London in Bloom
London’s parks and gardens provide a green oasis in the urban bustle, and with Garuda Indonesia now offering direct flights to this inspiring capital city, springtime couldn’t be a better season to enjoy its history, fresh air and blooming colours.
Words by Brian Johnston
A visit to London provides a bewildering choice of palaces, museums and some of the world’s most iconic buildings. When you’ve had enough of pounding the concrete, however, the city’s green spaces offer a chance to slow down, breathe deep and relax.
Wander about, enjoy a picnic, let nature revitalise you. Green peace is never far away and, as spring unfurls in April, London’s gardens provide pretty panoramas and multihued ﬂowers, too.
Visitors pressed for time will want to conﬁne themselves to central London, where some of the world’s best parks form a chain of greenery through posh downtown neighbourhoods. St James’s Park is a petite pleasure centred on a lake, from whose bridge unfolds a great view towards Buckingham Palace. The lakes teem with waterfowl, most notably pelicans, ﬁrst donated by a 17th-century Russian ambassador. The park is designed in the romantic style of a country estate and is small, ornate and utterly charming,not to mention providing vistas towards Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. If you had to pick a place for the perfect springtime picnic, a bench here would be it.
Green Park is just diagonally across The Mall on the other side of Buckingham Palace. The triangular slice of greenery is busy with lounging lunchtime office workers and tourists alike. It appeals for its central location more than anything, though it has a kaleidoscope of ﬂowerbeds in April. Resist sitting on the deck chairs
(which go for a stiﬀ rent) and skip on towards Hyde Park, where you can hire bicycles, horses and rowboats. The park merges with Kensington Gardens, with its sunken Dutch-style gardens, fountain-splashed Italian gardens and various ponds.
Some of London’s top parks are overlooked because they aren’t in areas much frequented by tourists. Still, thanks to London’s Underground system, they’re easy to access. Holland Park, once the garden of a grand 17th-century house, is a gem for its romantic elegance. It has clipped lawns, a riot of ﬂowerbeds, a Japanese water garden and an area of woodland. Flamboyant peacocks strut and squawk, and you can sometimes spot foxes and hedgehogs: hard to believe the busy city lies just beyond its gates.
Battersea Park lies south of the River Thames in a patchwork of lawns, woodlands and lakes that are often busy with herons and cormorants. It’s a great place to let the kids run oﬀ their springtime energy, as it has a large adventure playground, soccer ﬁelds and a children’s zoo. On the opposite (eastern) side of the city centre, Greenwich Park – once a royal deer reserve (and there’s still a corner where you can hand-feed these regal creatures) – is sheltered by a 17th-century brick enclosing wall and can be combined with the famous Royal Greenwich Observatory, from which the world measures time and latitude. Also in east London – though on the opposite side of the river – is Victoria Park. Though seldom visited by tourists, this was London’s ﬁrst public park (1845)and has a variety of lakes and formal gardens, and is notable for summer music events.
Hampstead Heath, northwest of the city centre, isn’t on the tourist trail either,but seven million mostly local visitors a year certainly know about its vast green spaces, which range from open meadows to surprisingly dense woodland. It feels more like countryside than park, and is an absolutely marvellous place, from its hilltop lookout towards the skyscrapers of the city to its captivating Edwardian (early 20th century) gardens and recently restored, ornate Kenwood House, whose stunning art collection includes Turners, Gainsboroughs and a Rembrandt self-portrait. Kenwood House has gorgeous gardens whose meandering pathways burst in springtime with rhododendrons, foxgloves and bluebells.
Real garden aﬁcionados should head west along the Thames, out of central London, for some spring highlights. The sprawling Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew – usually referred to as Kew Gardens – are World Heritage listed and have been at the forefront of botanical research since their founding in 1840. You could spend a half-day here ﬂitting from one trail to another, past formal gardens, hothouses, ﬂowerbeds and numerous follies, of which the Chinese pagoda (though currently under renovation) is the most prominent.
Not all its highlights are outdoors, since the botanic gardens are famous for their glasshouses such as the Palm House, which hosts an impressive rainforest and is ﬂanked outside in springtime by a ﬁne display of narcissi and hyacinth. At this time of year, you should also head to the pink-splattered Rhododendron Walk and the Princess Walk, where daﬀodils dance and crocuses provide dainty purple blooms. Woodlands are sprinkled with bluebells and snowdrops. Eventually the spring display is overtaken by summer roses and waxen water lilies. This summer, the world’s longest double herbaceous borders are opening, featuring 30,000 plants along a 320-metre stretch designed to be at its most colourful between June and September.
Further out along the river, Hampton Court is a much-visited palace that stood at the centre of royal life from 1525 to 1737, and is particularly associated with the notorious Henry VIII. The gardens are almost as impressive as the architecture, however, boasting a venerable maze of clipped hedges, the world’s oldest vine (1768) and some rather pretty riverside gardens dating from various historical eras.
Press on to Windsor Castle, the 900-year-old home of English (and later British) monarchy, for another treat far beyond the standard tourist tour of the interior. A former royal hunting forest stretches south of the castle for several kilometres and makes for ﬁne walks. Its Saville Gardens are superb in spring, when they pop with camellias, rhododendrons and daﬀodils. Occasionally, visitors strolling through Windsor Great Park have bumped into the person who owns it, Queen Elizabeth herself, out for a tramp in overcoat and wellington boots. It’s a lovely reminder of how important parks and gardens are to everyone in London, and how all Londoners ﬁnd joy in their springtime blooming.
Jakarta to London
Flight Time 11 hours 55 minutes
Frequency 5 flights per week
From Colours April 2016
5 Senses – Scent
CHELSEA PHYSIC GARDEN
This pretty garden beside the River Thames in Chelsea was founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries so that its apprentices could familiarise themselves with medicinal plants. An unusual microclimate means species rare in Britain can flourish, including grapefruit and eucalyptus trees. Sniff your way around the herbs of the edible-plant garden, then take in the rich, spicy aromas of some of the plants that highlight Māori, Hindu and Chinese medical traditions.