A Saudi colleague returned this week from a holiday in London.

I felt obliged, as a former resident for 30 years, to ask him whether he enjoyed it. Of course he did. He loved the museums, the theatres, the streetlife and the walking. He loved the cooler air of North West Europe. The tubes were crowded and the roads congested, prices were outrageous and olympic preparations in full swing, but he and his wife had a wonderful time.

But most of all he enthused over London’s marvellous parks and green spaces. So many lovely areas set aside for the pleasure and relaxation of its citizens. It couldn’t happen in many cities, he lamented – too many powerful interests grabbing land for its development value. How wonderful for Londoners and visitors to enjoy the beauty and tranquillity of those special places set aside for their daily use.

London’s Green Park

And his enthusiasm has inspired this post. He has a point. The British are a self-deprecating bunch, always ready to dismiss their merits and dwell on their (neighbours’) failings. London is a marvel which the locals are all too ready to discount, but its green spaces are truly a source of pride and celebration.

This month’s olympic city is one of the greenest capitals in the world, with a multitude of open spaces. At the last count, there were more than 3,000 parks and open spaces in the city. Even the oldest part of the metropolis, the “Square Mile” which traces its street plan back to Roman and Medieval times, has oases of green sewn into the fabric of the stone.

As London basks in the Olympic limelight over the next few weeks, here are three little tasters of my favourite escapes gleaned from the quieter moments during 30 years of hustle and bustle. Where else could you enjoy not just trees, but everything from Aerobics to Zoos and Deckchairs to Dinosaurs? And remember, for each one I’ve chosen a thousand more are waiting to be discovered…

1.  St Paul’s Churchyard

Take a break at the very heart of the old city to enjoy the office workers finding time for a sandwich and the tourists seeking new angles on some very well photographed architecture. Relish the red London buses passing just a few noisy metres away, somehow muffled by the pigeons and roses. Don’t miss the splendid Gingkos hidden away at the North East corner of this little haven  – dwarfed by the massive London planes.

gingkos at St Pauls

2. Greenwich Park

Away from the hubbub of the City, take your binoculars for a morning in Greenwich Park, avoiding the joggers and taking in the panoramic views across centuries of London’s history, from the Cutty Sark and Queen Anne’s house in the foreground, across the Thames to the pinnacles of Canary Wharf, and for vistas away to the Olympic stadium in the North East.

The view from Greenwich Park

Be sure to look out for its famous ancient sweet chestnuts, Castanea sativa

famous sweet chestnuts

3. Crystal Palace Park

Take a picnic and spend the whole day if you venture south to my personal favorite, Crystal Palace Park. It’s a bit of a trek from the centre, but definitely worth the effort.  Why not take the train and enjoy tantalising glimpses of Londoners’ back gardens?

Crystal Palace Park is one of London’s hidden treasures. To take a trip to this hill-side heaven is to journey back into London’s history – it is a Victorian gem. It deserves a post of its own. Travel back to 1853 when the Crystal Palace was dismantled and moved from its original location in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition.

Victorian splendour at Crystal Palace

Alas! You are 76 years too late to see the real thing – destroyed by fire in 1936.

Or let your imagination wander back to 1866, when the park hosted Britain’s first National Olympian Games thirty years before the true Olympics were reborn in Athens. Picnic by the lake, stroll in the avenue, wander in the maze, wonder at the museum, or just sit back and enjoy the trees. But be sure to find your way towards the lower (Southeast) end of the park to meet the dinosaurs!

Victorian whimsy

So if you are lucky enough to be a visitor to London during the Olympic celebrations, or if you are planning a trip at some point in the future, be sure to MAKE TIME to indulge yourself with a dose of green city therapy as a counterpoint to the Urban Rush. And for those of you – like me – who have spent many years in London but are somehow always just a little too busy to appreciate it: DO IT NOW!
… and finally, this is a great opportunity to express a heartfelt thanks to the many thousands of individuals who quietly play their part to keep the metropolis a green and pleasant land. Thank you!

praying for sunny days

Enjoy London, and I hope the sun shines on residents, athletes, and visitors alike in the coming weeks.