I’ll never forget it. We arrived in London in July after a killer 17-hour flight from South Africa. I was feeling grubby, tired and nervous about making the big move from outdoor-centric Cape Town to built-up London. Family welcomed us to their home in the north-east, where we unpacked and caught up on some sleep. As soon as we were ready to explore, my fiancé Adam and I headed out for a run.
“Run towards the canals,” advised our hosts.
Within 10 minutes, we arrived at the charming River Lea. Like a scene out of the Dutch countryside, the River Lea meanders lazily through the entire north-eastern part of London, past weeping willows, vast marshes and trendy cafés. I was enthralled by the collection of houseboats moored along its banks. Decked out in quirky colours, with roof gardens and bicycle racks, these river boats are something to behold. We ran along a leafy path beside the canal for miles without seeing any signs of big city life.
This was my introduction to London’s great outdoors.
I soon discovered that beyond the museums, restaurants and urban tourist attractions, there’s a parallel world of outdoor splendour. Here are a few of my favourite discoveries.
Allow me to expand on this topic. Dozens of miles of ancient canals and waterways stretch across London and make for idyllic days out. Not only are these canals flanked by accessible walkways, they’re also frequented by creative souls who delight strollers-by with music and pop-up cafés. While the River Lea covers the north-east of the city, Regent’s Canal stretches all the way from the east to the west, just north of the River Thames.
For a delightful day of exploration, cycle from Victoria Park, with its Japanese garden, all the way along Regent’s Canal to Regent’s Park. The 15km route takes you through the heart of vibrant Camden and past stately Victorian homes. Taking over the baton, Grand Union Canal snakes from Regent’s Park through the north-west of the city, all the way to Birmingham.
With so many waterways weaving through north London, you can cycle, walk or canoe for days on end without having to venture onto a city street. Canoeing is another popular way of exploring the canals, especially in summer. Secret Adventures, a London-based adventure company, offers a collection of very affordable outdoor excursions in and around the city. Their most popular jaunt is a two-and-a-half-hour canoe trip along the River Lea. Starting at Limehouse and ending 6km later at a trendy brewery in Hackney, this trip’s a great way to discover the wilder side of London. The good news is that you don’t need to be an expert canoeist; it’s a perfect adventure for beginners. Another canoe trip offered by Secret Adventures takes you along the River Thames past London Bridge, the London Eye, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.
I’d always imagined London’s parks to be manicured and painstakingly ordered. Don’t get me wrong, there are many of these. Regent’s Park, for instance, comes with measured beds of tulips and dedicated blossom tree gardens, but there are also numerous wild pockets and woodlands in the heart of the city.
My personal favourite is Hampstead Heath. This 320ha green lung in the north is a favourite among runners, walkers and even swimmers. In addition to three public ponds – one ladies’, one men’s and one mixed – Hampstead Heath also has walking trails through ancient woodlands and plenty of fields for picnicking. Situated on one of the highest points in the city, “The Heath” offers spectacular views of London’s most iconic buildings and is accessible after dark, which makes night-time trail-running a thrilling adventure.
Moving towards the centre of the city, you’ll find the iconic Hyde Park. It is to London what Central Park is to New York and comes with miles of walking and cycling trails, a lake with rowing boats, a sports centre and an art gallery. Hyde Park conveniently connects to Kensington Gardens, where curious onlookers can sometimes spot the royals, as well as to Green Park, which overlooks Buckingham Palace. Despite being one of the city’s busiest parks, Hyde Park offers a lovely refuge from the crowds, thanks to its vast size (143ha).
In summer, Hyde Park hosts the British Summer Time series of music concerts, while in winter, there’s the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland, with its Christmas markets, joyrides and an ice rink that takes centre stage.
While north London has the canals, south London claims some of the city’s largest parks. For starters, there’s interconnected Wimbledon Common, Putney Heath and Putney Lower, comprising of 460ha. Known as the largest expanse of heathland in London, this nature haven is ideal for an afternoon wander or even a half-marathon run. Next door are Bushy Park and magnificent Richmond Park, with its primeval woodlands, heathlands and hiking, cycling and horse-riding trails. A highlight for visitors to Richmond Park is the 630 resident red and fallow deer. As autumn and breeding season approach, the hefty stags can be spotted competing for females by roaring, barking and clashing their antlers.
In spring, the Isabella Plantation – a woodland garden situated in Richmond Park – is well worth a visit. Between April and May every year, the plantation’s collection of waterside azaleas bursts into a symphony of majestic pinks, purples and reds. Also worth a visit is Kew Gardens. London’s most famous botanical gardens, it boasts glasshouses, historic buildings, and diverse fauna and flora. Like the Boomslang at Kirstenbosch Gardens in Cape Town, Kew Gardens’ 200m-long treetop walkway allows visitors to come face-to-face with the crowns of lime, sweet chestnut and oak trees.
On the opposite side of the city, the Walthamstow Wetlands Reserve is a new and very exciting addition to London’s outdoor scene. Situated 15 minutes from the city centre by tube, this 211ha inner-city wilderness is the largest urban wetland reserve in Europe, with 10 reservoirs, an angling academy, a beautifully converted Victorian Visitors’ Centre, a 2km cycling route and over 20km of walking trails. It’s an internationally recognised refuge for water birds, such as pochards, shovelers and gadwalls. It’s also home to the largest heronry in London and is an important stopover for migrating birds flying north and south each year.
Cycling culture in and around London has boomed to such an extent over the past few years that it’s starting to feel a bit like Amsterdam. This may have something to do with Londoners avoiding the terrorist risks associated with the Underground or simply because there are plenty of fabulous routes to choose from.
The National Cycle Network of Britain stretches 22 530km across the country, with many green routes found in the city. Like a slice of the countryside, all the urban routes provide dedicated cycling lanes through lovely leafy areas. One of the best tools for city cyclists is the CityMapper app, which allows you to opt for a quiet route to your chosen destination. This means you’ll be able to cycle off the main roads (for the most part), along quiet suburban streets.
Lastly, fret not if you don’t have a bike on hand. With countless Santander bike docking stations dotted around the city, it’s remarkably easy to rent a bike (at £2 per day). Besides the uninterrupted canal-side and green routes in London, the Thames River Path is another fabulous choice for riverside cycling. In fact, the path snakes all the way from the Cotswolds, through London, ending 294km later at Southend-on-Sea. If you really want to stretch yourself, cycle (or walk) the entire trail over a couple of days.