If you think of London then you think of skyscrapers, expensive drinks, Big Ben, the Tube, the West End, The Queen, and the city’s collective inability to look a stranger in the eye. Well, I do, anyway. What I don’t associate England’s capital city with though, is wildlife. But strolling around a lake feeding squirrels, swans, and pelicans within site of Buckingham Palace, is exactly how I spent my Saturday.
So, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the great and terrible English behemoth that is London at the weekend, here’s my guide to spending a day in the ‘countryside’, whilst still seeing some of the city’s most iconic sites – and managing to avoid using the underground as much as possible.
Strolling by Buckingham Palace
Ok, so I did say that I’d help you to avoid the Tube as much as I could, but unfortunately this is London so a little trip underground is pretty much inevitable. You can get to Green Park Station on the Piccadilly, Victoria or Jubilee lines, and once you’ve emerged blinking into the sunlight you won’t have to descend below the city surface again for a good long while – I promise.
From Green Park Station it’s an easy and scenic stroll through the park, past the fountain and usually a busker or two, so you can watch the golden Victoria Memorial rise over the tops of the trees. Just beyond the fountain sculpture is Buckingham Palace and although it might be a bit of a cliché, I think most people would consider it a wasted first-time visit to London if they didn’t take a trip to the Queen’s residence. So here you are.
If you’ve planned your day well and arrived at around 11am, you’ll have time to grab a good spot for the iconic Changing of the Guard which takes place everyday, from April until the end of July at 11:30am. At other times of the year the spectacle only happens every other day, so if this is something you really want to see then make sure you look up the days in advance.
The ceremony lasts about 45 minutes, so you’ll have plenty of time before lunch to wait for the melee of tourists to disperse, and then you’re free to walk past the palace and cross the road into St James’ Park without being caught in a crowd.
Blur might have been singing about Kensington Park, but St James’ Park has its own menagerie of birds and other wildlife that will easily make you forget you’re standing in the centre of the largest and most populous city in the UK.
Buckingham Palace’s unofficial front garden was the first of the Royal Parks to be opened to the public, and since then it has become that well-known countryside cliché: a haven for wildlife. The lake alone is home to all manner of different birds, including 15 different species of waterfowl; herons, crows, pigeons, Canada geese and Greylag geese, mallards and other duck species, chaffinches, robins, thrushes, swans, and a huge number besides.
But the real attraction here are the park’s resident pelicans. These huge birds were first introduced in 1664 as a gift from the Russian Ambassador, and the current contingent live by a picturesque little cottage near Duck Island. They’re now incredibly tame and you can see them being fed fresh fish between 2:30pm – 3:00pm every single day. There are even stories of them flying over their fence to sit beside visitors on some of the many benches dotted around the lake, if you don’t mind a slightly disconcerting companion!
Even if you don’t manage a close encounter of the pelican kind, they’re fascinating to watch from a distance – if only for the ridiculously impressive stretch of their beaks. This one we managed to see having lunch was certainly winning at life, don’t you think?
The other big wildlife attraction in St James’s Park is the grey squirrel. Pests to the native red squirrels in England they might be, but there’s no denying that these silly little rodents are cuter than most, and here in St James’s it’s not uncommon to have one eat out of your hand.
The park has guidelines on what you can and can’t feed them, but the general consensus is that unsalted peanuts are a favourite of theirs, so with a bit of persistence you’ve got a good chance of tempting one or two over to see you.
When you’ve had your fill of the various critters that roam across the water and grass, the park is also home to a number of landmarks and viewing points over some of the bigger attractions London has to offer. The Blue Bridge snaking over the lake is a prime point for taking in Buckingham Palace to the west, and the Horse Guards Parade, Big Ben and the London Eye over the water to the east.
From there, you can walk to the Houses of Parliament, Leicester Square, Hyde Park and the London Eye without having to take the Tube. There are a surprising number of rolling green spaces in the capital, but if you’re looking for a taste of the country within walking distance of the more metropolitan attractions the city has to offer, then St James’s Park has to be the first choice for a relaxed and scenic day trip, within the bustle of the frenetic city.
Next Week: Exploring Rivelin Valley