William Pitt (the Elder) is said to have coined the phrase “Lungs of London” in the 18th Century, when the city’s three main parks – St James’s, Green and Hyde – were under threat from rapid urban expansion.
The idea of the parks as “lungs”, odd as it may sound, was used to underline their importance to the health of Londoners, as an oasis of clean air and natural beauty amid the heaving traffic of the capital’s roads, as well as a relaxing, meditative escape from the relentless thrum of city life.
This commitment to protecting the parks from the unfurling urban sprawl means that today they are as beautiful as ever, and you can still walk from St James’s Park, through Green Park, into Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens with your feet barely touching a pavement in between.
A wonderful way to wile away a few weekend hours, you’ll soon come to see that each park has its own highly distinctive character…
St James’s Park
Established in 1603, this 57-acre City of Westminster park is renowned for its exquisitely maintained flowerbeds – both within its gates and on The Mall, outside Buckingham Palace.
What better way to start your day than with an explosion of colour? There are few things more beautiful than St James’s Park in bloom, but if you need more than that to wake you up you can head into the wood-clad St James’s Cafe for a strong coffee and some walking-fuel.
But it’s not just plant life St James’s is famous for – pelicans have lived in the park for more than 400 years, ever since King Charles II received a pod of them as a gift from the Russian Ambassador in 1664. Watch them scoop water from St James’s Park lake into their flappy throat pouches.
You’re almost certain to see some mischievous coots up to no good in the lake, too. Frequently breaking out into fluttering quarrels, here you can see a kung-fu coot delivering a Bruce Lee-style flying kick directly into the chest of a shocked rival.
Another splash of colour in the blossoms of this bankside tree sends out the signal that spring is finally here.
But nothing can prepare you for the pristine expanse of flowers in bloom in front of Buckingham Palace as you emerge from St James’s Park. It’s so hard to take in all at once you might even miss the fact that a crowd has gathered to watch the Band of the Welsh Guards trumpet their way through the palace gates. Oblivious, you cross over the road and head into…
Perhaps the most peaceful and modest of the Royal Parks, Green Park is 47 acres of rolling grassland and towering trees, notably devoid of lakes, buildings or playgrounds. This is a meditative park for communing with nature.
The park’s ornate entrance gate is as ostentatious as it gets. Inside, far simpler pleasures await.
A pair of blossom enthusiasts drawn in by the muted beauty of Green Park in spring can’t resist taking a few snapshots.
It’s easy to forget the sheer size of the mature trees that populate the park. Stop for a moment to take it in and it can all be rather awe-inspiring, as is the fact that two people can take a stroll almost entirely alone – right in the centre of London.
There is a similar sense of awe as you pass under the Wellington Arch (or pop inside to take in the view from the top) on your way from Green Park into Hyde Park…
…and perhaps even a sense of bewilderment when you see a pedestrian crossing button located some 10 feet or so up a traffic light. Look a little closer, however, and you’ll see this is a button specifically designed and located for those riding on horseback.
Established by Henry VIII in 1536, at 350 acres Hyde Park is by far the largest of the chain or Royal Parks on this walk. A veritable hub of activity, it offers swimming in the open waters of the Serpentine, tennis courts, and – frequently during the summer – live music.
The Queen Elizabeth Gate was a 90th birthday gift to the Queen Mother from her daughter in 1993, its red lion of sculptor David Wynne’s design symbolising England and the unicorn representing Scotland.
A kit of pigeons swiftly vacate Speaker’s Corner, startled by a passing double-decker bus.
You’ll find these deck chairs dotted all over the Royal Parks, along with attendants who you can pay a small fee to sit in them. And where could be a more relaxing place to take a seat than on the banks of the Serpentine.
Does anything scream “summer” more than a flotilla of pedalos? No.
This is a particularly quaint example of one of the private residences available in the Royal Parks. Imagine what it would be like to live in the centre of Hyde Park – but not too hard, lest you explode with envy (though you can get pretty close with one of our Mayfair properties).
A proud swan stands guard at the bridge dividing Hyde Park from Kensington Gardens, and the Serpentine from Long Water.
Once the private gardens of Kensington Palace, this 270 acre Royal Park lives up to its title by containing the homes of Princes William and Harry. Now, the parks and parts of the palace are open to the public – the parks in particular filled with a number of breathtaking and diversely styled sculptures, as well as playing host to the Serpentine Gallery.
Henry Moore’s The Arch is the most avant-garde of the sculptures on public display, perfectly framing the palace between the irregular pillars supporting its offbeat curves. A feature of the park since 1980, it became structurally unsound in 1996 when it was taken down, renovated and finally reinstated in 2012.
Built in the 1860s, the Italian Gardens overlooking Long Water were supposedly a gift from Prince Albert to Queen Victoria – and they remain a thoroughly relaxing place for a pause on a long walk….
…though it seems a far less relaxing prospect for the unfortunate cherubs bearing the weight of this classically-inspired water fountain on their shoulders.
There aren’t many places in the world you’ll find a Rolls Royce ice cream van, but they’re a common sight in the Royal Parks of London during the summer months.
One of London’s most intricately decorated statues – built in memory of Prince Albert – features a golden likeness of the man himself, gazing beatifically at the concert hall which bears his name, and can be glimpsed from Kensington Gardens.
Pockets of tamed wilderness give off vibrant autumn hues, even in the early days of Spring.
For some, the Round Pond is a place to relax on a bench and contemplate the calm waters in front of the palace. For others, it is a place to interact more closely with pigeons than many would find comfortable; all you need is a pocketful of breadcrumbs.
It may not be a Rolls Royce, but this British Karrier still makes for one of the most regal ice cream vans you’ll ever see.
Outside Kensington Palace you’ll find grand gates fit for a pair of princes. Inside, preparations abound for the upcoming royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle…
…while a phalanx of anxious reporters have assembled on the fringes of the park, awaiting any titbits of information that might emerge from the palace…
…opposite a foreboding statue of Queen Victoria, who stands defiantly as if protecting her descendants from the prying eyes of the press.