It was thanks to a tip-off from my wonderful neighbours, Mick and Marion, that I discovered the Fishponds Wood Nature Reserve. As the bike flies it’s about 20 minutes from where I live. I found it last year, astonishingly, just as the bluebells were carpeting the woods. Thrilled with my ‘Secret Garden’ moment, I felt as excited as I had on any jaunt further afield. On one of many return visits, I discovered a path that went straight up to Wimbledon Common, a shortcut that had me rubbing my hands in glee. Following it, I cheekily ducked through a hole in a wire fence that led to the neighbouring (shut) golf course and spent a glorious, sizzling hot late spring Saturday picnicking in splendid solitude on the fairway. It was through the same wood that I discovered a path along the Beverly Brook that led to Richmond Park. How had I not known about this green network in my midst? I mean it’s not like I’ve just moved into the area.
When I discovered a field of horses via a quiet bike path (hitherto invisible to me) nestled between a local cemetery and a park, I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d never laid eyes on an Appaloosa till then! This field led me to a nearby wetlands, home to a lovely, serene heron, some gabbling Egyptian geese and a family of swans.
And Richmond Park? Well, I was well used to winding my way slowly around the perimeter of this wonderful, enormous park, but I decided, in the interests of variety, to cut through the middle and that is how I discovered Pen Ponds, a pair of small lakes, home to all sorts of birds and aquatic life. If I was lucky I’d snaffle a bench beside it and keep my eyes peeled for the deer. (I developed an attachment to certain benches – I grew to love a corner one just inside the grounds of the park’s Pembroke Lodge.)
Terrace Gardens, beyond Richmond Park is privy to one of London’s loveliest views. It is one that is protected by an act of Parliament. Stand at the top and you can see the curve of the Thames, the rowers and paddle-borders, tiny as ants. I adore these charming gardens and in lockdown I virtually glued myself to them. The pretty cared for flower-beds, the mature trees, the café in the middle – it is a slice of south west London heaven.
I know I’m echoing a great many when I say that one of the few upsides of this miserable Pandemic was the joy of connecting with the natural world on my doorstep. I took to rising earlier and earlier, setting off with a flask of tea, and an apple to keep me going. The sun coming up through the trees, the birdsong, spring flowers budding, it was all quite magical and blissfully quiet. I love to walk but my bike gets me to places I wouldn’t reach so easily and it has been my greatest friend this past year.
Other favourite green spaces that I knew well, I now know intimately. Take Wimbledon Common. It’s a perennial favourite but this past year, I discovered Queensmere Pond, down past the Windmill Café (open for takeaways, and the loo is open too, hurrah.) This spot definitely punches above its weight. Shrouded by woods, at noon on a blue-sky day it’s a glorious suntrap. The swans, and a gazillion other birds I cannot name love it here too, as do the Yummy Mummy brigade, the local dogs (Labradors are very popular in these parts), families, the energetically retired and people like myself, seeking the creative muse. At lunchtime in deepest winter’s lockdown, I once spotted a woman on a camp chair by a corner of the lake knitting. She clearly had mastered the art of Zen.
My other beloved spot is Cannizaro Park, adjacent to the Common. It’s a Grade II listed park with a quite regal history and landscaped gardens, a place that you only really know about if you’re a local. It has such character: it’s a haven for wildlife, and full of quirky spots, including a sunken garden, an Italian garden, a statue of the goddess Diana, a tree trail, and a quite elegant, magical woods down at the back where you can find towering redwoods and pines and where the rhododendrons and azaleas flower and make your heat beat a little fast. I ended up spending my December birthday at Cannizaro – an emergency plan, when lockdown no. 4 descended the previous eve – celebrating with a mulled wine and pizza from the posh van parked there, and I could not have been happier. This year? I’m upping my game: I’m investing in a camp chair for sunny days when we’ve reached ‘peak bench’. Where local is concerned, I’m in it for the long haul.
Jini Reddy is a London-based nature and travel writer and author of Wanderland, which is now available in paperback. Wanderland was shortlisted for the 2021 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award and the 2020 Wainwright Prize for UK Nature Writing.