The Royal Parks of London
The pandemic has allowed me to explore places closer to home. It's easy to forget that I live in a city that ranks the second most popular in the world for international visitors and so I've spent this spring and summer walking around and exploring new parts of the city.
From my travels around the world, I've realised that London is a relatively 'green' city and that's largely thanks to the eight Royal Parks of London, as well as some of the non-royal ones (a Royal Park is one originally owned by the monarchy and is now preserved as an open access public park). In this article I review each park in order of size, from smallest to largest - with a ranking of my favourites at the end.
The smallest of the Royal Parks is also the most central, near to both Piccadilly and Buckingham Palace. The park was first enclosed in the 1500s but wasn't landscaped for another 300 years. Today it's one of the few parks in central London without any lakes, building or other types of monuments, and only minimal flowers.
It's a lot of grass and a lot of trees and more than lives up to its name with a vivid and deep green hue wherever you are in the park. Although it might be the smallest park, it's just over the road from St. James's Park and forms a broader almost unbroken stretch of green across Central London that includes St. James's Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.
Overall, it's easily accessible, not very taxing to walk through and close to some of the big tourist attractions.
St. James's Park
Directly opposite Green Park, St. James's Park is a little larger, with a lot more to see and do. It's almost as old as Green Park, although it was landscaped more than two centuries earlier in 1603.
There's a few things I really like about this park, but perhaps my favourite is the fact you can see some pretty cool landmarks framed against the trees. Things like Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, and before it got refurbished, the Houses of Parliament - a photo I dug out from my 8mp camera days.
The park has its own lake (although admittedly quite small), but the lake has two islands with ducks and pelicans. It also has the beautiful and almost fairytale looking Duck Island Cottage, which serves as the HQ for the London Parks and Gardens Trust.
When I first moved to London it was to Greenwich, and to this day it remains my favourite place that I've stayed in the capital - and the park was a big reason.
It's the oldest of the Royal Parks, first enclosed in 1433 and home to the world famous Royal Observatory - which also serves as the home of Greenwich Mean Time, or the Prime Meridian, where longitude is defined at o degrees. This separates the eastern and western Hemispheres, and the observatory is well worth a visit on its own.
In addition to the Royal Observatory, there's also the Old Royal Naval College which is now the University of Greenwich, the Queen's House and the National Maritime Museum. There's no shortage of things to see around here!
The park itself is split into two levels, and its at the top level where the park comes into its own. Adjacent to the Royal Observatory is a small lookout point that provides incredible views of the lower level, the Old Royal Naval College, the Thames and Canary Wharf. The dichotomy of older architecture, nature and modern skyscrapers is amazing. The curve of the River Thames provides perspective.
You can also make out some of London's famous central landmarks like St. Paul's Cathedral, the London Eye, the skyscrapers of the City and the Shard.
This has always been one of my favourite parks because of the incredible views and the history behind the park. It's also part of the broader Greenwich World Heritage Site so even the official lists love this place. Basically, if you're in London - make sure you come here.
Many people mistake Kensington Gardens with Hyde Park, but the gardens form the western half of Hyde Park and were separated from Hyde Park in 1728. During the day you can't really tell where one begins and the other ends, but in the evening Kensington Garden's gates close much earlier than Hyde Park.
For me, Kensington Gardens is head and shoulders above Hyde Park because there's a lot more to see and do. Hyde Park has the Serpentine, but Kensington Gardens has the Long Water, the Round Pond and Italian Garden Fountains. It's landscaped much better than Hyde Park and there's plenty of places to walk, jog, play sports or just relax.
In terms of things to see, by far the most impressive monument of all the parks can be found here, the gigantic Albert Memorial which overlooks the Royal Albert Hall - at 54 metres tall you can see it from most places in the park. Head toward High Street Kensington to see it.
The largest of the stretch of parks that includes St. James's, Green Park and Kensington Gardens - Hyde Park is probably the most famous of the Royal Parks. Hyde Park came into being in 1536 as a hunting ground for King Henry VIII and over the coming centuries it was landscaped and developed further.
