The Square Mile can be a challenging place to spend a lunch break. With its cement canyons and relentless drilling, finding 30 minutes’ peace is a tall order. While Greater London is famed – compared with other world metropolises – for its expanses of parkland, The City itself remains a strictly urban; a steel, glass and concrete counterpoint to the vegetation beyond.
Finding a patch of grass in between the girders and hoovered pavements is difficult, then – but not impossible. Sprinkled like confetti across ECs 1, 2, 3 and 4, the intrepid city worker will find a whole range of postage stamp parks and ‘City Gardens’; slivers of greenery. They are manicured and pedicured, with lawns mown to velvet and shocks of pampas grass standing sentry.
We’ve picked 18 of the best ‘greens’ in The Square Mile and attributed each one with a par (summing to 72), so that tourists and city workers alike can enjoy a hearty game of City Park Golf. Do the full 18 in one outing, teeing off at Liverpool Street and finishing up at Tower Hill. Or else distribute them across 18 lunch breaks, so as to really string out the game.
In picking our course, we’ve gone for enigma over size – you’ll find no Barbican, Finsbury Circus or St Paul's Gardens. And we’ve worked on the basis that anything qualifies as a park, as long as it’s accessible to the public and has somewhere to sit.
The First: St Botolph without Bishopsgate (EC2M 3TL)
This stunning strip of green, which runs between Bishopsgate and Old Broad Street, was formally made into a public garden way back in 1863. Modern art – in the form of a gigantic chrome keyhole on the lawn – meets ancient rune, with the graves from the garden’s eponymous 11th century church set into the grass. The tennis and netball courts, frequented by City workers keen to unwind, are a newer addition. The surrounding turf is mown short, and a water feature on the grass adjacent transports liquid flatly across two low polygons. Par: 3
The Second: St Alphage Garden (EC2Y 5EL)
Almost impossible to find, St Alphage is currently located in the very bowels of a gigantic building site, just beside the Barbican. The garden is a submerged courtyard, a sort of open-air dungeon, and forms part of the old ruins of London Wall. A longer strip at the top, about the length of a bowling green, makes up the rest of the site. Ivy runs along the top of the wall, and foliage collapses down one side, like a succession of waterfalls. We’ve given it an extra ‘par’ for its inaccessibility. Par: 4
The Third: St Mary Aldermanbury Gardens (EC2V 7JN)
Contemporary art dovetails with the Classics at this classy little City Garden, situated at One Love Lane, in the shadow of the Guildhall. An aquamarine, quartz structure rears out of the water near the entrance, and an imposing bust of William Shakespeare looms behind a walled garden with a lawn and a bank of ferns. The bust was provided by Henry Condell and John Hemmings, two actor friends of Shakespeare.
The ruins of the original church, which stood on the site until The Blitz, were in 1966 shipped to Missouri and rebuilt as an homage from the Americans to Winston Churchill. Par: 5
The Fourth: St Olave Silver Street (EC2V 7EE)
Described by 16th century surveyor of London John Stow as “a small thing, without any noteworthy monuments” the site of St Olave is small but perfectly formed patch of green. It in fact boasts two monuments, in the form of a well-swept walkway and a moderately large birdbath. Par: 2
The Fifth: Churchyard of Saint John Zachary
A geometrically perfect sunken square; a neat perimeter wall; a fountain growing out of a bed filled with pebbles as big as Easter Eggs: it doesn’t get spicker or spanner than this. Above the Churchyard of Saint John Zachary an office block creates a perfect reflection of the garden.
The most impressive aspect – and the only element to defy the otherwise perfect symmetry – is the 1957 sculpture in the corner, only recently moved here from another site. It represents “the only public monument to newspapers” in existence – a paperboy, a printer and an editor standing together in a collective celebration of the print press. A nice little coffee stall often sets up here, too. Par: 4
The Sixth: Postman’s Park (EC1A 4AS)
Perhaps the most impressive of the ‘greens’ we explore, Postman’s park is a veritable expanse compared with others on our course. It boasts a fountain and a sundial, but its most famous feature is the ‘Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice’, a wall of plaques, built in honour of 54 19th century Londoners killed saving others. It tells of Sarah Smith, for example – a pantomime artist who, in 1863, “died of terrible injuries received attempting, in her inflammable dress, to extinguish the flames that had engulfed her companion.”
The wall achieved contemporary fame after the 2004 release of the film Closer, in which it plays a key role in the relationship between Natalie Portman and Jude Law. Since then its star has only risen. An App was released in 2013, and the first new memorial in 78 years installed in 2007. An audio tour of the park can be heard here. Par: 6
The Seventh: Christchurch Greyfriars Rose Garden (EC1A 7BA)
Sitting in the Shadows of ‘Bart’s’ hospital, the Christchurch Greyfriars rose garden is the former site of a Franciscan Monastery that was destroyed in 1666. It was recently renovated, and boasts an impressive array of roses and other wild flowers. The old site is the burial place of 13th century monarch Isabella, the so-called She-wolf of France.
Walled in by the perimeters of the old site, Christchurch Greyfriars is now frequented by tourists, with sprigs of bluebells and climbing plants, and flowers growing as high as your chest. Par: 4
The Eighth: Warwick Square Gardens (EC4M 7BP)
A bench. A hedge. A low, stone seat. What more could one ask for?
This spartan scrap of a garden is hidden behind a car park, about two metres by five. Four stone pillars run along one side, with a stone seat and low, well-groomed hedges underneath, like a Lilliputian orange grove. A City Garden in name but very little else, Warwick Square Gardens is a good thing in a small package. Par: 3
The Ninth: Smithfield Rotunda (EC1A 9BD)
The City’s unique juxtaposition of modern civility and historic barbarism is nowhere better summed up than on the site of Smithfield Rotunda, a circular park between Smithfield Market and St Bart's hospital. The area was a hotspot for exceptionally gruesome executions until well into the 19th century – including those of Scottish folk hero William Wallace in 1305, Peasants' Revolt leader Wat Tyler in 1381, and over 200 Protestants burnt alive by Queen Mary I in the 1500s.
