London’s glorious parks provide a great contrast to the city’s urban charms. They’re an obvious draw during summer, but the winter months are a fabulous time to explore their wonders in relative solitude. They’re an invigorating escape as the year turns, perfect for long walks on crisp blue days with ice gilding the grass underfoot, the ancient trees a filigree of frost. Whatever the weather, there’s a palpable sense of peace in the parks, despite their central locations. The only sounds to be heard are ducks quacking and geese honking their strange talk.
Just round the corner from the Strand Palace Hotel is one of London’s finest, St James’s Park. From here it’s possible to walk from central to west London via one great park to another, the equivalent of a countryside walk without ever leaving the city.
An easy saunter from the Strand Palace Hotel, St James Park is as iconic as it is idiosyncratic, a place of pelicans and palaces. The former has been here since the 17th century, their ancestors a present from the Russian ambassador to King Charles II. The surrounding palaces are older and the outstanding view of Buckingham Palace from the Blue Bridge is as misty historic as it gets. St James’s Park was once a deer park established for the pleasure of the regal occupants of right-next-door St James’s Palace, and to this day, royal revelry and pageants remain an attraction, with the Horse Guards parading and Pall Mall running alongside right up to the flowerbeds of Buckingham Palace.
It’s possible to stroll from St James’s Park to Green Park and then to Hyde Park without stepping out of the shadow of the great and ancient trees that shelter the way. Like St James’s Park, this was once a deer park, dating right back to Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poetic days. Forty acres of uninterrupted greenery running between royal palaces and alongside the Ritz provides the most tranquil way to walk to Trafalgar Square and the National Portrait Gallery, or take a left towards Knightsbridge and into Hyde Park, one of the most stunning and most sprawling city parks in the world.
Like St James’s Park and Green Park, Hyde Park was once set aside for royal deer hunts – the mile-long, mile-wide expanse once belonged to the monks of Westminster Abbey, but was acquired by Henry VIII for more pleasurable pursuits. It remains a place for fun, with big-name concerts in the summer, a Christmas fair and quieter joys all year round. A walk around the lake is always special, with waterfowl and birdsong all the way. The shore is dotted with delights, including the famous statue of Peter Pan, a superb Henry Moore sculpture and the classical lines and fountains of the Italian garden. Away from the lake, there’s new art in the Serpentine Gallery and the old-school splendour of Kensington Palace, once Princess Diana’s London pied-a-terre, now home to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, while Prince Harry and Meghan Markle reside in Nottingham Cottage in its grounds. Standing between all the attractions are almost 200,000 trees, including ancient and mighty oaks and horse chestnuts, splendid silhouettes against the skyline.