Writer and literary blogger Gemma Seltzer has spent 2011 collecting the most peaceful places in London for her project ‘Look up at the Sky’, charting the quieter side of the city. From March to October, she walked along the River Thames, wrote about her experiences, played with maps, took photographs and collaborated with other writers and artists.
Here, she compiles the top 10 peaceful spots in London, as featured on her blog. You can contribute to this ongoing project by adding your own favourite Peaceful Place to the map, follow the link here.
1. Barge Walk, Hampton Court
Following the curve of the river from Hampton Court Bridge to Kingston is a tree-lined stroll, with clusters of swans, vine-covered walls and rowers aplenty. Halfway along, the land lifts to reveal Seething Wells, the marvellously named former water treatment works with pipes wide-mouthed over the river. This walk does get busy, but is worth it for the pockets of peace you’ll encounter along the way.
2. Queen Charlotte's Cottage, Kew
A lovely little place within Kew Gardens, situated at the end of a paddock, which can also be spotted from the riverside path alongside. This 18th century rustic cottage was built as a country retreat for the royal family. The paddock originally housed exotic animals including kangaroos, but is now a fine flower garden which, in the spring, sports more bluebells than you've ever seen in your life.
3. Eel Pie Island, Twickenham
No cars! No bikes! No barking dogs! The few residents on this island don't seem to like visitors (clock the copious ‘Keep Out’ signs), but don't let that stop you having a wander. It can be reached only by footbridge or – what a nice idea – boat. Eel Pie was known for its jazz venues and recording studios in the 1960s, but now it is very quiet and smells of honeysuckle.
4. Daunt Books, Marylebone
One of the loveliest bookshops in London, housed in an old Edwardian store with oak galleries and long lengths of bookshelves to browse. When last we visited, a gaggle of small children read calmly in the kid’s area, a man knelt on the floor examining an ordinance survey map, and free cups of elderflower cordial were available.
5. Barbican Centre
Still an underrated building in London – possibly because of the difficulty finding an entrance door – and full of peaceful places to enjoy including the high walkways, the music library and the indoor tropical conservatory. Try the lakeside terrace in the early morning for some stark concrete loveliness, traffic-free and with few other people to disturb your still moment.
6. Hampstead Heath
An obvious choice, but well deserving of a place on this list. Kenwood House is beautiful, Parliament Hill delightful and the ponds, in summer, a treat. But the real hidden gem of this heath is on the north-west side, the extension, which was originally farmland, later tacked on to the main heath. Think hedgerows and open spaces, ancient trees and ponds. It’s eerily silent, too.
7. Thames Path, Pimlico
From Chelsea Bridge to Vauxhall, the north side of the river takes you through a straight-line landscape of roads and pillars and fences. Battersea Power Station dominates the view at all points of the path; you’ll have seen it from all angles by the end. If you can tune out from a road energised with traffic and slow your pace to that of the river, this really is a remarkable part of the city.
8. The Saison Poetry Library
The top floor of the Southbank Centre is filled with British poetry from 1912 to the present day. From obscure, hand-printed pamphlets to full collections by the finest poets, plus most literary magazines ever published. This place is a real treat for lovers of the written word. It’s free to join, has a few tucked away study desks, and the reference section is worth dedicating some time to explore.
9. Wapping Old Stairs
If the tide is out, slip down the passageway by the Town of Ramsgate pub and to the algae-covered Wapping Old Stairs. Ancient maritime inns overlook this stony shore, which is littered with fragments of history and debris. Marvel at the deserted riverbed, the driftwood and the old execution dock constructed for pirates and smugglers. Apart from a few pesky speedboats, it’s completely silent here.
10. Thames Barrier
Perhaps the most peaceful – and desolate – spot in London. By the Thames Barrier, there's a visitors’ centre with no visitors; it’s an essential part of London's flood management with no witnesses. The landscape here, in the lead up to 2012, is stark and industrial. The entire riverside is decorated with barbed wire, signs and cranes. The barrier itself is impressive, its huge steel gates rising nobly from the river.
By Gemma Seltzer. Gemma Seltzer is a writer and literary blogger. Her book, Speak to Strangers, was originally a blog and is now available in print (Penned in the Margins, 2011). Find out more about Gemma’s work at www.gemmaseltzer.co.uk.