This “people’s park” is popular among locals for its expansive grassy areas, sporting facilities, playgrounds, boating lake and London Zoo, and connects with Primrose Hill, where rambles lead to panoramic views over the capital. Visitors, though, will probably want to focus on the expansive park’s striking tree-lined avenues and formal gardens, especially the flamboyant display of summer roses in Queen Mary’s Gardens and the Victorian-style flowerbeds, tiered fountains and statuary of the Avenue Gardens. Don’t overlook surrounding Georgian-era architecture, especially notable along Park Crescent, which was designed by prominent Regency-era architect John Nash.
A hunting ground for Henry VIII, then opened to the public in 1637, this park has a rich royal history, with the Diana Memorial Fountain one of its more recent additions. With leafy avenues, occasional flowerbeds and the meandering Serpentine lake, it makes for a great stroll; you can also hire rowboats, bicycles and horses. On Sunday mornings, Speakers’ Corner provides quirky entertainment. Keep going into adjacent Kensington Gardens and you get increasing formality, with Italian and Dutch gardens, flamboyant English borders, various ponds and the bemusing Albert Memorial. The Serpentine Gallery hosts contemporary art exhibitions.
ROYAL BOTANIC GARDENS
Located in south-west London, Kew Gardens has been a leading centre for botany and scientific research since 1759, and claims the world’s largest plant collection. Never has science looked so beautiful: the vast grounds have meandering walkways and notable historic buildings, including an iconic Chinese pavilion. At the gardens’ centre soars a Palm House of glass and wrought iron, lush with banana and mango trees. Elsewhere are hothouses full of blooms, glorious English flowerbeds, formal gardens and rolling lawns. Don’t miss the treetop walkway, which meanders 18 metres above woodland that flaunts spring colours.
ST JAMES’S PARK
This compact but ornate park, whose lakes are a-squawk with water birds, was designed to resemble a country estate’s gardens. More importantly for visitors, it provides lovely green-framed vistas of Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Whitehall and Horse Guards, from which red-coated guards ride out on exercise. The Mall creates the park’s northern boundary. The park’s cafe is just the place to settle in for breakfast as early morning mist rises over the duck ponds, and swans and geese start to stretch. The Memorial Gardens in front of Buckingham Palace are a riot of summer flowers.
Get some idea of what London was like before urban expansion by taking the underground train to the city’s north-east outskirts, where Epping Forest – the largest open space in the capital – retains much of its natural landscape. Fallow deer wander through hornbeam, beech and oak forest, and managed longhorn cattle crop the fields. Regular events include family fun days, guided walks and summer open-air theatre performances. This was once a 16th-century hunting ground. A hunting lodge used by Queen Elizabeth I remains, and houses a small museum of Tudor food and fashions.
Most visitors rush from Old Royal Naval College to National Maritime Museum and uphill to the Royal Observatory while scarcely taking in Greenwich Park itself, another great asset of this World Heritage ensemble. It provides panoramic views of the Thames River, London’s longest herbaceous border (200 metres), orchards, deer park, rose gardens and a delightful herb garden delineated by clipped box hedges. The Flower Garden, shaded by tulip and cedar trees, is gorgeous in spring and summer. Pop into the Queen’s House for a look at early depictions of Australian wildlife commissioned by Joseph Banks.