Best parks in the UK to enjoy the sun, from spacious city spaces to restored small-town spots

A place for all ages to enjoy, these top green spaces are some of the country’s finest, as selected by parks afficionado Christopher Beanland

Tuesday 13 June 2023 12:11 BST
Picks include Merseyside’s Birkenhead Park, the original inspiration behind Central Park in New York
Picks include Merseyside’s Birkenhead Park, the original inspiration behind Central Park in New York (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Parks are more than just public spaces; they often set the scene for our most cherished memories, from first ice creams to first kisses. In recent years, lockdown reminded us just how important our humble local park was – suddenly it was the place where we exercised, socialised, dated, danced, played, cooked and relaxed. Parks have been the backdrop to all these activities for a century and a half, but they’ve changed over the years, too: fancy at first, before becoming run down and even a little scary at times, they provided a haven for teenagers and punks in the 20th century.

These days, as cities have regenerated, flat dwelling has mushroomed and tourism has thrived, parks find themselves in demand and awash with punters. From the High Line in New York to more traditional former hunting grounds like Richmond Park in London, the park is a place for all ages and weathers. But it’s in summer, as the mercury rises and the prosecco corks pop, that flocking to the grass proves irresistable. You can enjoy watching the world go by in your local park, or travel further afield to see the UK’s top open spaces.

I spent a year recording my podcast Park Date, where each episode I take a stroll with a famous guest – like Shazia Mirza, Alexandra Haddow, Harriet Kemsley and Christopher Biggins – in a different park around the world. Parks also inspired my latest book, City Parks.

I’ve put together a list of some of Britain’s best. From those boasting botanical gardens to renovated small-town gems, keep scrolling to discover the parks worth visiting this season and beyond.

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Victoria Park, London

Victoria Park has plentiful cafes and pubs on its outskirts (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The ‘People’s Park’ was a democratic undertaking, situated near residents with regular lives and incomes (unlike many Central London parks, which seem boujie by comparison). Shaped like a Wellington boot and wedged between two canals and some gorgeous housing, the park is a marvel of Victorian benevolence. Its Chinese pagoda was thought of as wildly exotic when the park was built in the 17th century. It also had a lido until 1990, and now’s the time to rebuild this outdoor swimming space. Victoria Park has plentiful cafes and pubs on its outskirts and is guarded by two Dogs of Alcibiades at the Bonner Street entrance – marble sculptures of Molossian Hounds donated by Lady Aignarth in 1912. It’s even the venue for various music festivals like Field Day and, latterly, All Points East. Plus, the park has recently come to prominence again due to Gemma Reeves’ eponymous novel about the people who live around its edges.

Where to stay

Mama Shelter London Shoreditch makes a cool base a 10-minute walk from the park.

Birkenhead Park, Merseyside

No delve into public parks could be complete without a look at Birkenhead Park on The Wirral. One of the world’s original parks and possibly the first publicly funded civic park in the world, it opened in 1847 and was designed by Joseph Paxton of Crystal Palace fame. It became the template on which many parks around the world came to be based, with its Romanesque ruins and ornamental lake, mixed with lawns and flower beds. US landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted came to look around in 1850 and was so struck with Birkenhead’s beauty that he used it as a template for many of his American and Canadian parks, including Montreal and Buffalo and, most notably, New York’s Central Park.

Where to stay

Hotel Indigo Liverpool is the other side of the River Mersey; hop on the 407 bus or take a leisurely 40-minute stroll to reach Birkenhead.

The architect who created New York’s Central Park used Birkenhead Park as his inspiration (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The Walks, King’s Lynn

The Walks is a small-town park that was lovingly restored in 2007, after decades of being rather dilapidated. The handsome Victorian bandstand set on an island surrounded by a moat from the diverted Gaywood River is a nice touch. Meanwhile, there’s a town wall, gates, and 15th-century Red Mount Chapel, built for pilgrims en route to Walsingham. Together, these have gained The Walks a Grade II listing from Historic England for its long history and unusual combination of landscapes and buildings. There’s even a football stadium in The Walks, and this is home to the plucky Linnets – a non-league King’s Lynn Town FC, who are on something of a Wrexham-esque roll of late.

Where to stay

The Duke’s Head Hotel is an affordable place to lay your head that’s a convenient 15-minute walk from the park.

Woodhouse Moor, Leeds

A tonic for generations of Leeds University students, Woodhouse Moor’s windswept uplands sit high on a hill and feel slightly wild. In summer, parties, picnics and sports dominate, while during the less warm months (of which Leeds has more than its fair share) you can spot other things in the park – like the statues of dignitaries with traffic cones on their heads and the gardeners toiling at the allotments. Sometimes students call it Hyde Park, which is not hugely surprising, as the park’s official branding is pretty minimal and there’s a big traffic junction at the northern edge called Hyde Park Corner. All the streets overlooking the park are almost entirely student rentals, while the former toilet block was transformed into Akmal’s, a popular student tandoori venue.

Where to stay

The DoubleTree Leeds puts you right in the city centre while being a half-hour stroll from the park.

