Hidden gardens and green spaces in London
About This Event
Ah, London. The sprawling urban patchwork of towering buildings, honking buses, and everyday hustle and bustle we all know and love. But it’s a truth universally acknowledged that, every so often, we need to slow down and go outside.
The good news? You don’t need a weekend away in the Cotswolds to swap your crowded commute for quiet green spaces and sedentary flora.
From nature reserves to community plots, we’ve uncovered some of the city’s best-kept secret gardens, and, unlike the major green spaces and royal park heavyweights, you’ll find our picks tucked in the shadow of an office building or growing quietly behind a bustling street. No deckchairs, no Boris bikes, and hardly any pigeons at all. These little green squares offer a bit of flowery respite whether you’re looking to escape with a book, go for a wander or find a hideaway for your lunch hour. Isn’t that a breath of fresh air?
Tucked behind Charing Cross Road, this is a super spot for a leafy lunchtime break. Look out for frogs and sparrows, which are thriving thanks to an enthusiastic conservation initiative. The garden closed last autumn for redevelopment work (which has been delayed) but has reopened in time to take advantage of our long-awaited spell of improved weather.
INSIDER TIP: Pop into the nearby churchyard of St Giles in the Fields for weekly food stalls and delicious coffee from Rosie & Joes' Coffee Stall.
Japanese Roof Garden
You’re sitting at your desk, fuming. Graham in accounts hasn’t processed your expenses claim, again. Oh, Graham! Time to head to the Japanese Roof Garden at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Built in 2001, this serene space is dedicated to forgiveness. A period of repose among the artfully placed rocks, pebbles and combed sand will set you right - and you will forgive Graham.
INSIDER TIP: Look out for the Kanji character engraved on the garden’s granite water basin for the garden's dedication to forgiveness
A short walk from St Paul's Cathedral lies one of London's most touching monuments: George Frederic Watts's 'Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice'. Within the quiet Postman's Park, nestled beneath a tiled roof, are just over 50 ceramic plaques, each commemorating an ordinary person who lost their life trying to save others. Many of the descriptions are truly heartbreaking, and you can easily spend an entire lunchbreak contemplating their selflessness.
Red Cross Garden
Originally intended to give Southwark children from nearby tenements a space to play, this Victorian garden has been restored to its original design, complete with pond, cottage, bandstand and formal borders. It’s an important fixture in the capital’s social reform history. While relaxing in the restored bandstand, gazing up at the glass prism of the Shard it’s hard to imagine the view back in 1887 when it was surrounded by workhouses, factories and slum dwellings.
INSIDER TIP: Red Cross Garden founder Octavia Hill went on to co-found the National Trust.
The Islamic Gardens at the Aga Khan Centre
Designed to reflect diverse Muslim cultures, these contemporary gardens lean more towards the minimal than the wild. The result? A peaceful collection of landscaped rooftops and courtyards crafted with pleasing symmetry, hard surfaces and geometric shapes. The burbling waterfalls and narrow waterways of the Garden of Life echo the Mughal Empire, while the patterned screens in the Garden of Light are inscribed with Persian poetry and extracts from the Quran.
INSIDER TIP: You can’t drop by the gardens on a whim, so swap the spontaneity for a little forward planning this time and book yourself onto a free 45-min tour.
Abney Park Cemetery
Creep through the overgrown woods of Abney Park Cemetery, past the crumbling gravestones, and you will eventually emerge into a large central clearing dominated by the menacing shell of a derelict chapel. The impressive gothic-revival building dates from 1840, but was gutted by fire in the 1970s and closed. This of course just adds to its eerie allure, and you half-expect to hear sinister organ chords and a clap of thunder as you step out of the trees and into its shadow.
INSIDER TIP: Among the cemetery's more notable residents are William and Catherine Booth, the founders of the Salvation Army, whose grave is near the Church Street entrance.
Barnsbury Wood Nature Reserve
At 0.35 hectares this is London’s smallest nature reserve. Snuck between houses in affluent Barnsbury it was originally a vicarage garden. After being abandoned in the 1840s a woodland naturally grew and the Barnsbury Wood is now home to the sixteen spot ladybird. Please note: dogs are not allowed.
INSIDER TIP: Barnsbury Wood was once the garden of George Thornhill, who built the surrounding houses in the 1840s.
Camley Street Natural Park
Camley Street Nature Park is currently closed to the public and will reopen spring 2019.
With all those wide-open public spaces and all that statement architecture, King’s Cross has really transformed of late. That’s brilliant, but sometimes the heady buzz of progress can start to grate. Find a bit of peace and quiet close to the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras in this two-acre garden on the banks of the Regent’s Canal. London Wildlife Trust volunteers help maintain the pond, meadow and woodland, making it a haven away from all the hectic commuters.
INSIDER TIP: Pond-dipping and nature-watching sessions are held for children and its wood-cabin visitor centre is used by the Wildlife Watch Club.
A butterfly house at Clissold Park
Next to the deer and goats that graze in Stoke Newington's small 'zoo' is a sanctuary for our most beautiful insect family. Native and tropical butterflies flit between flowers and plants in the warm glass dome, which is open for periodic free tours from May to September – just watch where you're treading!
INSIDER TIP: Wander through the park at night on one of its regularly scheduled tours to spot local owls and bats.
Culpeper Community Garden
Tucked behind the Angel and Chapel Market is this friendly community garden. Residents, local groups, market traders all find refuge amongst the 50 winding plots, with two for disabled gardeners. It may be quite small but it’s still possible to find a quiet spot to enjoy a sandwich or soak up the sunshine. When some flowers went missing the garden’s response was to put up a cartoon artist’s impression of the thief drawn by one of the volunteers. It’s that kind of a place.
INSIDER TIP: Peaceful classes are held in the garden during the warmer months, such as an introduction to edible flowers and screen printing.