Connecting with Nature in Urban Spaces

Just over a year ago we came to live in London, something I had never seen in my future. We had just spent six months travelling Europe in our van – living outside, washing in rivers and breathing the fresh air. However, my partner had found an exciting job in London and seeing as I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, we agreed to a year. We found a tiny little house, out of the inner city, near to some of the biggest parks. 

Some days I wanted to cry, I felt so alone in this big city, away from everything that I loved – the sea, the hills, the leafy countryside. I felt clostraphobic, hemmed in by the buildings, not being able to feel the earth under my feet. Now our time in London has come to an end, I’m looking back and reflecting on all the different ways the city allowed me to connect with nature in a different way. 

One of the best things about British cities is our green spaces! We love a park, a garden, a recreation ground or a little hidden square. You’re never more than a short walk from a few plots of grass. Lucky for us, while in West London we had a wealth of excellent options! Bushy park, Richmond park, Kew Gardens, Ham park and the River Thames were all within a couple of miles of our house.

Barbican Conservatory, London

Bushy Park, London

My favourite place in London was Bushy Park! The second largest park in London and, like Richmond park, it has deer. The park was originally the hunting grounds for Hampton Court, used by King Henry VII in the 1500s. Today the park is still home to herds of fallow and red deer; I like to think that over the past year I’ve got to know them pretty well. The park also has a canal, a couple of ponds and a forest garden. 

It became an weekend tradition to go the park for a walk, followed by tea and cake at a beloved cafe in Teddington. Building this into our routine made sure we were getting outside and into nature every week. We got to watch the park change from season to season, to know where the deer liked to shelter and where the quietest bits were. When a tree fell in a storm, we mourned its loss and were some of first to clamber up its fallen body. In the winter, we woke up early to walk among the frosted grass. In autumn, it was the changing colours that enchanted us, in the summer we lay in the grass and watched the clouds float past. In the spring we celebrated the end of the long winter with a wash of green. 

Not only did the deer keep us company, but also an array of birds; jays, woodpecker, parakeets, herons, ducks and geese. Like them we were able to carve out a little bit of the busy, smelly city, to find peace, quiet and green.

Bushy Park, London

Kew Gardens, London

Kew Gardens also became an important place for us. At the start of our time in London be bought a years pass to Kew, which allowed us to come back many times. This is one of the advantages to living in a city! We had access to the largest botanical garden in the world. Kew Gardens is home to over 30,000 species of plants, but it is also holds 8.5 million preserved specimens of plants and fungi, kept for research and preservation. Who knew there would be so many plants in the city?

The Princess’s of Wales Conservatory, Kew Gardens, London

My favourite greenhouse is the Princess of Wales Conservatory. More modern than the other two large greenhouses, but far more diverse in its content. Different levels and paths lead you from Mediterranean, to dry, to wet tropical climates. You could get lost in this greenhouse. Even after a couple of visits we might pop up from behind some large ferns to find a room we’d never seen; a carnivorous plant room or a room filled with fallen trees, laden with hanging plants and orchids. My favourite place to reflect is by the lily pad pond, those vast rough leaves stretched out over the surface of the water, large exotic fish prowl below, and the glass ceiling above is reflected below in the dark water. I like to finish in the eucalyptus room, the refreshing smell of the leaves refreshes you after the muggy heat of the wet tropics.

At the Palm house you will find the iconic architecture of the greenhouses at Kew. The smell of warm, wet, earth fills the air and large leaves brush you as you walk past. Each fighting for the light, hanging, climbing, creeping, everything vivid green. Above the plants is the spectacular iron and glass structure of the greenhouse; the curving white lines contrast beautifully with the lush plants below. At the centre of the greenhouse you can climb up to the walkway above and look down on the treetops.

Kew Gardens, London

Chelsea’s Physic Garden, London

Another gem of London in the Chelsea Physic Garden. Hidden away by the river is a small walled garden. Founded in 1673, this garden lacks the pomp and Victorian showmanship of Kew. Early apothecaries grew medicinal herbs and plants here and the beds are filled with information markers telling us the different ailments these plants would have been used to help. Some, still used today, would be recognisable to us. Others are clearly ridiculous to the modern viewer. 

This walled garden is divided into areas: The Garden of Medicinal Plants, The Pharmaceutical Garden, The Garden of World Medicine, The Garden of Edible and Useful Plants, and The World Woodland Garden. I love the idea of having a garden where every plant is not only beautiful, but also useful. Where Kew Gardens is in many ways a museum of British colonialism and expansionism, Chelsea Physic Gardens feels more relevant to the every day lives of British people in the past. It is also a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain into the herbal medicinal beliefs of the past.

Chelsea Physic Gardens

Wherever we live, it’s important to connect with the natural world, to help achieve peace in our minds and bodies. However, in a city, this can be really challenging. I hope that this inspires you to get out and about this week to find a natural space in your city to feel at one with the natural world. Breath in some clean air, feel the give of the earth under your feet, notice the swaying of the trees and singing of the birds. If you, like me, feel a little trapped by the hustle and bustle of city life, don’t forget the advantages of living in a city, of all the resources we have close at hand to learn more about the natural world in museums, libraries, botanical gardens and parks. 

I’d love to hear about the amazing spaces you’ve found in your city that have let you connect with nature.

Library corner

Glasshouse Greenhouse by India Hobson and Magnus Edmondson 

If you’re like me and love greenhouses, this is the book for you, it a beautiful collection of photos and descriptions from a young couples greenhouse travel.

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