Rural London: Long Shadows on County Grounds

Stepping into Merry England five minutes from the Theydon Bois Tube Station.

After several weeks schlepping around central London’s myriad tony neighborhoods, we had a hankering for some fresh air, muddy paths, and unkempt woodland. Fortunately, these are easy to find in London; in some cases, you can even find a bucolic slice of rural England without having to leave the Oyster network.

An autumn walk in Epping Forest, accessible from the Central Line of the London Underground.

While the areas of London which are actually built-up are quite heavily populated even by world standards [1], the city taken as a whole is far less dense than its international peers. New York crams more than three times as many people into a square kilometer as London, while Mumbai and Hong Kong have population densities six times higher [2]. This is a very good thing, as the differential is largely due to Greater London’s vast tracts of parkland. A staggering forty percent of the Capital’s surface area is made up of public green space [3]. That translates into 35,000 acres of woodland, village greens, manicured parks, and other natural spaces which are open daily for the use and enjoyment of the city’s residents and visitors.

What this means, in practice, is that it’s very easy to get out of London without getting out of London. So far, we have spent time at two of the city’s great exurban parks, Richmond Park and Epping Forest. Both parks are easily accessible for a tube fare of a few quid — far less than the £20 or £30 you’d pay to get deep into the more pastoral reaches of the Home Counties.

A visit to Epping Forest is a particularly surreal experience. You alight from the Central Line in Theydon Bois, which has all the appearance of being buried deep in Somerset or some other rural English county. Forty minutes on transit from the Square Mile, this is the sort of place where (former Prime Minister) John Major’s Britain of warm beer and “long shadows on county grounds” still sits very close to the surface.

Both Epping and Richmond are beautiful places. Richmond is the more open of the two, full of broad heaths and great vistas of the distant City. Epping is more densely wooded, having been continuously forested since Neolithic times. Both are home to deer and other wildlife, and both easily fool you into thinking you’ve left the city far behind. Closer to central London, Hampstead Heath serves up the same menu of muddy paths, rustling leaves, and fresher air.

A wooded area on Hampstead Heath.

In most major North American cities, easily accessible undeveloped land is a rarity. Angelenos have the more rugged sections of the Santa Monica Mountains, and Vancouverites have Pacific Spirit and Stanley parks, but the older cities of the East offer their apartment-dwellers scarce little opportunity to connect with nature. Amidst the current (and generally admirable and well-intentioned) push for density prevalent in so many metros, it would be a shame if planners overlooked the role ample green space can play in making a city a good place to live. It’s healthy to get mud on your boots — and if you can do that and then hit a wine bar on the way home, all the better for it.

Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath, with the towers of the Square Mile in the distance.

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