Escapist London | 5 Places That Feel Like Elsewhere
As keen travellers who have stayed largely close to home during the pandemic, we’ve been exploring more parts of the UK to write our travel blog series. As the city moves into winter and summer staycations are behind us, we were inspired to visit the parts of London that succeed in making you feel like you’ve gone on holiday to somewhere else, providing a little bit of escapism within the city walls. Here's a run down of our favourite places in London that feel like you're elsewhere, still open in 2020.
Our Favourite London Escapes | Updated 2020
1. Kyoto Garden, Holland Park
This place is beautiful, with a lake golden of Koi carp, maple trees blooming into autumn shades, carved stone lanterns and bonsais providing a perch for invading squirrels. There’s also, we hear, a muster of peacocks, although they must have got tired of people trying to take selfies with them because they weren’t there at the same time as us. The walkway goes around the lake and takes you across a stone bridge over a waterfall. Kyoto Garden is particularly beautiful to visit in spring and autumn, when the colours are deepening and cherry blossom dusts the trees. Kyoto Gardens were gifted to Holland Park by the Japanese government in 1991, and until we get a travel bubble, it makes for a great trip, especially if you have a day to spare and you combine it with Leighton House and strolling up to Portobello Road Market, which is about a 20 minute walk from the northern end of the park.
2. The Arab Hall, Leighton House
Leighton House is a particularly decadent mansion in a row of palatial houses that sits beautiful part of Kensington next to Holland Park. The House is the home of a 19th century painter called Frederic Leighton, whose most famous painting, Flaming June, you’ll probably recognise. A man after our own heart, Leighton had a weakness for intense colours and vibrant interior design. Leighton was born into a medical family in Scarborough in 1830, but decided forgo being a doctor for the romantic but arguably less useful pursuit of being an artist. Leighton’s parents (like ours) were fairly concerned by the sustainability of an art career, so (unlike ours) provided him with an allowance his whole life. They didn’t have a huge amount to worry about as Leighton sold a painting to Queen Victoria in 1855 and became the president of the Royal Academy in 1878, which is not a bad career even if you did have a significant head start. The Arab Hall was used to display his collection of Arabic art (we’ll do a blog on the damaging effects of orientalism in painting later) and was also Leighton’s smoking room for impressing guests.
You’ll need to book ahead for Leighton House, which is £9 a ticket.
3. The Desert, Kew Gardens
This one is actually called The Princess of Wales Conservatory, but we prefer our version because it makes it sound like we’ve travelled a little further afield than West London. If anyone reading this hasn’t been to The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, or hasn’t been recently, you should definitely go. Visiting in 2020 is especially lovely because it has so many beautiful plants from places all around the world that you can’t visit and is big enough to get lost in for a proper day trip. The Princess of Wales Conservatory has a few tropical sections as well as the part that showcases plants from the desert, but the dry section is our favourite, with spiky Venus Fly Traps that can engulf an insect in half a second and strange blooming cactus flowers. There’s also five Chinese water dragons that inhabit the conservatory, eating cockroaches and other unwanted guests.
If you’re looking for more things at Kew, or green spaces in the capital, check out our blog about London’s Best Tropical Gardens.
You’ll need to book ahead for Kew Gardens, which is £17.50 for a ticket or 241 if you use the National Rail offer.
4. Crystal Palace Dinosaurs
We happened upon these by accident a few weeks after lockdown restrictions eased whilst exploring the rest of the vast and beautiful Crystal Palace Park. The dinosaurs make you feel like you’ve accidentally time travelled, or have walked through a portal to somewhere that’s half English Garden and half Jurassic Park. This section of the park was built between 1853- 1855 and represents the first time anyone tried to model extinct animals as full scale, three dimensional, in motion sculptures from the remains of fossils.
The artist in question was Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, a natural history illustrator and sculptor tasked with recreating the dinosaurs. Hawkins didn’t always get it right, and there’s a lovely set of plaques that go alongside the trail showing the shape of many of the dinosaurs as defined by Hawkins and what science has since discovered to be correct. Crystal Palace Dinosaurs are on Historic England’s National Heritage List, and are well worth travelling out of central London for if you’re after something a little different.
5. Little Venice
Little Venice, if you ignore the distant rumble of the Paddington Flyover, is a beautiful place to spend the day and succeeds in being pretty in all seasons. You’ll find floating houseboats, ducks, geese and flotillas of swans, with trees bending over the canal and a range of different views from towpaths, bridges and the London Waterbus. There’s some new bars on the Paddington end and much lovelier ones the further west you go. We love combining Little Venice with a canal themed day out, cycling from Kings Cross, up through Camden and down past Regent’s Park. If you pay attention, you might find The Word On the Water, a floating bookshop responsible for more than one London romance, wide mansions with gardens cascading down to the canal and even get a peek at the hyenas in London Zoo on the opposite side. Sometimes in winter, it gets so cold that the canal freezes over and you can watch seagulls and ducks sliding about on the ice.