across it after a wrong turn out of Regent’s Park) will happily testify.

    Why visit in winter?


    Round-the-clock opening hours make it a good choice for evening winter walks, and the open layout and good lighting (from the appealingly Victorian-style street lamps) give it a relatively safe feel.

    Address: Primrose Hill, London NW1 4NR


    Website: royalparks.org.uk


    Opening times: 24 hours (closes early on 5 November and New Year’s Eve)

  • The best parks in London right now

    An Opinionated Guide to London Green Spaces, £9.95, Hoxton Mini Press

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