12 Aug 5 Wild Sides of London, England: Green Spaces in Urban Places
What I liked most about Priscilla, one of the churchwardens of Notting Hill’s All Saints Church in London — even more than her enthusiastic welcome when I stepped inside the main gate — was her zeal for the church’s garden grounds. This came in equal measure to her pleasure in the church’s neo-Gothic interior, which in itself was a celebration of the outdoors: The stained-glass windows and polychrome paintings celebrated celestial and earthly beauty, presenting a bounty of nature on the church walls.
Priscilla’s value for nature’s beauty — in church interiors, gardens, or the natural world beyond — is reflected by the city around her. Twenty-five percent of London is made up of parks. In fact, when adding in gardens and other natural areas, green spaces represent a stunning 47% of the total urban terrain, making London one of the greenest cities in the world.
London’s mayor and city government have been proactive in nourishing the city’s green spaces. This effort includes the “For the Love of Trees” tree-planting program that gives trees to anyone who wishes to plant them (London now boasts more than 8 million trees). It also includes programs to encourage residents to incorporate air-cleansing, oxygen-producing, and climate-cooling plants on rooftops and walls. And another city-endorsed program, Pocket Parks, turns London’s fields, lots, and squares into verdant outdoor community spaces.
It is small wonder, then, that many of London’s residents are wild plants and animals who find safe and stable refuge in the green spaces. They include badgers, otters, foxes, voles, a myriad of water and songbirds, butterflies, fish, snakes, and amphibians.
With so many parks with vibrant wildlife, nearly any borough, park or garden you alight upon will bring wild surprises. But here are five top picks for exploring some of the breadth and depth of London at the city’s wildest.
Head southwest to explore the London Wetland Centre
Along the Thames River in southwest London, 40 hectares of lakes, ponds, and gardens, once used as reservoirs during Victorian times, now greet visitors as London’s Wetland Centre.
The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, which manages the Centre, writes on their website: “Where land meets water, there’s more wildlife than almost anywhere on the planet.” So not surprisingly, the Wetland Centre is a magnet for birds, both year-round and migrating, and other animals, such as otters, frogs, lizards, and voles. It’s also a rich terrain for many native plants and wildflowers, making it worth visiting year-round as much for the flowering inhabitants as for the mobile ones.
The paths are flat and amble through varied terrain. Marshes, meadows, and gardens intersperse with waterways, revealing discoveries around each bend — such as a black cormorant bringing up an eel for dinner on the marsh’s edge.
Enjoy the ancient oak forest and meadows in Richmond Park
At 1,011 hectares, Richmond Park is the largest of London’s eight Royal Parks. It is also the only one of the Royal Parks that retains its 17th century royal-hunting-grounds feel with the presence of herds of fallow and red deer, including regal bucks with their towering antlers. But coming to this park in the southwest suburbs of London will take you even further back in time to what the area’s forests, heath, and grasslands may have looked like in the Middle Ages. Some of the ancient oak forest survives from that era; the old forest magic you’ll feel is real.
The most common animals in Richmond Park are deer, foxes, rabbits, shrews, voles, and mice, as well as nine species of bats and 144 species of birds. Insects also feature prominently in the forest: 1350 species of beetles, 139 species of spiders, and 729 species of moths and butterflies call the place home.
Head south for a butterfly walk in Sydenham Hill Wood
At the south end of London, the Sydenham Hill Wood hosts a wide range of butterflies, and teems with other wildlife too. The urban woodland is home to some 200 species, including both native and ancient woodland plants, which thrive in the forested terrain, and small mammals, birds, insects, and rare mushrooms.
(Another popular walk with the London Wildlife Trust is their foraging walk to the Woodbury Wetlands on the north side of London. During the walk, guides teach participants how to identify wild foods and medicinal plants, as well as how and when to sustainably harvest them.)
Head north to Abney Park Cemetery nature reserve
In the mid-1800s, Abney Park’s twelve-and-a-half-hectare terrain in northern London was designated as both a tree-lover’s arboretum and a non-denominational cemetery for Londoners. Burials are rare these days, but in the 19th and 20th centuries more than 196,000 people were buried in Abney Park. Since 1993, the grounds have been allowed to return to nature. Now the territory, managed by the Abney Park Trust, is one of London’s most celebrated local nature reserves.
A relaxed ramble through the overgrown plant life — much of it sprinkled with specimen trees and partially concealed tombs (many askew) — will reveal a diverse spectrum of wildlife. There is a stunning array of moths and butterflies (including London’s largest population of speckled wood butterfly) and birds (such as tawny owls, firecrests, bullfinches and nuthatches). Wildflowers are also abundant and grow in the meadow grasses, attracting bees and butterflies.
The whole effect — specimen trees, wild overgrowth, and charming Victorian-era tombs, along with a now-defunct neo-Gothic church — gives the park a romantic and wild charm.
Head east and visit Rainham Marshes nature reserve
Set along the Thames, nearing the river’s estuary on the east side of London, Rainham Marshes nature reserve covers just under 500 hectares and is a rare medieval landscape in an urban setting.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) acquired the land in 2000 from the Department of Defense, after it had been used for many decades as a military firing range. The RSPB then restored the marshland to its more natural ecology after centuries of human impact.
Rainham is a bird-watchers’ paradise, hosting a variety of species — from raptors to songbirds to water birds such as plovers, cranes, spoonbills and waterfowl. It is also rife with wildflowers, butterflies, dragonflies, and many four-legged mammals, such as otters and water voles.
To launch into the wider wilds from London, consider these trips with Backroads to England and Scotland, Lindblad Expeditions to Scotland, England and Wales, and Natural Habitat Adventures to Scotland.
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