A woodland escape

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.

Tranquil Highgate Wood

Tranquil Highgate Wood

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”.


Map of Hampstead Heath

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 House overlooking The Heath

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:

London’s Green Spaces

Hidden gardens; green spaces

Large Parks of London


Revealed! A (not so) secret garden

Hill Garden 1My late father-in-law who lived in London had occasionally mentioned a “secret garden” that he particularly liked to visit and which was not very far from his Hampstead home. So when he offered to show me his special spot I jumped at the chance.

As we marched into the thickets flanking West Heath Road I wondered if he knew that this particular neck of the woods was notorious as a gay sex haunt. But my learned, professorial father-in-law never did pay much attention to what was published in the tabloids.

_MG_0241Striding purposefully along muddy paths that wound between the trees we arrived beneath a high brick wall set with regularly-spaced arches.

This wall extended for some distance and was topped by grey columns and fanciful lattice work.

Beneath one of the arches steps led up to a new, higher vantage point amid the stone columns and from here I first set eyes on the slender pond at the heart of this beloved “secret garden”.

Of course none of it was actually secret. That was my father-in-law’s private joke. The Hill Garden and Pergola are simply a ‘hidden delight’ of Hampstead, one that’s well worth seeking out.

_MG_0228Beautiful, tranquil and secluded, the garden has lush lawns, splendid flower beds, the long but narrow pond and several secluded nooks with bench seats. This gentle oasis exists behind Inverforth House (once known as The Hill), a grand mansion dating from 1807 but which in the 1990s was converted into two houses and several luxury apartments.

The property is located on North End Way close to Jack Straw’s Castle, an iconic Hampstead pub that’s now also been refashioned into apartments (which sounds a lot more grand than simply saying “a bunch of flats”).

_MG_0278The Hill Garden, pergola and summer pavilion are open to the public and are a legacy of soap maker and philanthropist, William Hesketh Lever (1851-1925), 1st Viscount Leverhulme, who lived and died in The Hill House having purchased it in 1904.

Lever made extensive modifications and additions to the house, including a ballroom and art gallery. He also bought and demolished two neighbouring houses, then called in architect Thomas Mawson to design the grounds for his extended estate.


Mawson’s pergola

Earth from tunnels being excavated for the Northern Line was hauled by cart up to Hill House and used to raise the gardens and also infill the base of the colonnaded Pergola Walk that links the formal gardens beside the main house with the more private lower garden and pond. This grand project continued until Lever died in 1925, by which time the mansion had 60 rooms and the Hill Garden was well established.

Those benches in their various shady nooks are absolutely perfect for a sunny afternoon’s reading. Late spring into early summer is a fabulous time to visit as this is when the wisteria, rambling roses and jasmine adorning the Pergola and the elevated Walk are at their finest. Autumn offers other golden moments.

Whenever I’m in London, no matter what time of year, I always try to spend a few quiet hours here, both to relax and in memory of the marvellous man who shared his little secret. I invite you to do the same


The secret is out ! Where you’ll find it


London’s ‘octopus card’ for dining

PolpoGiven the bewildering choice in this greatest of English speaking cities I find it amusing that one of the best options for great food at a great price should be Italian in name and nature.

It’s the result of the most recent Norman conquest of Great Britain. Inspired by his passion for the Italian city and in particular for chiceti (Venetian-style tapas), Russell Norman created his first Venetian-style bacaro in Soho’s Beak Street. Called Polpo, it’s serendipitously housed in an old building that was once home to the famous Italian painter Canaletto.

The Polpo empire has since expanded its tentacles beyond Soho, exporting its bare brick and raw timber rustic cool to Covent Garden, Smithfield and Notting Hill, while its offspring Polpetto, originally squashed into a teensy location in Dean Street, has reopened as a larger location in nearby Berwick Street. Put together, these restaurants are my London “octopus card” to fine food at a fine price.

The Polpo menu suits those wanting to graze lightly as well as those who are ravenous. Best of all, with dishes ranging between £3 and £10, it’s easy to shape a meal to suit your wallet.

The chiceti include salami butter and broad bean crostini and the ever popular potato and parmesan crocchetta. Wafer-thin pizzetta have toppings such as spicy clam and wild garlic or cured pork shoulder and picked pepper. Polpo’s famous meatballs come in five varieties.

Seafood includes octopus (naturally) and a prawn and artichoke linguini. Wines are from top northern Italian producers. Polpetto’s more adventurous, seasonal menu currently features hare papardelle, veal cheeks and game faggots, yet it’s no more expensive an experience. And three of these restaurants have popular wine bars in their basements.

covent garden piazza# Polpo in Covent Garden is a top option for pre-show dining should you have tickets for a performance at the nearby Royal Opera House.


