A Student’s Guide to the Parks and Gardens of London

Jun 9, 2019 11:07:00 AM / by Hannah Woodruff

One of the many benefits of studying abroad during the summer in London is getting to enjoy the many green spaces the city has to offer. Read more from Hannah on her 6 favorite parks and gardens in London!

When I first looked at a map of London, I was excited to see it speckled with so much green space. Being around nature gives me a calm feeling of rejuvenation, despite my pollen allergy. As I explored the parks and gardens in London, I found them not only good places for reading, picnicking, and appeasing my Fitbit step-counter, but also for learning about the history of the city. Whether you’re interested in ages past or looking to discover new parks and gardens for recreation (or both), here’s a quick tour of some of the best places I’ve found in my travels so far.

1. Hill Garden and Pergola in Hampstead Heath

Gardens And PergolaThe Hill Garden and Pergola in Hampstead Heath carries an Edwardian feeling.

Last Sunday morning, I ventured up north to Hampstead Heath, having heard that the Hill Garden and Pergola is a precious hidden gem in London. There are plenty of trails through the woods in the area, so I chose to venture down Whitestone Walk, hoping it would lead me in the general direction of the Pergola, and I was not disappointed. Nestled in a glade, the Hill Garden and Pergola is rustic, stately, and quietly inviting. Back in the early 1900s, Lord Leverhulme, a patron of the arts, hosted countless garden parties here. Today, you can still feel those Edwardian roots; although, to me it seemed almost like a set for a movie.

Me On PergolaHere I am under the Pergola.

As I strolled between the teeming flowerbeds, I kept looking up, half-expecting to see Juliet perched against the railing and Romeo professing his love beneath the fragrant, white curtains of wisteria. Although, that’s probably my inner Romantic poet talking. Incidentally, the Hill Garden and Pergola is a great place to bring a camera, sketchbook, or journal as it feels very conducive to the creative spirit. I even encountered a hip-hop dance group rehearsing in the open space of the Pergola.

Hampstead HeathA path through the woods of Hampstead Heath.

While you’re in Hampstead Heath, I also recommend exploring other paths, which are also excellent for bikers and runners. Here, as well as many of the other green spaces in London, you might find dogs roaming free of their leashes or groups of people eating lunch or playing games of football. At some point in the near future, I will be making the trek out to Parliament Hill, which I’ve heard is a striking vista of the London skyline.

2. St. James’s Park

St. James ParkSwire Fountain in St. James’s Park Lake.

If you’re ever in the mood for urban sightseeing as well as a shady, relaxing stroll beneath a canopy of trees, St. James’s Park is an ideal place to visit. St. James’s Park, which lies just beyond Buckingham Palace, is an important center for wildlife conservation, providing a habitat for approximately 600 species. The most notable of these animals are the waterfowl, which include ducks, geese, and even pelicans.

DuckSt. James is notable for its many waterfowl, like this bashful duck.

There is even a little Swiss chalet from the 19th century that used to be the bird-keeper’s home. In addition to spotting birds, you can catch glimpses of the London Eye and the Foreign Commonwealth Office.

Swiss ChaletIn the 1800s, the bird-keeper once lived in this Swiss Chalet.

Furthermore, given St. James’s Park is in a very central location, it’s just within walking distance of the Household Cavalry Museum, Churchill War Rooms, Whitehall, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and Parliament.

3. Christchurch Greyfriars Church Garden

Church GardenThe Christchurch Greyfriars Church Garden is a floral representation of the former Christopher Wren church.

Standing in juxtaposition to the modern buildings and bustling streets, the Christchurch Greyfriars Garden is a lovely pocket of nature thriving in the midst of ruins. The church, originally of the Franciscan order in the Middle Ages, was destroyed first in the Great Fire of 1666 and rebuilt by Christopher Wren, only to then by mostly obliterated by bombs during World War II. The church gardens we see today were designed to mirror the layout of the latter sanctuary, with flowerbeds marking pews and prism trellises representing the former pillars. A friend and I wandered through the garden, admiring the roses and enjoying a peaceful moment in this resolute shell of architectural beauty.

4. Postman’s Park

PostmanThe view as you enter Postman’s Park from Aldersgate Street.

