Mount Street Gardens, London

    The best small parks to explore in London

    12 June 2020

    Now it’s safe and legal to meet friends outside again, Londoners will be looking forward to a summer of picnics and gentrified park drinking.

    While the likes of Regent’s Park and Hyde Park have been filling up for weeks, here are eight of London’s best – and lesser known – small parks.

    Postman’s Park, EC1

    Postman’s Park EC1

    This charming and secluded park – just a stone’s throw away from St Paul’s Cathedral and its accompanying gardens – is home to one of London’s most curious Victorian exhibits. The Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice – the work of a painter and anti-poverty campaigner – commemorates the names of poor Londoners who inadvertently gave their lives in order to save others, with each tile telling its own tragic story (including a child who jumped beneath a wagon to save his infant sister).

    The beautifully-cultivated gardens also played a pivotal role in the 2004 film Closer, where Natalie Portman’s character uses a name from the memorial for her false identity.

    Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2

    A popular lunch spot in normal times, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, sitting just behind the Royal Courts of Justice, is central London’s largest public square. Before opening to the general public in 1895, the fields were used for everything from grazing cattle and theatre performances, right the way through to public executions.

    Open every day until dusk, the gardens are a mixture of open lawns, cultivated areas, and even tennis courts. As with most historic spots, the gardens are home to various curiosities, including Canada Walk (commemorating Canadians who died in the Second World War) and a memorial to Margaret MacDonald, the late wife of former Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald.

    Victoria Embankment Gardens, WC2

    Victoria Embankment Gardens

    Originally known as the Adelphi Gardens (the historic name for the area south of The Strand), the Victoria Embankment Gardens – which are largely deserted at weekends – are the perfect spot for a boozy Saturday picnic. Running all the way from Blackfriars to Westminster, the gardens are full of pomp and splendour, with statues of various luminaries (including John Stuart Mill and Isambard Kingdom Brunel), military memorials and a rather striking equatorial sundial. As for horticulture, the gardens have consistently won Park of the Year in the London in Bloom competition for the past ten years. Oh and unlike most other London parks, they’ve even opened up the nearby toilets (just next to Embankment station).

    Coram’s Fields, WC1

    Another example of audacious Victorian philanthropy, Coram’s Fields is a superb seven-acre park established in the 18th century as a play space for impoverished children. Three-hundred years later they’re still dedicated to that purpose, with the fields open only to children or adults who happen to be looking after them (though I did manage to have a snoop around during the height of lockdown). Most charmingly of all, the park also contains one of London’s many city farms, giving young visitors the chance to get up close and personal with wildlife. During the summer, the goats often wander freely around the park.

    Mount Street Gardens, W1

    Mount Street Gardens, W1

    Perhaps more suitable as an excursion from nearby Hyde Park rather than a picnic destination in its own right (being both a tad poky and a historic burial ground), Mount Street Gardens is one of the most charming – and hidden – green spaces in Mayfair. Nestling behind the Farm Street Church, the gardens have long provided a much-needed escape from the glare of the sun for those in the know. You’ll notice that many of the benches have been sponsored by the families of former American diplomats. Attaches and spooks used to head here to escape from the desk job, until the American embassy moved to its current Battersea home.

    Kennington Park, SE11

    Opened on the site of the former Kennington Common (the home of everything from Chartist rallies to the first professional cricket matches to be in London), Kennington Park enjoys somewhat of a radical reputation, often serving as the gathering point for protest marches (both historic and modern) before they descend on Westminster.

    Chartist meeting on Kennington Common, 1848

    Protests aside, it’s also known as one of the most pleasant green spaces on the south side of central London, beloved by dog-walkers, picnickers and amateur sports teams alike. Being so close to the Oval cricket ground, it’s also surrounded by plenty of good pubs, most of which should be doing takeaway before long.

    St James’s Square

    St James’s Square, London

    Surrounded by an illustrious set of neighbours – from private members clubs, The London Library and various high-end antiques dealers, this gem in the heart of St James’s only ever fills up during lunch hour and is relatively peaceful the rest of the time. Keep an eye on opening times – it is locked each day at 5pm.

    Mandela Way, SE1

    How a Soviet tank ended up in a former London garden is one of the city’s stranger legends. Rumour has it that the previous owner of the land had been denied permission to build flats to instead asked the council if he could use it to host a storage tank. That ‘tank’ turned out to be a decommissioned T-34 rumoured to have been used in the Soviet’s suppression of the Prague Spring. In a fitting gesture of defiance to the Soviets, the tank has been painted all manner of unlikely colours over the years (most recently a dashing NHS blue). With Britain now emerging from its rather Soviet-esque lockdown, what better place to celebrate our return to freedom?

    Charterhouse Square, EC1

    Formed of reprised Tudor and Stuart architecture, Charterhouse Square is one of the grander green spaces in central London. The site of a former Carthusian monastery, the historic Almshouse was then used to house local retirees in need of housing – a function it still fulfils to this day. Poirot fans (I’m sure there are plenty out there) might recognise the rather distinctive art deco flats which tower over the square as the home of the television detective. Given much of the grass is fenced off, Charterhouse Square isn’t always the most spacious spot for gatherings at the best of times. For an overspill area, head to nearby Smithfield Circle.