Getting Back to Nature

Flipping over rocks to find salamanders, pond-dipping for frog eggs, building lean-tos with fallen branches—many of my fondest childhood memories revolve around the natural world. But I grew up in a small New England town, and I’m raising my own kids in London, with its heaving population nearing 8 million souls. It may be hard to imagine that crush of humanity leaves space for nature, but there are wild pockets—not just grassy parks, but unmanicured places where plants and animals have priority—many in or near west London. Here are a few of the places, great and small, where you and the kids can get back to nature.

Bordered by railway tracks and Bollo Lane, the little woodland of Gunnersbury Triangle includes a pond, meadow, and, come September, delicious blackberries. Past events include Family-Friendly Bug Day, or just go on your own whenever you like and search for frogs, newts, and stag beetles.

Much of Holland Park’s natural areas are fenced off from the public, but its Ecology Centre runs some nifty nature activities for kids, such as the Children’s Night Safari—this Friday, 25 April, from 7:30 to 9 p.m. (bring a torch!). On the third Saturday each month through September, children aged 5 to 10 can become Woodland Explorers in the park’s Wildlife Area, with activities including conservation tasks, environmental art and craft, and, of course, nature exploration. The Ecology Centre also runs half term activities; see the centre’s website for the full programme.

For the life aquatic check out the London Wetland Centre. In addition to the bitterns and bearded tits you might spy from the blinds, if you turn up at 11 am or 2 pm, you can watch the adorable otters being fed.

Another spot for birdwatching is the Ten Acre Wood, which includes meadows and a bordering brook. Not as high-end as the Wetland Centre, but then again, it’s free to visit. You can also go bug-hunting among the wildflowers of neighbouring Yeading Brook Meadows.

londonnaturereservesfrogcopyright of  London Wildlife Trust

Ruislip Woods is a national nature reserve made up of a handful of separate woods, including Mad Bess Wood, rumoured to be named for the wife of an 18th-century gamekeeper who prowled the woods for poachers. It’s inside the M25 but you’ll feel far from the Big Smoke as you ramble along listening to nothing but birdsong. The website will tell you that the wood “is interesting because of the occurrence of both pedunculate oak and sessile oak”, but my kids love it for the chance to run off-path and build lean-tos.

Crane Park Island was once home to the Hounslow Gunpowder Mills, and the old Shot Tower is now a nature and visitor centre (open on some Sunday afternoons). Come to see water voles and woodpeckers, dragonflies and damselflies. Should your kids crave more formal play, there’s a playground just down the Crane River.

What’s great about Richmond Park, which by the way is also a national nature reserve, is the variety of landscape. Ornamental Isabella Plantation is lovely, but you can also wander into any patch of woods to feel like you’re far from the madding crowd.

Search for other wild nooks and crannies on the London Wildlife Trust’s website or Natural England.

Frog image copyright of  London Wildlife Trust

Elisa Freeling
Author

Elisa moved to London a decade ago from San Francisco, where, in pre-children days, she was the managing editor at Sierra magazine. She lived in Brook Green, Notting Hill and Chiswick before settling in Northfields, where she lives with her book-loving daughter, architecture-loving son, and thickly moustachioed husband.

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