It’s easy to feel trapped in the city when you live in London, especially for those of us who in past lives spent the majority of their time outdoors. Finding escape can be tricky. In response I am going to share some spots around my home in North London where I regularly retreat from life in the smoke. As soon as the rains stop and clouds part it’s time to get outdoors and luckily with 33% of London being vegetated green space there’s loads of little pockets of weird and wonderful nature to head to. First up Gillespie Park.
Wedged on a strip of land between Finsbury Park Station and the old Arsenal Stadium at Highbury is Gillespie Park Nature Reserve and Ecology Centre. Having a peaceful oasis 20 metres from one of Zone 2’s busiest transport intersections is an under appreciated blessing. Especially an oasis that seemingly condenses a broad array of British wilderness environments into a tiny space, which up until its re-appropriation in 1980 was warehouses and coal yards left abandoned since the 1960s.
Gillespie Park’s entrance on Seven Sisters Road makes understated sound extravagant. For the first two years of living in the area and regularly passing the steps up to the park I dismissed them entirely. Then one day, looking for a shortcut, I ventured up and in and found the wonderful wild escape inside. This lesson seems to be the key to discovering London’s little gems of green space; ignore innocuous inconspicuous entrances and go in regardless, you’ll often be lead to the more interesting and underused of urban wilderness retreats.
With a whole world of meadows, copses, ponds and gardens inside Gillespie Park represents a real microcosm of the British Countryside, in the bizarre way that only a city centre nature reserve can. There’s an alarming array of life in the small repurposed space, tallying 244 species of plant, 94 birds and even 24 species of butterfly.
At most times of year the park seems grossly underused, most visitors just taking advantage of the shortcut from Highbury to the station at Finsbury Park or using the meadows as a convenient spot for dogs to relieve themselves. So even on the crispest and brightest of winter days it’s very easy to find peace and solitude waiting here.
My two favourite spots are Astor Meadow and Highbury Copse. The former sits at the top of the park and has a couple of well placed benches. The best of these is positioned perfectly so you can feel the subterranean rumble of trains as they tear along the Piccadilly and Victoria Lines on their way to Highbury & Islington or Kings Cross. Combined with the perpetual chirp of the local bird population and the fluttering shadow cast by Islington Council’s lone wind turbine, the sensation of the Tube trains below creates a very particular and surreal sensorial experience. Occasionally one of British Rail’s finest hurtles down the rail tracks running alongside the meadow, just to remind you that you are in one of the most populous urban areas in Europe, which staring into a glorious mess trees, bramble and wildflowers you might be liable to forget.
For a more ensconced uninterrupted escape from the hubbub of the capital Highbury Copse and Ambler Wood are the real deal, small tracts of dense woodland. Inside Highbury Copse you are completely cocooned against the usually inescapable throb of traffic on Seven Sisters Road. The sensation of being isolated by nature and the outdoors is prevalent here despite being slap bang in the middle of North London.
If I ever lack the time, energy or money to head out of the city in search of respite then I come and wander about and sit in Gillespie Park. The great outdoors are a magnificent thing but so can be their miniaturised equivalents offered by London’s multitude of green spaces.