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By Elizabeth von Pier
London is noisy and teeming with tourists and horn-honking traffic. Crowds queue up in line or push and shove to see the sights. I spent three weeks there this past summer and, along with everyone else, I visited the usual attractions, queuing up in lines and pushing and shoving. But I also found that not far from the mayhem are lovely little places where you can quietly sit on a shady bench and rest and renew yourself. Here are some of the gems that I discovered.
Location: Abbotsbury Road and Holland Walk
Closest Underground: Holland Park, High Street Kensington
Holland Park is a lovely 54-acre park in an elite section of London, a few blocks west of Kensington Palace and Gardens. Stunning Victorian houses and terraces line the streets in this area, and shops, cafes and restaurants cater to an affluent clientele. The park opened in 1952 on what remained of the grounds of Holland House, a large Jacobean mansion dating from the 17th century which had been largely demolished. The northern half of the park is mainly woodland abundant with wildlife (including peacocks), and the southern part is used for sports and recreation.
The Japanese and Dutch Gardens are in the central section, surrounding the ruins of Holland House. This is a more formal area and, besides the gardens, includes an orangery now used as an exhibition space and a restaurant where the old ice house and ballroom were located. The Dutch garden was laid out in the 19th century when Holland House was in its heyday as a gathering place for socialites, artists, writers and politicians. It contains formal beds of perennial and annual plantings along with some modern sculpture and grassy areas where people lounge. The Kyoto Garden was donated by the Kyoto Chamber of Commerce for the 1991 London Festival of Japan. It is a magnificent space containing all the elements of a Japanese garden—water, rocks, a bridge, stone lanterns, trees, flowers and fish. Children holding their parents’ hands walk along the stone walkway over the pond, listening to the waterfall up above and fascinated by the koi down below.
Location: Cornhill Street and St. Michael’s Alley in the City borough
Closest Underground: Bank, Monument
As you walk up Cornhill Street toward Leadenhall Market and Lloyd’s of London, a blue door on an extremely narrow church next to an even narrower alleyway will catch your eye. This is the Parish Church of St. Michael Cornhill and it stands on one of the oldest Christian sites in Britain, dating back to the Roman occupation. The church was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1672.
To get to the churchyard, walk down St. Michael’s Alley to the corner, take a left at The Jamaica Wine House and go to the farthest gate. The churchyard is laid out as a garden with lawns, flower beds, shrubs and trees and is an enjoyable place to spend some time on one of the benches or stretched out on the lawn. It is very quiet here, except for the sound of low voices coming from the wine house.
Location: 99 Kensington High Street, entrance on Derry Street
Closest Underground: High Street Kensington
The Roof Gardens is a unique rooftop venue in Kensignton, London – with resturant, nightclub and some amazing spaces to hire for weddings and events. This is an amazing place. It is an event venue so you have to plan your visit according to their schedule. Check their website, which they update weekly, and call before you go. The small effort is well worth it.
The roof garden was created in the 1930’s on the 6th floor rooftop over Derry & Tom’s department store, now home to many smaller stores. It consists of three lovely themed gardens on one and a half acres. The Spanish garden is small and formal and brings to mind Spain’s Alhambra. It has lovely tiles, arches, wicker sofas and chairs, throw pillows, palm trees, a Moorish sun pavilion and panoramic views over London’s skyline. The brick-walled Tudor garden is made up of three courtyards and vine-covered Tudor-style archways and is often used for weddings. And the English woodland garden has a big variety of trees, a running brook, a giant chess set and a pond stocked with fish. There are over 70 full-size trees up here, families of ducks in the brook, and four resident pink flamingos. Kensington Roof Gardens is a spectacular and extraordinary landmark that has won many awards over the years and you should not miss it.
Location: Montague Close
Closest Underground: London Bridge
Sitting in the cloister-style courtyard, you are surrounded by lovely grassy areas, benches, trees and shrubs, and a giant chess set. Birds chirp and people talk in low voices. Looking up, you see the spire of a gigantic new building, the Shard, in stark contrast to the architecture of the 15th century church.
The Cathedral is on the south bank of the Thames, close to London Bridge and Borough Market. For over 1,000 years, Christians have worshiped here—it was a convent in 606, a priory in 1106, a parish church in 1540, and a cathedral in 1905. It is the oldest Gothic church building in London and has some exquisite stained glass windows, a 13th century wooden effigy of a knight and a chapel dedicated to John Harvard, founder of Harvard University who was baptized here in 1607. William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens worshiped here, and it is believed that Shakespeare was present when John Harvard was baptized.
Location: Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square
Closest Underground: Charing Cross, Leicester Square
This church is home to The Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, a world renowned chamber orchestra, and three high-quality choral groups. You may be lucky to catch one of their free lunchtime concerts or a rehearsal for an evening concert. Leaving the mayhem of nearby Trafalgar Square, I was there mid-afternoon on a Saturday and delighted in the music coming from a group of talented artists practicing for the Vivaldi concert that night.
There has been a church in this spot since medieval times. The current church was designed by James Gibbs and completed in 1726 in a simple neoclassical style that has been copied throughout North America. The window behind the altar is of a stylized cross and is very unique and controversial. The pipe organ was acquired in 1990 and is considered one of the finest in London, and the acoustics in the church are superb. Handel and Mozart performed here. Downstairs in the crypt is a gift shop and bookstore, a cafe and restaurant, and a brass rubbing center where families can enjoy the Victorian craft. St Martin’s ministry is committed to social justice, humanitarianism and international issues, and it uses the medium of music to increase appreciation and understanding of other cultures. This church has it all, providing fuel for the mind, the body and the soul.
