The first thing you need to know about Streatham Cemetery is that it’s beautiful, especially on a sunny day. The second thing you need to know is, it’s not actually in Streatham…
I was lucky enough to visit this lovely place on a walking tour of Tooting, led by Sy from Living London. Sy explained that there are plans to re-imagine the cemetery as a relaxing green space, but to my mind it’s pretty great as it is.
It was so peaceful and there were so many bits to explore, but my favourite had to be the two chapels; they mirror each other perfectly, which provides the cemetery’s magnificent centrepiece.
Streatham Cemetery is on a par with others in the Magnificent Seven such as Brompton Cemetery; I can’t wait to visit when it’s been transformed!
Opening times: Daily: 8am-4pm (open until 6pm April to October)
There’s no better way to fill a sunny day in winter than with a walk in one of London’s best green spaces. This year, to continue the tradition after last year’s Boxing Day walk in Epping Forest, we took ourselves off for a walk in sunny Lesnes Abbey.
The Abbey was founded in 1178 by Richard de Luci, Henry II’s Chief Justiciar, supposedly in penance for the murder of Thomas Becket. De Luci retired (aged 90) and died here; he was buried in the Chapter House, to be joined later by the heart of his great granddaughter, which was also buried here to speed her passage through purgatory.
Since then, Lesnes played bit parts in English history. Edward I stayed here for three days in 1300 and in 1381 a mob linked to the Peasants Revolt burst into the Abbey and forced the abbot to swear an oath of support, before leaving to join Wat Tyler’s main band in London.
But, like many monasteries from the time, Lesnes Abbey was destined to be lost to Tudor dissolutions. It didn’t last as long as other London monastries such as Christchurch Greyfriars, though. Already in neglect due to financial difficulties, Lesnes was one of the first monasteries to be dissolved in Cardinal Wolsey’s suppression of those with fewer than seven inmates in 1525.
This suppression was undertaken to fund the new Cardinal’s College at Oxford and was one of the first jobs that Thomas Cromwell did in Wolsey’s service. Cromwell would go on to administrate the infamous dissolution of the monasteries in his service as Henry VIII’s right-hand man during the 1530s.
In 1534, Lesnes was granted to Sir William Brereton; all of the Abbey’s buildings, apart from the Abbot’s Lodgings, were destroyed during this time. After Brereton’s execution as part of Anne Boleyn’s downfall just two years later, the site was acquired by Henry Cooke, who converted the Abbot’s Lodging into a mansion.
From here, Lesnes passed to Sir John Hippersley who used some of the Abbey’s remains for building materials. The Abbot’s Lodgings lasted until 1845, when they too were destroyed.
Today, the ruins of Lesnes Abbey sit quietly on south-east London’s landscape. The plan of the original buildings is clearly visible and the signs dotted around important sections help you to picture the busy hub of life that it would have been in the 1100s.
There’s even a surviving serving hatch that passes from the kitchens to the refectory and the remains of the pulpit that would have been used to give sermons during meals. It’s these details that give Lesnes the edge over many green spaces in south-east London and, in my humble opinion, a place as one of the capital’s best heritage spots.
It’s fitting that the Tibetan Peace Garden sits in the shadow of the Imperial War Museum, since the garden’s design represents the importance of understanding between different cultures.
And you’d be forgiven for missing it; it’s pretty quiet here (like its name suggests) and there’s not so much as a note on the map to guide you to it.
Opened by the Dalai Lama in 1999, the garden is repleat in significance. The garden’s four structures — placed on a north, south, east, west axis — represent the four elements and the central Mandala (cast for the first time in bronze) is associated with world peace.
At the entrance sits the language pillar, which holds a message for the millennium from the Dalai Lama.
As you might have guessed looking at these photos, my trip to the Tibetan Peace Garden was a very autumnal one. The sun was setting behind the Imperial War Museum on an early Sunday evening and it was lovely to sit here for a while, with only the leaves, the background noise and my camera for company.
Follow your trip to the garden with a reminder of why it was created at the Imperial War Museum, walk towards the river to the Florence Nightingale Museum or further out to Kennington Park. I can’t wait to explore more of what Southwark and Lambeth has to offer, and the Tibetan Peace Garden was the perfect introduction.
London Sewing Machine Museum’s surroundings are decidedly 2016. This tiny museum sits in the top levels of a warehouse, opposite a Lidl and within a stone’s throw from Tooting Bec station.
But step inside and you’ll enter a different world of class, vintage domesticity, 600 machines and one family’s eccentric history.
