As you navigate London’s sprawling labyrinth of streets, juxtaposed by centuries-old buildings and modern monoliths glistening in the sun, it’s amazing to think that so much of it the capital is covered in verdant pockets of green. A bird’s-eye view reveals a city carpeted by a variety of natural habitats, with parks—all 3,000 of them—forming great swathes of the cityscape.
In July 2019, London became the world’s first National Park City, an idea conceived by ‘guerrilla geographer’ Daniel Raven-Ellison and supported by Sadiq Khan, London’s Mayor, that champions the benefits of the capital’s great outdoors. But while the warmer months provide the perfect opportunity to take in one of London’s Royal Parks, why not escape the crowds and explore these four lesser-known gems?
You’ll be treading on hallowed ground as you navigate your way around Archbishop’s Park. This great expanse of green was originally part of the grounds of Lambeth Palace, the London home of the Archbishops of Canterbury. Archbishop Tait opened part of the Palace grounds for the benefit of the local children to play in. Later, in 1901, Lambeth Palace Field officially became a park that all residents could access.
Today, the park’s facilities include a children’s play area, sports pitches and tennis courts. The 225-metre Zip Line London hurtles you high above the park’s grounds at speeds up to 50kph, and claims to be the world’s fastest urban zip line and one for those who love an adrenaline rush.
A stroll along the Millennium Pathway offers a more sedate experience. Its red paved paths celebrate the people, place and events that, during the Millennium in 2000, made Lambeth special over the past 1,000 years. Look out for plaque commemorating the Lambeth Walk becoming a dance craze in 1936.
Inner Temple Garden
Occupying the eastern half a site chosen by the Knights Templar as their 12th-century London headquarters, the Inner Temple serves as one of the capital’s four Inns of Court, whose responsibility it is to ‘call’ barristers to the Bar. Such learned folks would avail themselves of a suitably tranquil space to escape to, and the Inner Temple Garden is the very definition of a peaceful sanctuary.
This horticultural dreamland has undergone significant remodelling over the centuries, and the three-acre site now features lush lawns, herbaceous borders and a majestic avenue of plane trees lining its Broadwalk. Don’t miss the garden’s Long Border: featuring the red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York in a sea of perennial plants, it honours Shakespeare’s use of the garden as a setting for the quarrel between Richard Plantagenet and the Duke of Somerset, which sparks the Wars of the Roses in his play, Henry VI, Part 1. (Open weekdays, 12.30pm-3pm)
The Islamic Gardens at King’s Cross
As the new headquarters of the Aga Khan Foundation in the UK, the Aga Khan Centre opened in 2018 to encourage cultural dialogue surrounding Muslim cultures. Central to the building’s architecture is a series of gardens, terraces and courtyards that echo Islamic garden traditions from across the world, pulling inspiration from India, the Middle East, North Africa, Persia and Spain.
For the Garden of Reflection, evoking the tranquil courtyards of the Alhambra in Andalusia, landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic used water and stone to masterful effect. A raised pool in black marble reflects the surrounding architecture, and the water gently bubbles away.
Other highlights include the Garden of Tranquility—a covered ‘loggia’ with sunken fountain and decorative marble tiles—and the Garden of Life, a rooftop space designed by Madison Cox. Paved with Indian standstone, the garden references the Kashmiri waterfalls of the Mughal empire. The gardens can be viewed as part of a tour (Mon & Thur 3pm; advanced booking essential).
Straddling Bermondsey and Surrey Quays, south of the River Thames, Southwark Park opened in 1869, and its 60 acres contains sights that we’d wager elude many a Londoner. Who’d have thought, for instance, you’d find London’s first public memorial to a working-class man here? The park’s drinking foundation, erected in 1884, commemorates Jabez West, a member of the local Temperance movement.
Overlooking the boating lake, with rowing and pedal boats for hire, you’ll find another tribute to a local figure: the Ada Salter Rose Garden. A social reformer, Salter was elected as Bermondsey’s, and London’s, first female mayor and she devoted much of her life to the people of the borough. The rose garden was commissioned by her husband, Alfred, and is filled with plants, flowers and roses, filling the air with their heady scent in summer.