It's been home to some of the most important events in London, including; the 1814 Global Fair, the 1851 Great Exhibition, Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887 and the Live 8 Concert. It hosts the annual Winter Wonderland as well as summer music festivals.
In terms of structures, on one side there is the incredible Wellington Arch and the Grand Entrance, while on the other side is the world famous Marble Arch. Within the park itself there is the London Holocaust Memorial as well as the 7/7 memorial. There's also the Serpentine, a large body of water where people can jump onto boats and ride around the lake.
Then there's Speaker's Corner. Before the advent of social media, this was the one place where anyone could come and speak freely on any topic. This led to some pretty big riots over the years, and Hyde Park became the only Royal Park to come under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police - just because of the danger of trouble from Speaker's Corner.
Today the park is a mix of tourists, families and in the summer evenings, a load of teenagers.
This is the largest Royal Park in Central London and has bits of everything from the parks I've listed above. There's landscaped gardens, a lake with boats, herons, ducks and a whole bunch of other birds.
The park is split into an Outer and Inner Circle with the northern part of the park home to London Zoo (it means you can hear and see some of the animals from the park itself). It also has the Regent's Canal running through it and this is honestly one of the most visually beautiful parts of London.
The perimeter of the park has its own beauty with incredible terraced English Townhouses and villas. When you imagine upper-class London, chances are these are the buildings you will think of, so it's no surprise that they are home to prominent members of Arab Royal Families as well as the US Ambassador to the UK.
There's a lot to do in the park, but I think the thing that works against it is its size. It means everything is perhaps a little too far spread out and it's a decent bit of effort to make your way through different sections of the park. But if you get a chance, spend some time in the northern part of the park, near the canal and the zoo.
We're now getting into the seriously big Outer London parks, and the first of these is Bushy Park. To give you a sense of scale it's about 2.5x the size of the next biggest park, and you could fit over 20 Green Park's into a single Bushy Park.
The park is in West London and like most other parks on this list it started as a royal hunting ground. Today it's home to a number of rugby and cricket clubs and also hosted the first ever 'Parkrun' - an event that has spread around the country.
The Diana Fountain, built in the 17th century, dominates the entrance closest to the nearby Hampton Court Palace. Deeper into the park and you have ponds and even a canal. There's a lot of wildlife, including waterbirds like swans and even deer.
The thing that makes Bushy Park unique in this list is its vegetation. There are parts of the park that look like they belong on a different planet - particularly the acid grassland which are patchy bits of nutrient poor grass with rabbits zig-zagging across whatever small paths you can see.
Despite the poor connections from Central London, the park itself is pretty impressive but finds itself ranked quite low on my list of favourite parks for one reason only - it's overshadowed by its larger neighbour...
The biggest Royal Park is over twice the size of Bushy Park and nearly 7 times as big as Hyde Park - it's basically a nature reserve in London. It's the second largest walled park in the UK after Sutton Park in Birmingham, and its walls are one of many listed monuments in and around the park.
The park was formed in the early 17th century when Charles I bought the area to escape the plague that was overrunning Central London. The park has too much history to go through in a short passage here, and there's enough protected or listed monuments in the park to fill an article in itself.
Instead I'll focus on the things that really stood out to me. Getting over the sheer scale of the park, you really do feel a million miles from the city. Even on a busy weekend, there were frequently times when you felt isolated in the park. That's not to say there aren't reminders that you're in London.
There are certain parts of Richmond Park that provide a great view of the city skyscrapers on the horizon. Perhaps the best view, however, is King Henry's Mound, which has a protected view of St. Paul's Cathedral. It reminded me of the secret keyhole view at Santa Maria del Priorato in Rome. A look through the telescope and you can see St. Paul's beautifully framed by trees on either side.
The other thing that really stood out is the nature. Most of the park is considered a Site of Special Scientific Interest as well as a Special Area of Conservation. It started life as a deer park so it's perhaps not surprising to know there's a whole bunch of deer in this park. They mostly move about in small herds and frequently walk close to walking paths - they don't seem to be scared of humans at all. It's the presence of these deer that means there is a pretty strict rule of keeping all dogs on a leash so not to spook the deer.