Botanic Gardens, Belfast

Belfast’s Botanic Gardens play host to the Ulster Museum and Palm House (Getty Images)

Belfast’s Botanic Gardens is as much of a treat as a bag of cheese and onion Tayto crisps and it hosts two very different buildings. On one side sits the Ulster Museum with its radical 1972 brutalist extension by Francis Pym, an aggressive gesture built during the most tumultuous period in the province’s history. In contrast, you’ll also see the monumental Palm House designed by Charles Lanyon’s, dating from 1840. Inside this steamy, tropical greenhouse you can find all sorts of exotic delights like the globe spear lily. The park sits next to Queen’s University and even has its own station, Botanic, which is on the Northern Ireland rail network.

Where to stay

AC Hotel enjoys a prime waterfront location by the River Lagan, and is 25 and 35 minutes away from the gardens on public transport or on foot respectively.

Sutton Park, Birmingham

Sutton Park’s most alluring asset is the mainline railway, which unusually stretches out down its entire length and provides much amusement to kids. As do the donkey sanctuary and activity centre. A lido used to be here until 2003 and if you’re listening Birmingham City Council, it’s high time to get it re-opened. In the absence of the lido there are still plenty of ponds to explore and dive into. The BBC Radio 1 Roadshow – which was the previous incarnation of BBC Radio 1’s One Big Weekend – played here in 1992 to celebrate the station’s 25th anniversary. One wonders what Henry VIII would have made of it all, as he gifted the former royal hunting park at Sutton to its people.

Where to stay

Staying Cool, housed in the high-rise Rotunda, is bang in Birmingham city centre, a half-hour drive from Sutton Park.

Holyrood Park & Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

Holyrood is a mountainous park overlooking the Scottish capital (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Holyrood is an extremely unusual example of a mountainous park within a city. Were it not for the thousands of others who will also join you on this odyssey through Edinburgh’s wildest and windiest slice of land, you’d almost believe you were in the Highlands. The extinct volcano of Arthur’s Seat broods right over the centre of the Scottish capital, whose dour architectural seems to honour and magnify the greyness of Salisbury Crags. At the foot of the hill, you can find the Scottish Parliament, while in the park itself there are colonies of fulmars, stonechats and hares, plus orchids. During festival season you’ll spy narcissistic hungover stand-up comic, and over-exuberant experimental student theatre practitioners alike slogging up to the top of Arthur’s Seat, ciggies and vodka in hand.

Where to stay

Ibis Styles St Andrew Square is two minutes from Princes Street and a 20-minute amble from the edge of the park.

Crystal Palace Park, London

The highlight of any visit to Crystal Palace Park is spotting the sculptures of dinosaurs, which don’t look quite like the real thing and are a real feat of Victorian bravado. At that time, the natural world was being relentlessly studied in the name of science – so here we have a collection of slightly woozy and sleepy iguanodon, teleosauras, megalosaurus and more, on an island in a lake. They’re the perfect accompaniment for Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, which was also out of this world. The glass palace showcased booty, biology, engineering, art and ideas from around the British Empire. It began life in Hyde Park in 1851 on the site of the Great Exhibition, before coming to South London in 1854, and giving its name to the park, suburb and football team. Alas, the palace stood proud until being ravaged by flames in 1936.

Where to stay

Art’otel London Battersea Power Station is a new opening, from where you can hop on a 23-minute Southern train to Crystal Palace.

Hampstead Heath, London

The wonders of the Heath include the atmospheric Pergola garden (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The Heath – as Londoners know this spot– is so big and wild that exploring it feels akin to being out in the countryside of Surrey or Hertfordshire. Owned and run by the City of London, it features huge expanses of gorse and grass, plus steep inclines. You’ll also see lots of dogs and kite flyers too, alongside the wonders of the Heath, which include the Hill Garden and Pergola, an atmospheric and often deserted Georgian terraced garden with a big pergola.

Where to stay

The Bull and Last is a cosy pub with rooms on the southeastern edge of the Heath.

Primrose Hill, London

Primrose Hill is a premium London location next door to Regent’s Park (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Premium London location Primrose Hill is managed alongside Regent’s Park next door by the Royal Parks. You get stirring views over central London’s skyscrapers, which the entrepreneurial mind would consider charging for. The vista means it’s perfect for sundowner drinks come summer, while sledgers will always try their luck on Primrose Hill on the rare occasions London gets snow.

Where to stay

Nhow London is a lifestyle hotel in Shoreditch from where you can easily walk to Angel, hop on the Northern Line and alight at Chalk Farm for Primrose Hill.

Folkestone Harbour Branch Line Park

Folkestone’s smartened up former station makes for a unique public space (Getty Images)

Folkestone’s answer to the High Line pitches its former Harbour Station and branch line as a new public space that’s perfect for a seaside stroll. Just like the High Line, they have left some of the track bed (if only there was a train) and beautifully restored the station buildings, platform, and level crossing. Meanwhile, the Harbour Bridge features more flowers and planters and a bike path. The eventual ambition is to extend the parkland along the former branch line, back up the hill towards the junction with the current Folkestone to Dover main line. It’s a perfect introduction to this cool Kentish port town, which today attracts its fair share of hot hipster residents.

Where to stay

The View Hotel is a four-star boutique on the Leas, 20 minutes’ walk from the regenerated Harbour Arm.

Chris’s podcast Park Date is available to listen to now.

Chris’s book, City Parks, (Batsford) is out now (£22.95).

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