The garden now specialises in biodiversity, with shrub cover provided for nesting birds and a so-called ‘insect hotel’ – showing, perhaps, how far we have come as a species. Arriving at the mid-point in the course, Smithfield Rotunda is a good place to take a break. Par: 5
The Tenth: St Dunstan in the West Burial Ground (EC4A)
Winner of the 2006 City Gardens Prize, the churchyard of St Dunstan in the West lies to the furthest most Western Fringe of the Square Mile – the outer Hebrides of our course – so is likely to appeal only to the most intrepid and all-weather of City Park Golfers. It’s a mere 30 seconds from Chancery Lane, where The City ends and the Borough of Camden begins.
The parent church on Fleet Street should also be visited. Notable for its clock, which was the first in London to include a minute hand, and a crumbling statue of King Lud, the mythical Welsh King who featured in Geoffrey Monmouth’s 1136 mythologized History of the Kings of Britain. Par: 4
The Eleventh: Johnson’s Court and Gough Square (EC4A 3DG)
These two courtyards, nominally given garden status by the presence of a silver birch and a crescent of benches in each, stand next to the Fleet Street home of Samuel Johnson, compiler of the first, fully authoritative dictionary of the English Language, in 1755. Dappled and secluded, Johnson’s Court and Gough Square are tricky to find. The latter features a statue of Hodge, Dr Johnson’s cat, in front of which it’s customary to leave a few pennies or some other small offering. ‘Hodge’, described by his learned owner as “a very fine cat” came an impressive second in our 2012 countdown of London cat statues. Par: 3
The Twelfth: St Anne of Blackfriars (EC4V 5EX)
Paved, raised, and well over 500 years old, these two churchyards-come-gardens, are lined with ancient graves and a have a strip of benches running down the middle. They are a street apart, and both close at dusk. In the first of the two gardens an Amazonian tree climbs upwards, creating a canopy above. The jade, Gothic feel of the place makes it an especially good place to spend a lunch break. Par: 2
The Thirteenth: St Mary Somerset (EC4V 4GG)
A peninsular of foliage between office blocks and the A3211, St Mary Somerset is secreted at the bottom of Lambeth Hill. Admire the single turret, which is now all that remains of the church (the rest of which was destroyed in the Great Fire of London), and notice in particular the ascending, weathered faces, howling silently out of the stone. The surrounding park is topiaried in the style of a country garden maze, with a battery of benches fitted in between the tight hedging. Par: 4
The Fourteenth: Cleary Gardens (EC4V 4HQ)
These astonishing hanging gardens could have been lifted straight from the Chelsea Flower Show. Spreading across three crazily paved tiers, the meadow feel at the top gives way, as you move down, to a cool patch of grass largely hidden from the sun by the Investment Management Firm next door.
Built by the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association in 1982, the gardens contain a plaque dedicated to Fred Cleary, after whom they are named – a champion of the City Garden. The gardens are built on Huggin Hill, next to an extensive set of Roman remains, discovered in 1964, that still exist beneath the adjacent office building. Par: 6
The Fifteenth: Dark House Walk and Grants Quay
These two strips of man-made greenery flank the northern shore of the Thames, like a pair of window boxes. The views of Tower Bridge are fantastic, and between the two parks a strip of shrubbery runs inland. Beside it is gym equipment and a running strip, which enables you to sprint across the long shadow of The Shard. Par: 3
The Sixteenth: St Dunstan in the East (EC3R 5DD)
The exuberant sibling of its western namesake, St Dunstan in the East is an impressively lush half acre, built in a derelict church behind the Royal Bank of Scotland buildings on Great Tower Street. Vines and creepers weave through empty windows and over the keystones of the former nave arches. The sky makes an impressive replacement ceiling for Christopher Wren’s original architecture, and vegetation springs forth amid the ruins.
The church was originally built in the 1100s. It sustained heavy damage in the Great Fire of London and then the Blitz, and was eventually turned into a City Garden during the 1970s. Water flows coolly over a water feature shaped like a Portobello mushroom. Par: 5
The Seventeenth: Fen Court (EC3M 5BA)
Created just six years ago, Fen Court is a recent addition to the course. A glade of orchids surrounds a central area paved into the shape of a labyrinth. Fountain House and the other skyscrapers immediately around create near-permanent shade.
Beside the courtyard a podium and a set of 17 pillars, designed by sculptor Michael Visocchi and poet Lemn Sissay, make up an art installation designed to commemorate the end of slavery. Par: 5
The Eighteenth: Portsoken Street Garden (E1 8BT)
Hidden to the East of Tower Gateway DLR station, our eighteenth green is perhaps the quintessential City Garden. Created in 1936 to commemorate King George V, Portsoken Street Garden is a neat square, complete with children’s play equipment (strangely enticing for grown-ups, until you fall off). With its tiered pond – a mallard, lily-pads, a koi carp floating just beneath the surface – there is a faint whiff of the suburbs about it.
This makes it a perfect exit point at which to leave London’s CBD and return to Zone 3 – or else to retire to one of the area’s many Club Houses (pubs) and reflect on the day’s sport. Par: 4
From here you'll need to find a '19th hole' for some refreshments. We can recommend the Hoop and Grapes a short walk away on Aldgate, among the oldest pubs in the Square Mile, and one of the few timber-framed buildings to survive the Great Fire. Cheers.
By Chris Clarke