Way, way back in 1777, Samuel Johnson uttered his pithy and memorable quote that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. Yet the modern British capital can be overwhelming at times, especially during the height of the tourist season when you almost have to push and shove to make headway along busy thoroughfares such as Oxford Street or to negotiate the crush of Covent Garden.
A Sunday newspaper article suggests fleeing this bedlam to what it calls “London’s satellite towns” – thereby drawing an immensely long bow to target distant locales such as Bath, Stratford-on-Avon and Warwick. The article misses the obvious. London has a remedy much closer to hand: a walk in the woods.
All it takes to escape city overload is a pair of stout legs and the will to stride away. Whenever in London, I always find time to wander peacefully through one of the city’s many green spaces.
I’m never short of appealing options. They include Hampstead Heath, Highgate Wood, Queens Wood, Alexandra Park, Regent’s Park, Greenwich, Wimbledon Common, Kew Gardens, Richmond Park …. even good old Hyde Park right in the city centre.
I usually stay in the city’s north so two of my favourite walks are on the Heath or into Highgate Wood. The latter is like a preserved slice of England’s past, filled with shady glades, ancient oaks and hornbeams. Once among the trees it’s easy to imagine what it was like when this sort of forest covered much of southern England.
I hear marvellous trilling birdsong. I glimpse bushy tailed squirrels scurrying between the branches and across the ground and occasionally I’ve sighted the slinking shape of a shy fox. Whether walking, or sitting and reading on a convenient park bench, I find Highgate Wood never fails to imbue a sense of deep and timeless tranquility. While here I really do experience the poet William Blake’s “green and pleasant land”.
There are many access points to Hampstead Heath. One option that presents the best of this green treasure is to take a stroll from Gospel Oak tube station, cross over Parliament Hill Fields and head north following the paths beside the various Highgate ponds that eventually lead to Kenwood House.
Kenwood is a magnificent villa set on the Heath’s northernmost crest. Open to the public, it houses the Iveagh Bequest, an art collection that includes works by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Gainsborough. Open air summer concerts are held in the grounds.
The cafe is a good refuelling station perhaps before heading southwest back through the woods and across the Heath to eventually end up in Hampstead village.
Whatever the time of year, I believe a simple walk in the woods (or through any green space) provides the perfect antidote to urban stress. You might wish to try these other London possibilities: