London is full of green spaces – it has more parks than almost any other city in the world. The most famous are Hyde Park and Regents Park, both in the heart of the city. Although they’re very large, the central Royal Parks can be very crowded and you rarely have the chance to feel as though you’re really in the wild. The charm of an oak tree is faded a little when ambulance sirens are constantly wailing through the streets behind you.
However, the beauty of London is that it only takes half an hour to get away from the crowds and the traffic to the oasis of Richmond Park. This 2,500 acre expanse is just a train ride away on the District Line, which runs through major Central London stations like South Kensington and Earl’s Court. Soon, the buildings disappear and you find yourself in a landscape that has changed very little for 1000 years.
If you happen to be staying in one of the many cheap hotels near Heathrow Airport, the journey is even shorter, since Richmond Park lies in west London. If you’re tired and jetlagged, this is the perfect place to recharge and unwind.
The park was created in the 17th century, and as a national nature reserve, it’s far wilder than the other Royal Parks. It was originally created by Charles I as a hunting ground, but now the red and fallow deer he once hunted graze freely in the meadows – not hidden in enclosures, but free to roam. Ancient oaks stand in the woods and rabbits peek from their burrows while woodpeckers fly overhead and rare beetles burrow underfoot. It’s the magical England of Beatrix Potter’s tales and Robin Hood’s legends.
There are plenty of flower gardens set in the wilderness, the most famous of them behind the Isabella Plantation. Each spring between April and May, azaleas and camellias bloom in their hundreds, attracting visitors from London and beyond. It’s protected by fences from marauding deer and run completely organically, which makes it a marvel in itself. A bubbling stream flows through it to complete the fairy-tale picture. Flower enthusiasts will also want to seek out the bluebell glade, which is specially managed to encourage a bright carpet of bluebells every spring.
The photogenic park has been featured in countless works of art and pop culture. The classic movie Billy Elliot featured the Royal Ballet School building, which still operates within the park, while parts of last year’s hit musical Into the Woods were filmed here. Much of the park is still wild and woodsy – perfect for a dark fantasy.
Such a big place can seem daunting to a first-time visitor. The recommended thing to do is to enter by the Richmond Gate, and then make your way to King Henry VIII’s Mound. Climb to the top of the hill, and you’ll see an uninterrupted view of St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s one of the best protected views in London – you won’t regret it.