Salute to the London Tube

Shard 2Every time I return to the British capital I’m reminded just how colossal a city it is. From the top of The Shard (right) I can see dense urban development stretching every which way for miles and miles. This is a city so large that if it weren’t for what lay below –  the Tube – I doubt that I’d venture all that far.

But London’s oft-maligned main transport system is, in reality, a daily miracle. I’d go so far as to suggest it’s why London consistently ranks among the world’s top cities for tourists.

There’s hardly anywhere in this vast, sprawling metropolis that you can’t reach using London’s extensive network of underground subway, overground train, light rail and bus. And travel times are quite often remarkable.

When the Tube gets going it simply flies.  I literally shot downtown from East Finchley to Oxford Circus in about 30 minutes, including a change from the Northern Line to Central Line at the revamped Tottenham Court Road tube station. Admittedly, this journey was made after nine in the morning so I avoided the rush hour and also took advantage of a cheaper one-day ticket.

Given its age and tlondon_underground_logohe pressures upon the Tube, what’s even more remarkable is that the whole system doesn’t simply implode. And when things do go wrong, as they do quite often, there are regular announcements keeping travellers well informed. Most weekends there are closures on various lines as essential maintenance work or upgrades are done. That’s why the system still works as well as it does.

Often I prefer to ride London’s red double-decker buses, sitting at the front up top for the view. It’s a great way to see the city and there are bus routes that pass some of the city’s great landmarks. Using the Oyster Card a London bus ride is arguably the cheapest visitor attraction.

bus londonThe design of these red London icons keeps changing. A recent incarnation (right) saw the reintroduction of an open deck at the rear, which means passengers may hop off and on at will just as in the old days. Apparently this is far more effective in helping buses keep to a timetable. Driver-controlled doors slow everything, as anyone hearing the lament “back door, Driver!” will testify.

Travel costs keep rising and it can be confusing for a visitor to assess the cheapest way to get around. Read the advice on the London Toolkit website site to find out the best travel card for your purposes.

Anyone intending visitor should also take a look at City Dashboard. Not only does it give an instant update on how the trains are running but also lots of info of a more subtle nature such as air quality, plus mood and radiation levels, what’s trending on Twitter and even the current depth of the Thames. Ah London, you simply gotta love this city!


Your guide to almost anywhere!

London’s water village

One of my favourite areas of London is Little Venice, the meeting point of Regent’s Canal, Paddington Basin and the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal. It’s a lovely neighbourhood with the canal, its bridges, shady trees and patches of green surrounded by elegant town houses. There are several fine ale houses and a small theatre. Little Venice is a short walk from the Warwick Avenue tube station.


Photo: Laura Porter for About.com

During summer, the canal here hosts small flotillas of brightly painted narrow boats, many of them lovingly detailed with traditional picture landscapes, ornate calligraphy and flower-filled pots decorating the decks.

I find seasoned mariner Andrew Watts busy adding spit and polish to his 18m narrow boat The Anna. He’s sailed to London from Penkridge in the country’s far north, a trip that took a fortnight. “I’ll probably take much longer to get back,” he tells me while applying a new coat of paint to his boat’s coal stove flue.

Timeless tinkering is an essential part of life aboard a canal boat. Anther hallmark of owners is an unbridled enthusiasm for matters traditional. “Much of the ornate decoratif seen on narrow boats dates back to the 17th Century,” Watts says, then shows me the tiny boatswain’s compartment lovingly recreated in period style, each wooden panel painted with a wildly colourful scene in miniature.

A couple from Cumbria are moored in nearby Paddington Arm. On board they have a fitted kitchen, bunks, comfortable armchairs, a dining table, a bar and a TV. They’re able to moor their quaint little home for 14 days at no charge, making it the best and cheapest way for them to visit London. “And if we stayed in an expensive hotel we couldn’t bring the dog.” Their terrier’s tail thumps the deck in approval.

White-whiskered Ron Andrews lives beside the Canal in tiny “Junction Cottage” beneath the Warwick Avenue bridge. “It’s a lovely sight”, he says, indicating all the boats moored nearby. “Things have changed. It’s now very fashionable to have a boat here. But I remember when all London’s rubbish came past here on its way from Paddington Basin to incinerators up north. That was not a pretty sight.”

Information and maps of the area are available from the British Waterways Canal Office in the former toll house beneath Westbourne Terrace bridge, a spot known as “Paddington Stop”. A water bus sails regularly from Little Venice through Regent’s Park to Camden Lock.