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The Lungs of London

Like many World Cities, London has redefined the idea of a park. Between 1831 and 1925, London was the biggest city in the world. People attracted by opportunity discovered a city ill-equipped to take care of this rise in population. Along with improvements in transportation, housing and sanitation came the realisation that something needed to be done to decompress the city, if people were to thrive. As the city grew, and swallowed more of the surrounding countryside, there came calls for open areas of parkland to remain.

Like many World Cities, London has redefined the idea of a park. Between 1831 and 1925, London was the biggest city in the world. People attracted by opportunity discovered a city ill-equipped to take care of this rise in population. Along with improvements in transportation, housing and sanitation came the realisation that something needed to be done to decompress the city, if people were to thrive. As the city grew, and swallowed more of the surrounding countryside, there came calls for open areas of parkland to remain. Two hundred years later London’s parks remain an essential part of the city’s life. What began as private hunting grounds soon became parks, defined as an area of land, (usually in a natural state), for the enjoyment of the public; having facilities for rest and recreation, often owned, set apart, and managed by the nation, monarchy or city. Exhibitions, pop concerts, demonstrations and sunbathing all had their place as new, unusual, interpretations of ‘taking the air’.

Hyde Park
Hyde Park

To explore this aspect of London for yourselves, begin with one of the Royal parks (Royal meaning it was once used by, and remains, a possession of the Crown). Hyde Park lies north of the shopping and cultural centre of Knightsbridge with its many bars, restaurants and shops. It houses the Serpentine Gallery; home to annual contemporary art, architecture and design exhibitions. In addition, since 2000, architects and designers have been commissioned to create unique, temporary annual pavilions nearby. This year it will feature the work of Bjarke Ingels’ firm BIG, an interlocking translucent wall. The popular Serpentine Bar and Kitchen, built in 1965, provides spectacular views of the lake from under a gently sweeping curved roof.

Serpentine Bar
Serpentine Bar

Regents Park to the north of the famous Oxford Street stores brings the added attractions of an outdoor theatre and the equally famous London Zoo. Here, several unique enclosures have offered designers the opportunity to create iconic buildings like the whimsical penguin pool by Bernthold Lubetkin and Ove Arup. Sadly the penguins never came to appreciate this innovative celebration in concrete, but it remains an architectural tour-de-force.
Another Royal park, Greenwich, is a 30-minute train ride, or 42-minute river taxi ride downriver from Embankment Pier. The town of Greenwich, along the Thames, wears its maritime history well. It has a weekend market and various historic ships as well as the wonderful Maritime Museum. Within the park itself is the Royal Observatory; think clocks, maps and the heavens. Within both museum and park there are several restaurants and cafes.

Greenwich
Greenwich

The City Parks
Later parks in London make more of an effort to accommodate the ever-changing needs of the local population. Outside pools or lidos jostle with skateboard centres, athletic grounds, formal gardens, ponds, nature reserves and at least one popular café per park. 19th century developments like Victoria and Finsbury Parks continue this tradition of providing places where Londoners can find fresh air.

Finsbury Parks
Finsbury Parks

Pocket Parks
Wasteground, bomb sites, even disused railway lines and private squares have been inhabited by gardeners, local activists and café owners in an effort to bring a bit of the natural world into the city. Grand but previously inaccessible squares have opened for locals and visitors alike with sculpture, tea rooms and cafés. Examples include the Café in the Gardens in Russell Square and the Gandhi sculpture in Tavistock Square.

Gandhi sculpture in Tavistock Square
Gandhi sculpture in Tavistock Square

Pop-Up Parks
Street markets allow visitors and natives alike to enjoy a part of the city by shopping and eating amongst open air stalls. Every weekend, the areas around Borough and Spitalfields markets are transformed by pop-up food and merchandise stallholders into spaces remarkably like the traditional parks, while the South Bank of the river sees various festivals and celebrations with similar attractions. Get your day right and the visitor can experience what it is like to live in this remarkable city.

Borough Market
Borough Market

Linear Parks
Most visitors don’t realise that what once were roads and natural boundaries that defined the growth of the city also gave us our commons, heaths and parkland. What once was the main road linking London with Dover and the continent beyond still passes Greenwich, and the common land of Blackheath, linking the ancient riverside town of Deptford and the city beyond. Since the reign of Charles the Second there has been some sort of marker at this point. The unassuming Blackheath Tea Hut serves as both a welcome gateway to London and an example of how parkland will forever be treated as something different, something welcoming in a very English sort of way. Not all our icons are grand.

Blackheath Tea Hut
Blackheath Tea Hut