The machines in the huge collection are fascinating, but what’s most interesting to me is the dogged resilience with which its creator has held onto his family’s heritage.
To learn more, you’ll need a guide — so it’s worth waiting around for the start of a tour — but here’s just a taster of what you’ll hear…
The history of London Sewing Machine Museum
The museum’s history starts just after WWII, when Thomas Arthur Rushton set up a small business in Wimbledon restoring sewing machines that he’d retrieved from derelict homes.
Retrieving them was hard work; thry were built to last and had to be carried by hand since there was no van.
When Thomas’ son Ray Rushton joined the business, he was naturally enlisted to collect the machines (on his bike this time, before a van was acquired). In 1979 the business moved to a new location in Tooting, where it still stands today with 78-year-old Ray at the helm.
Highlights of the collection
There are over 600 sewing machines in the London Sewing Machine Museum collection, from the first Singer and a patent that was sent for the Great Exhibition, to a machine that was given to Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter as a wedding gift when she married Prince Frederick William of Prussia.
The latter dates from 1865 and Ray bought it for £23,500, making it the second most expensive sewing machine ever bought.
The most expensive sewing machine ever bought is, naturally, also in Ray’s collection. Dating from the 1830s, it is believed to be the fourth prototype by Barthelemy Thimonnier – the inventor of the sewing machine. Basically, it’s one of the first sewing machines ever made.
Thimonnier’s work is also very rare; when 19th-century seamstresses heard of his creation, they burned down his factory with him in it. Luckily he escaped and managed to grab a couple of machines on his way out, but most of his work was gone forever and he died poor.
So, how much did Ray buy this incredibly important, incredibly rare sewing machine for? £50,000.
Sewing machines just got interesting, and the London Sewing Machine Museum (and Ray) is right there in the centre of the action.
Address: 308 Balham High Road (above Wimbledon Sewing Machine Company), London SW17 7AA
Opening times: 2pm-5pm, first Saturday of the month
From secret gardens in the city to the best London parks on its outskirts, the capital has some of the best quiet green spaces in the UK. Escape from the concrete jungle into expanses of colour that will take your breath away. And, with spring in full swing and summer fast approaching, now’s the perfect time to take it all in.
Here are 24 of my favourite quiet parks in London to while away a few hours in the sunshine. Is your top spot on the list? Let me know if I’ve missed your favourite in the comments below, or drop me a message…
Meanwhile Gardens are central, they have an interesting history and are also super-peaceful; even on the hottest day of the year so far, I still managed to find a quiet spot.
If it hadn’t been for a meeting back in central London, I could easily have sat here for hours, listening to the world go by on the canal and watching the sunlight slowly drift along the Moroccan tiles.
Journey to the very edge of south-west London (I’m talking just before the M25) and get lost in this landscape garden. It has enough hidden treasures to keep you busy for a whole afternoon: crystal grottos, a beautiful lake and hidden ruins, as well as 158 acres of greenery.
This National Trust park at the heart of the south London community boasts historic buildings (including a restored waterwheel), wetlands, a rose garden and the River Wandle within its sprawling acres. It’s especially peaceful in the evening, when you can wander the boardwalks and bridges in almost-perfect solitude.
I stumbled on this amazing garden on a walk around Bloomsbury and instantly fell in love. Its history is so typically-London (it was created as ‘open-air sitting room’ for the poor) and it still holds on to its Victorian routes. Plus, it’s hidden away from the main road so you feel like you’re walking into a local secret…
It’s not just for the poor anymore, but it does retain its ‘sitting room’ feeling, with plenty of seating to people-watch all through the day. The winding paths, beautiful tombs, and little details like the figure of Euterpe, the Muse of Instrumental Music, make this a perfect place for whiling away a few hours.
Join the dog walkers and locals in-the-know by enjoying a Sunday walk at the 112 acres of Kenwood parkland. Kenwood House is one of my favourite historic houses in London and their gardens (adjoining Hampstead Heath) are just as beautiful, having been designed by Humphry Repton — the last great landscape designer of the 18th century.
Richmond Park isn’t the only jewel in south-west London’s crown. Bushy Park (above), home of Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare in the west corner of the park, is a stunning example of what the best of London’s parks have to offer.
Discover the Temple and its pleasure gardens and, if you’re left wanting more, take a trip to admire Hampton Court Palace, which is right next door.
This amazing little secret garden in Bishopsgate, near Liverpool Street station, is one of my favourite places in London. St Ethelburga’s was once a medieval church that, sadly, was mostly destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1993. The remains of the church were rebuilt as a centre for peace to welcome anyone of any religion and provide a wonderful space for thinking.