6. LITTLE VENICE and REGENT’S CANAL
Location: North of Paddington Station and Regent’s Park
Closest Underground: Warwick Avenue (Little Venice End) and Camden Town
Little Venice is a charming area around Browning’s Pool, a picturesque basin of water where the Grand Union and Regent’s Canals meet. It is an affluent area surrounded by multi-million pound homes. It also is a tranquil and serene place where you can relax at one of the waterside cafes or pubs or just sit on a bench and lazily watch the world go by. Charming houseboats painted in purples, oranges, reds and blues are moored here and a floating cafe is docked at the side of the lagoon. After taking in picturesque Little Venice, you can stroll Regent’s Canal along a paved walk that follows the canal all the way to Camden Lock and beyond. It is peaceful here, traveled only by the occasional walker and narrow barges that take passengers to destinations north and west of Little Venice.
Location: Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea
Closest Underground: Sloane Square
The Royal Hospital Chelsea is the home of the iconic Chelsea Pensioners, who are all retired soldiers of the British Army. The Old Burial Ground is within the complex of the Royal Hospital of Chelsea, Home of the Chelsea Pensioners. In-pensioners were buried here between 1692 and 1854, when other options were made available, and in 2004, the burial ground was re-opened for the interment of cremated remains. When I was here early on a Sunday afternoon, I was the only visitor and sat on a bench contemplating the lives of those who rest here in eternity.
The Royal Hospital, designed by Christopher Wren and completed in 1692, is a retirement and nursing home for old and wounded soldiers of the British Army, known as “pensioners”. Today, about 320 army veterans are spending their later years in this very special place. On the grounds are a museum, a gift shop, a breathtaking and opulent chapel designed by Wren, state apartments that were built to host members of the Royal Family, and a lovely central courtyard with a gilded statue of Charles II. Also in the complex are the secluded Ranelagh Gardens where you will find an abundance of trees, shrubs, perennials, benches and statues, and a lovely Italian staircase climbing up a hillside, seemingly going nowhere. You can book a tour of the Royal Hospital on its website, led by one of the iconic Chelsea Pensioners in full uniform.
8. BLEWCOAT SCHOOL
Location: Caxton Street
Closest Underground: St. James Park
Open: Ian Stewart’s shop hours are Tu, Wed, Fri, Sat 10am-6pm; Thurs 12:30-8:30pm
Come here for the exquisite little building more than for the grounds. Built in 1709, the Blewcoat School was founded as a charity school for the education of poor boys. It was used as a school until 1926 and it clothed and educated twenty boys for free alongside fee-paying boys. For a period of time, it also admitted girls.
The school was purchased in 1954 by the National Trust and used as a gift shop and information center until 2013 when fashion designer Ian Stewart was granted permission to refurbish the space to showcase his wedding and ball gown collection. It is a small square building made of red and yellow brick with stone dressings and recessed niches holding statues and drawings of blewcoats. Along the side of the building are raised beds with tall shady trees and some wide staircases. This is a good place to sit and enjoy the beauty of this exquisite building. You can also go inside to admire the single handsome pine-paneled room with a light, airy coved ceiling. Most likely you’ll be the only visitor.
9. SCHOOLYARD and ALLEYWAY of ST. MARY ABBOTS CHURCH
Location: Corner of Kensington High Street and Kensington Church Street
Closest Underground: Kensington High Street
St. Mary Abbots is “where babies are baptised, lovers wed and those who have died are laid to rest”. The entrance to the church and schoolyard is off Kensington High Street and is quite stunning with its long arched hallway adorned with funerary monuments from the 17th century. Parishioners included Sir Isaac Newton and Beatrix Potter.
The associated primary school was founded in 1707 as a charity school, but the buildings in the schoolyard date from 1875. Noteworthy are the charming painted statues of a boy and a girl and the inscribed stone doorways, one for “Boys & Infants” and another for “Girls”. Here you can relax on a bench under the pergola and shade trees. Church Walk is a charming quiet alley off the courtyard with a number of tiny shops including a milliner, a hairdresser, and a men’s clothier.
Location: Mayfair, two entrances on Mount Street and one on South Audley Street
Closest Underground: Marble Arch, Bond Street
It’s worth looking for this secret gem hidden behind houses and mansion blocks in a quiet residential area of Mayfair. The gardens were created in 1889 on the site of a former burial ground. They back onto the neo-Gothic Church of the Immaculate Conception which was completed forty years earlier, in 1849. It is quiet and small—you can walk across it in just a few minutes—and there are plenty of benches that have been donated in memory of those who have loved and enjoyed the park.
The foliage consists of many majestic London plane trees, formal lawns and ornamental beds. Because the park is sheltered and central London is slightly warmer than elsewhere, a Canary Island palm tree thrives here. Robins, great tits, magpies, blackbirds and other birds are frequent visitors. Also within the park is a bronze drinking fountain of a rearing horse, a bird bath and a bird identification panel. This is a lush little oasis that you should not miss.
Elizabeth von Pier is a retired banker who travels extensively throughout the world. In her retirement, she has written and published articles in travelmag.co.uk, WAVE Journey, Travel Thru History, hackwriters.com, and GoNomad. Ms. von Pier lives in Hingham, Massachusetts.