Another site a little more off the beaten path is Postman’s Park, a churchyard burial ground and garden from the late 1800s. Past the weathered headstones and the mossy fountain ringed by ferns, there is a small open area with a walkway dividing vibrant flower beds and a powerful memorial against the wall. The 1900 project of Victorian artist George Frederick Watts, the G.F. Watts Memorial to Heroic Self Service honors the everyday men, women, and children who sacrificed their lives in trying to rescue others.

Watts MemorialThis is the Watts Memorial, honoring men, women, and children who died as heroes trying to save others.

The park is quieter and more reverent, as passersby read and reflect upon the heroic actions of the deceased. I found myself with a lump in my throat as I stood before the tile wall of names. It is well worth the visit in order to be reminded of the bravery and goodness humankind is capable of.

5. Kensington Gardens (Hyde Park)

Peter PanThe statue of Peter Pan can talk if you have your cell phone.

No doubt, you have probably heard of Kensington Gardens or its next door neighbor, Hyde Park. Kensington Gardens is a vast expanse of green space with a palace, a pond, and (as the name would suggest) flourishing gardens. Upon suggestion from a former CAPA London student, I set out in search for the Peter Pan statue, a gift from the author J.M. Barrie and crafted by Sir George Frampton, R.A. I found him down a curving path towards the northeastern corner of the gardens. This whimsical, dynamic bronze statue features young Peter playing his pipes while other characters, such as Tinkerbell, spiral around the base of the statue on which Peter stands elevated. If you have your phone with you, you can even hear him talk! He introduces himself and raves about his longstanding battle with Captain Hook.

Italian GardensThe Italian Gardens sound as beautiful as they look!

After hearing his voice (which sounded somewhat older than a typical child), I passed the Italian Gardens on my way out, featuring Victorian classical designs and figures as well as several fountains that sound as beautiful as they look. I paused by one of the great stone urns for a few moments to listen to the gushing fountain water as it spurted into the air and splashed against the surface of the pools.

6. Kew Royal Botanic Gardens

HiveThe Hive is linked to a real beehive, and it’s an effort to protect bees.

The Kew Royal Botanic Gardens seem to fuse art with nature, making these massive gardens full of surprises. At the time I visited, renowned artist Dave Chihuly’s glass pieces were interspersed throughout Kew. In the three hours before I had to leave for class, I meandered through the Princess of Wales Conservatory and the Temperate House as well as many of the surrounding gardens, galleries, and temples.

TemperateThis is the Temperate House, where a Dave Chihuly piece is currently hanging.

Among the highlights at Kew, I would recommend making a beeline for The Hive, a large, swirling model that is linked to a real honey bee hive. Multicolor LED lights gleam to indicate regions where there are vibrations from bees that are communicating. The Hive is meant to generate awareness and thinking about how to save the insects so vital to our planet and well-being. I also toured Kew Palace, which was home to King George III, Queen Charlotte, and their children. The Palace celebrates Queen Charlotte’s legacy in particular, and the ways in which she served British society and her family as a queen, wife, and mother.

PagodaThe Pagoda was inspired by Chinese architecture, and it is decorated with gilded dragons.

Additionally, the Great Pagoda is a monumental Chinese-inspired structure built in 1762, decorated with gilded dragons, a symbol of London, baring their teeth. For an extra £4.50, you can climb to the top of the Great Pagoda to look out over London. Speaking of prices, Kew Gardens is a bit further out, on the cusp of zones 3 and 4, so traveling here might incur another cost. Additionally, the entrance fee is £9.00 if you bring your student ID. If you enjoy being around nature and have the extra time and funds, Kew Gardens is worth every pence.

Kew PalaceKew Palace was the home of King George III, Queen Charlotte, and their children together.

London is such a rich and vibrant city, and it has many more wonderful parks and gardens to enjoy (such as SkyGarden and Kyoto Gardens, to name a couple). For now, I hope this short guide can help you find some fun and intriguing new spots in London. Until next time!

Thanks, Hannah!

Hannah Woodruff


Hannah Woodruff is an official CAPA blogger for summer 2019, sharing her story in weekly posts on CAPA World. With a double major in English Literature and English Writing  at University of Pittsburgh, she is studying abroad in London this semester.

Hannah's journey continues all semester so stay tuned.

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Topics: London, England, Local Culture