The centre is formally open on Mondays between 1-3pm, but often open at other times. Contact them if you’re travelling a long way.
Relax in the presence of the 18th-century St Botolph in the grounds of the churchyard. This colourful garden looks extra-special in spring and summer, and is a stone’s throw from Liverpool Street station, so it’s perfect for a bit of a sit down after work or on lunch.
This nature reserve within a stone’s throw from King’s Cross station and Granary Square is one of the area’s best-kept secrets and comes alive in the spring. I love the tranquillity of this (very) green space, knowing that there is wildlife hidden all around me. It’s especially good for kids as there is so much to see all year round, but good for chilling out as an adult, too.
If you’ve been heard of Crystal Palace Park but haven’t been yet, then make 2016 the year you make the trip. My favourite bit is undoubtedly the dinosaurs (or, at least, the Victorians’ ideas of how they thought they looked) but there’s so much to see here. Have a go in the maze, admire the ruins of the palace or find a quiet spot in the wide open space.
Relax in the gardens where the poet John Keats apparently wrote his famous poem Ode to a Nightingale. The museum in the house where he lived between 1818 and 1820 is open from Tuesday to Sundays in the summer, and is well worth a look, but the gardens are completely free and just as beautiful.
The house is just round the corner from Hampstead Heath as well, so are a great alternative if you find the Heath a bit crowded during the summer. A perfect place to relax with a picnic and soak up the creative atmosphere!
Fantastic views over London, a beautiful conservatory, and a free natural history museum on site make the grounds of the Horniman Museum one of the most interesting gardens on our list. They’re a bit out of the way but great if you don’t fancy travelling into central London, and Forest Hill feels residential enough to not feel like a bit city.
This secret garden near the tourist-central areas of Oxford Street, Leicester Square, and Tottenham Court Road is a welcome retreat from the concrete and the crowds. I’ve been checking their website for updates in the run-up to writing this post as they’re currently closed for building works, but when they reopen you should go check them out next time you’re in the area (check the website for more details).
While you’re there, may I recommend Yumchaa for some of the best sandwiches and tea you can get in Soho.
The grounds of this historic house on the banks of the River Thames in Richmond (technically Twickenham…) are just as lovely as the house itself. The kitchen garden has been here since 1653 and the building adjoining the orangery has been turned into a stunning light-filled cafe. There’s also a lot of open space to admire the gorgeous house before you.
The gardens cost around £4.50 to explore I think (at least they were when I was there last year: the website isn’t working for me to check as I’m writing this!) or around £11 if you want to enjoy the house as well.
I’ve talked about Valentine’s Mansion until I’m blue in the face, but I’ve neglected to mention how brilliant the rest of the park is (which is probably why I don’t have a decent photo of the rest of the park…)
Valentine’s Park was voted the sixth best park in the country towards the end of 2015 and boasts a big lake, boating, an aviary, cafe, and loads of open space. It’s big enough to accommodate the locals and it’s always easy to find a quiet corner to relax in. It’s really popular with locals and easy to get to for everyone else, as it’s only a 10-minute walk from Gants Hill station (on the east end of the Central Line). Such a hidden gem.
Created from boggy ground in the 1830s, Isabella Plantation is one of the highlights (and little-known gems) in Richmond Park. The plantation is at its peak in late April and early May, but its evergreen azaleas and other rare plants surrounding the streams and ponds mean it’s beautiful all year round.
I was questioning whether to add St Dunstan in the East in this post as they’re are becoming very well-known, but in the end, it’s just such a lovely place with such a rich history that I can’t leave it out…
This small patch of green born out of the ruins of a medieval church is one of the most beautiful places in the City of London (bar none, in my opinion) and is just so chilled-out at the weekends. I think the fact that the garden is in such a busy and modern part of the city – usually full of suits rushing to get to their next meeting, oblivious to the beauty that sits just yards from them – makes it all the more endearing.
If you’re missing the beach, then head to Fairlop where you can enjoy the next best thing, just a 10-minute walk from the Central Line. The waters here are really calm and there’s a lovely walk going around the outside, as well as little gaps in the hedges where you can sneak in and sit on the “banks” of the lake while the water laps at your feet.
There’s even a boulder park for the kids (or the big kids) and climbing and exercise equipment dotted around the edge of the walking trail if you’re feeling energetic…
Like St Dunstan in the East, Christchurch Greyfriars was created by Christopher Wren, but bombed during the Blitz and then turned into a beautiful rose garden. It sits in the shadow of St Paul’s and is just round the corner from another of the area’s great historical spots: St Bartholomew’s Hospital.
