As 14 February races towards us faster than a palpitating heart, it's time to start combing the internet for locations to go a-wooing. Maybe you've already booked into one of London's most romantic restaurants. Possibly you're planning something a little kinkier?
And then there's Valentines Park in Ilford — surely the most romantically-named-place-located-in-the least romantically-named-place ever? But hang on; could it be that this lesser-known urban oasis, slotted neatly between the North Circular and the A12, might actually live up to its sentimental moniker after all? Is Valentines Park, in fact, the most romantic spot in the whole of London?
We decided to investigate. In the name of love.
Meet underneath the big clock... Nothing says romance like meeting at an allotted time beneath an oversized timepiece, and Valentines Park has just the thing — a proud clockface with built-in seating (perfect for tardy dates), which has looked out over the boating lake since the park opened in 1899. If there's one problem, it's that the rusted-up timepiece is perpetually jammed at four minutes to 11. See you then, I guess.
Did you say boating lake? That's right, Valentines Park gives the likes of Hyde and Battersea parks a run for their money, with its meandering boating lake — perfect for rowing out into the middle of, to whisper sweet nothings into your beloved's cochlea. Sadly, around Valentine's season, the lake is prone to icing up, and therefore gives you a frostier reception than running into an ex who you jettisoned for their best mate.
Give me a sign... Valentines Park is scattered liberally with some genuinely touching plaques (and newly planted trees) dedicated to lost loved ones. These are, admittedly, somewhat offset by signs at the park entrance explicitly forbidding public urination AND/OR defecation; illicit fundraising... or the purchase of sexual favours. On that note, probably don't go borrowing your chat-up lines from the gents toilets; perched at the side of one of the urinals we found a soggy napkin annotated: 'Feeling Horny? Blow Job & Sex Now. (Tap 3 Times)'.
Why do birds suddenly appear... everybloodywhere you go in Valentines Park? The 18th century dovecote is — excuse the pun — a lovey-dovey spot to hang out (even if the birds have long since flown the nest), while lovebirds can also stroll hand-in-hand past a modern aviary. Even the park's owl statue, chainsawed out of a sycamore tree, is cute in its own kind of way. But as for the gaggles of geese, flocks of pigeons and commotions of coots — strutting and swooping their way psychotically around the park — they're frankly Hitchcockian. Feed the birds? Please don't. If they get any stronger, they'll peck you and your date to shreds.
Dinner for two... Yes, Valentines Park has its own waterfront restaurant, and by waterfront restaurant we mean a caff abutting a toilet block. It does however, microwave a mean chilli, chips and cheese — which at £5.60 makes for a good option if you're hedging your bets and taking a few different dates to the park.
Bottle of bubbly... Before you go popping any corks, we'll remind you of that earlier sign, bluntly stating that drinkers will be hung, drawn and quartered, or something to that effect. Either save the Bolly for the hotel (which we'll come to soon), or secrete it in a brown paper bag. There is a touch of irony, in that the walled gardens (which, may we say, are particularly apt for a stolen smooch) are home to a vine from which the Great Vine at Hampton Court Palace was cut, and much fine wine was created.
Garden of Love... Valentines Park — particularly the northernmost chunk of it — reveals itself to be a genuine delight: rose gardens (though not particularly rosy around Valentine's because: February); grottos inspired by classical Greece and Rome; and the picturesque Long Water canal, overlooked by the alcove seat with its ceiling of sea shells and copper, which is ideal for a snuggle. Word of warning, though: do not go romantically tossing coins into the park's wishing well: said well has been filled in, and said coin will bounce back up and hit you/your lover in the face.
Get a room... A word in your shell-like; if things are going really well on this park date of yours, know that there's a hotel just outside the park gates, although it does promise "a good nights [sic] sleep", so maybe not what you're looking for as an amorous couple.
Will you marry me? The park's unquestionable piece de resistance is Valentines Mansion, a handsome redbrick pile surrounded accessible via a cute bridge, featuring a sweeping colonnade — and even a Juliet balcony (ideal for pitching woo, although we must point out that anyone trying to shun their way up here faces the wrath of Redbridge Council). What's more, you can get married here — and plenty of loved-up twosomes do. My goodness, maybe Valentines Park is the most romantic place in London after all!