You must be thinking that I have gone completely mad. Even by the furthest stretch of the imagination, London can hardly be described as a 'green city destination'. It is a heaving Moloch of a city with a serious traffic problem, which has only been marginally improved by the 'congestion charge', a special fee that requires all vehicle owners who want to take their cars into Central London to pay a hefty sum. But you would never guess that it had any impact at all, judging by the heavy traffic that continues to crawl through the city - unless you actually knew 'the bad old days'. But in a city such as London, which is constantly on the move, heaving, honking, fuming throughout the day, it is especially important to know where to go for some peace and quiet, (or something like that), to get some respite.
So, when thinking of London's city green spaces the first that come to mind are the obvious: Hyde Park and Regents Park, and maybe Green Park and St. James's Park, as all of these are pretty much in the center of town, not far from other tourist attractions, such as Buckingham Palace, Marble Arch, Picadilly Circus and London Zoo. And, well, as parks go, they are ok, though nothing really special. For slightly more interesting bits of nature one has to travel a little further afield.
My favourite green areas in London are Hampstead Heath and Kenwood Park, comprising of about 790 acres of open park area in north London, including a variety of habitats such as heath, woodland, meadows, bog and marsh, and last but not least, the famous ponds, some of which are accessible as public bathing spaces - the only such natural, guarded bathing spots in Britain, known as the 'men's pond and the lady's pond' which are fed by natural spring water. They get pretty busy in the summer. But Hampstead Heath is most famous for the open hillside known as Parliament Hill, which offers marvellous views across the city (providing the weather is clear), from what feels like a lofty height. The nice thing about Hampstead Heath is the fact that it is possible to walk around for ages on trails that vary from well maintained and quite busy major paths to secretive trails that almost let you forget that you are in a major metropolis. And even when you re-emerge from the woods, dipping back into city life does not come as a huge shock, as Hampstead is quite pleasant, village like district of London, full of nice restaurants and little shops.
A lot more remote and pastoral is Richmond Park - one of the old Royal Parks, located in southwest London. With 2500 acres it is the largest Royal Park in London and it is a bit of a hidden world, far from the noise and racket of the city. It even has a population of about 650 roaming deer which visitors may spot - especially when walking at dawn or dusk. Richmond Park is a little bit of pastoral British landscape, with its scenery of rolling hills, woodlands, gardens and meadows dotted with ancient trees that induces the sense of having been beamed straight into a Jane Austen novel. The Park is designated as a National Nature Reserve (NNR), a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).
Also a Royal Park, although of a much more modest size, Greenwich Park is among the most interesting historical 'green' sites in London, and is now listed as a World Heritage site. While it is not as 'wild' as some of the other parks mentioned here, its open hilltop offers a great view across the Thames, to the Docklands and the City of London, between Blackheath and the River Thames. Thanks to Charles II great interest in scientific matters, it became the site of the Royal Observatory, built by Christopher Wren, and the National Maritime museum. It is also the site that marks the official 'Greenwich Meridian', which has been instrumental to all navigation systems and geographical measurements of the earth.
Although as a park Greenwich is not wildly exciting, it does have some wildlife, such as a freely roaming herd of deer and a number of birds. It's the historical setting, the wonderful views and the charming village like setting that makes this little place special.
A much more 'natural' setting is offered by Epping Forest in the far northeast of London. Actually, though technically a part of London Epping is way out there and takes some time to reach by public transport. The suburban village of Epping does not offer any thing special on first sight but as soon as you enter he forest you realise that you have dipped into ancient history. This 6000 acre woodland is the largest public park in London. It protects one of the last chunks of ancient oak/beech woodland, which once spread over much of what is now covered with the concrete and bricks that make up the city of London. Epping Forest is an oasis of peace and serenity in the company of majestic ancient trees. The forest area also comprises of meadow, ponds and marshes. The forest is a site or Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation.
And finally - though not exactly a green escape, still a pleasant respite from the hectic city life, and a secret world that usually remains undiscovered by foreign tourists to the city, are London's numerous Canal Walks. Once upon a time, before the rail roads and later the automobile took over the transportation network not just of London, but the whole country, Britain pioneered the building of waterways - small canals that crisscrossed the country and even form a labyrinthine world all of its own, right in the middle of London. Except at public spots, such as Camden Lock, these canals remain strangely hidden behind walls - although it is perfectly possible to slip through one of the many doors that provide access, most of the time one barely realizes the canal is even there. It is possible to walk for hours through different parts of London along these 'towpaths', getting an insight into a hidden side of London - London from the backyard view. Depending on which section you walk, parts of it are really pretty, but even the parts that are not, are interesting.
For more information:
The British Ramblers association is an excellent source of information for all things concerned with hiking, walking and rambling anywhere in Britain, including London.
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