It’s usually busier during the week as people from local offices use it for their lunch break, so the best time to come and enjoy it in peace and quiet is on the weekend, when the area is usually quieter in general, too.
The Conservatory has to be one of the Barbican’s best-kept secrets. It’s only open on Sundays and Bank Holidays for a start and sits quietly near the top of this concrete behemoth, waiting to be discovered. It’s home to exotic fish and over 2,000 tropical plants and trees, which sit among the concrete walls so comfortably that it almost seems as if they were made that way. AND you can now have afternoon tea there!
Check the website for opening times, as they’re sometimes closed for private events. If you’re in the mood for a cuppa after exploring the Conservatory, then head to Barbican Cinema Cafe on your way back to the Tube station.
Fenton House is one of Hampstead’s finest historic houses, but not many people mention how stunning the gardens are, too. Take a walk in the pristine 300-year-old walled gardens, explore the sunken rose garden and then recline in the apple and pear orchard.
Before you leave, I’d recommend discovering the house, too: the panoramic view of London from the balcony (one of the highest points in the city) will take your breath away. And don’t forget to take a trip to the stunning Hampstead Heath Pergola while you’re in the area.
An urban oasis a stone’s throw from the bustling main street in Angel, Islington, the Culpeper Community Garden has 50 plots made up of a rose pergola, ponds, lawns, vegetables, and wildlife. It’s a welcome retreat for locals, market traders, lunchtimers, and visitors, and is a sterling example of what community can do: it’s run completely by garden members and volunteers.
If you’re after something sweet to drink while you’re taking in all that greenery, then head to Piacha Tea Bar up the road and pick up a lovely tea smoothie.
This small garden to the north of the inner circle in Regent’s Park was designed for meditation for the 3rd Marquess of Bute, so it’s hardly surprising that it’s both serene and beautiful. St John’s Lodge is a private residence, but you can still access the garden through the small gate along the inner circle.
Named after Thomas Coram, the man who set up the Foundling Hospital in 1739 to care for babies who were at risk of abandonment, Coram’s Fields provide a place for children and young people to play in peace. The hospital marked the start of the history of the Coram charity, which now changes the lives of over a million children a year, and the original hospital building now stands as a museum dedicated to the history of the charity right next to the fields.
Adults aren’t allowed into Coram’s Fields without a child, but grown-ups can enjoy the adjoining Brunswick Square Gardens for the kind of cultural quiet that only Bloomsbury can bring; Brunswick Square is mentioned in Jane Austen’s Emma and the Bloomsbury Group (including Virginia Woolf) met at a house on this site, too.
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I love exploring, it probably comes from my own parents who were great at exposing us to a variety of places and taking us on various trips in France and abroad. Since moving to England more than 10 years ago I have done my fair share of exploring.
Now, as a mum of three, I am delighted to share with my favourite family-friendly ‘quiet’ (or rather quieter) spots in London with you.
1. London Wetlands
This place has got to be one of my favourite quiet places in London. It’s so close from the city centre and yet is such a haven of peace and tranquillity, surrounded by birds of all sorts. I would really recommend it to anyone.
There is a cafe for food, snacks or drinks for the grown-ups and little ones as well (plenty of available high chairs). I wrote a post on my own blog about it which might inspire you.
Pembroke Lodge is in Richmond Park not far from Richmond Gate but has super views across the Thames Valley. We love having a walk with the kids there as it’s never too busy and we sometimes stop in the newly restored garden where the kids enjoy playing.
There is a really good cafe where we can warm ourselves up if the weather is a bit cold. If you are brave, you can even walk down the hill to Petersham Gate where there is a nice sandy playground for the kids.
A beautiful park with lots of lanes where the kids can cycle (bear in mind that cycling is restricted to the tarmac drives within the gardens and not allowed on garden paths and lawns) or scoot. There is also a small play area and a good cafe.
This is one of my favourite museums for the little ones as it’s like a small national history museum and a music museum all in one. The Museum gardens are also great as you have space to experiment with different instruments, great views across south London, a small farm and a nice cafe.
The only problem is the parking in the area around the museum so I would encourage people to come by public transport and stop at Forest Hill train station or get on a bus.
A great park part of the National Trust with lots of beautiful roses in the summer and a pretty good city farm which is free (donations are encouraged though). It’s easy to park and there is a good garden centre where you can shop at the end of your visit. There is a cafe at the entrance and a cafe at the City farm.