There's about 30 ponds in the area, but the two Pen Ponds are the most visually striking, separated by a small raised pathway with water birds in the water and the banks of the pond.
Getting from one side of the park to the other is exhausting, and even after spending several hours in the park, I'd felt like I barely scratched the surface. I can't wait to go back.
Non-royal parks: Mudchute Park and Farm
Moving onto the non-Royal Parks and we start with an absolute hidden gem near Canary Wharf.
I visited the small Mudchute Park and Farm on an away day from work and absolute loved it. It's the largest urban farm in Europe but it's the smallest park on this list - Royal and non-Royal.
It has a whole bunch of animals - some expected like pigs, sheep and cows, and others definitely unexpected - like llamas. You can get up close with all the animals and it honestly feels weird when you look up and see the huge skyscrapers of Canary Wharf in the background. It's also a registered charity that looks after these animals but admission is free.
Non-royal parks: Holland Park
And now to a park in a seriously posh part of London. Located in the Holland Park area on the edge of Kensington is a park that packs a punch much bigger than its size.
Given its relatively small size, Holland Park has almost always been busy whenever I have visited, but there are plenty of places where you can find a little bit of space for yourself.
The park is split into different sections, and it's the Kyoto Garden that puts this park ahead of many others on this list. The garden is set out in a Japanese style with a small waterfall that you can walk across. It was one of the more unexpected things I've seen in a London park, topped probably only by the random peacock that was just walked across the Kyoto Garden.
Non-royal parks: Primrose Hill
This feels like a one-trick park - but the trick is possibly the best view of London. Located close to Camden, the park is in essence a 64 metre hill.
The climb to the top of the hill isn't too steep, long or taxing, but the view is spectacular. You can see almost the entire London skyline, from Canary Wharf, to the Shard, the City, all the way across to the London eye, the BT Tower and Westminster.
Given how close the hill is to the centre of London you aren't looking at small specks in the distance, it's a stunningly clear view of the London skyline, and I'd argue the best you will get for free outdoors.
Non-royal parks: Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
You don't really think about the QE Olympic Park when you think of the great parks of London, and it's very different to others on the list. It isn't very green, you won't find too many places to relax in peace, and there's some questionable modern art style decorations all over the park (like the ArcelorMittal Orbit, and weird light fittings). In fact, I'd use the term park very loosely here.
And then of course, there's a big stadium in the middle of it which makes a section of the park incredibly busy on game nights.
But there are areas of the park that are truly beautiful. The views of the canal heading toward Hackney Wick are stunning, particularly during sunset. And as weird as the ArcelorMittal Orbit is, there's not doubt that it's striking, and when lit up at night it does look pretty cool.
At the moment, it's also one of the few places in London where you can legally ride an electric scooter - although this is likely to broaden to the rest of the city soon.
(p.s. I took the photo above from an office building that isn't open to the public so don't go all the way to Stratford for that view).
Non-royal parks: Hamstead Heath
I guess this isn't really a park, it's a heath, but it's one of the more popular spots for Londoners and visitors to kick back and relax.
At 790 acres, it's much bigger than the famous Royal Parks in Central London, and it's because of its size that I've only ever explored a fraction of it. The other reason that I haven't seen more of heath is the distance - this is as far north as Richmond Park is west and transport connections aren't fantastic.
The heath has a much rougher feel than the well kept and beautifully landscaped Royal Parks of Central London, and is more akin to the wilder larger Royal Parks out west. There's a whole bunch of ponds - as most of these parks have - and like Regent's Park and Hyde Park, these include boating ponds. There's also separate ponds for wildlife, and a reservoir that includes areas for swimming.
My favourite part of the heath is the view. It has a similar orientation to Primrose Hill, but its location further north means the skyscrapers feel that little bit more distant - although with a highest point more than twice as high as Primrose Hill, the views are still impressive.
London parks ranked
Even the park I've ranked lowest on this list is worth a visit - I don't think there's anything on here below at 7/10. Basically - you can't go wrong with any of these, but if you want to start somewhere, the top of this list is where my favourite parks begin.
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British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.