A beautiful National Trust house – I am yet to be disappointed by the National Trust. It’s a stunning property in Isleworth with a lake as you arrive, with a nice cafe and shop if you fancy an ice cream, a snack or a drink.
The main lawn is perfect for a picnic or if you fancy kicking the ball but I love going into the House garden where it’s a bit quieter and they often have garden games such as croquet. They even have lounge chairs in a few spots which come well appreciated when the weather is nice!
Based in Hendon, this is a fantastic museum. It’s free of charge but you do pay a small amount for the parking (lots of space). There are amazing helicopters, planes, and it’s so big you are never bothered by anyone.
Just don’t lose one of your little ones in there as it happened to us; we had a good 10-minute panic search to find our little girl who had gone sulking behind one of the massive planes.
This is a small zoo right in the heart of Battersea Park. The park itself is a really nice park for walking with the family with a lake and lots of different alleys and even roads where you can cycle or roller skate. And you have the added bonus of being by the Thames, which provides beautiful light and views, not forgetting to mention the sight of the stunning Peace Pagoda.
The zoo is not too big, perfect for the under-eights I would say and there are lots of picnic tables if you fancy lunching al fresco. The kids love the play area which can satisfy the younger kids as well as the ‘older ones’ (up to the age of 10 years old in my opinion).
The Museum of Childhood is a fantastic museum with a really fabulous selection of old toys. It’s fun for the whole family and it’s free of charge. Beautiful building and plenty of spaces for a spot of lunch.
We went on a Sunday morning which meant we had no trouble finding a spot to park and no crowd to bother us. It’s close to Bethnal Green Station so any other time, it would be better to come by Tube.
This is an all time favourite. It’s huge and even when it gets busy there are so many cornered alleys to find a quieter spot to picnic, feed a baby, play, read etc. We love it and when everyone has had a real walk we can go the Creepers and Ladders for some play time or we go to the small aquarium in the Main Green House.
The perfect spot to pit-stop with the family as it’s big and I never have to worry whether the little ones are on their best behaviour. There is space for them to run around, particularly if you go there during the week, and they have changing facilities which come in handy.
It’s been over a week since I was at Chislehurst Caves in south London — standing 350 feet below ground in total darkness while the sound of bombs echoed through the 20 miles of caves around me — and the experience still gives me the shivers…
I still haven’t forgotten the urge to stare at the lamps on the floor to avoid looking into the darkness around me, for fear of seeing something I didn’t want to. I still can’t stop thinking about the stories I heard; of the young woman killed at what is now known as the Haunted Pool, and of the 15,000 people who slept in the dark, damp caves throughout World War II.
They say that this uneasiness is down to a kind of sensory deprivation: that we’re so used to light pollution in big cities like London that, when faced with this level of darkness, our minds start to imagine things in place of what they expect to see. But it’s hard to thnk that clearly when you’re so far away from normality and shrouded in complete darkness (more on that later). It’s hard to even get your bearings because there are no signals telling you where to turn, and every other sense seems heightened.
The history of the caves
Like most things associated with Chislehurst Caves, their past is surrounded in mystery. The guides will tell you they were dug by the druids and the Romans, but a quick Google search leads you to a few archaeologists who have cast doubt on that theory with the insistence that they are no more than a couple of hundred years old.
During the Second World War, the caves were used as shelters; their depth meant that, despite the cold, cramped and damp conditions, they were competitively attractive alternatives to the world above.
Incredibly, 15,000 people lived down here at any one time during the war; there’s even a Red Cross hospital, a citizens advice bureau, and a church within the miles of caves, and each ‘pitch’ had its own address where post could be delivered. All of this was provided for a whole family for about £5 in today’s money: it’s a small price to pay for safety.
A tour of Chislehurst Caves lasts around 45 minutes and takes you through about a mile of the 20 miles of tunnels. It’s not for the feint of heart: you’ll be plunged into total darkness for a few minutes of the tour, and the guide will do their best to scare you as silly as possible with stories of ghosts, murder and human sacrifice.
And if you were thinking you’ll have your trusty smartphone to light your way, then think again: there are no lights other than the gas lamps given to a few of the group at the start of the tour to light the way.
Which all just adds to the ambience and the relief of getting back to normality at the end of the tour. But it also makes Chislehurst Caves one of the most unusual — and enjoyable — experiences in London. Just don’t look behind you…
Opening hours: tours leave on the hour between 10am and 4pm every day