PHOTOS BY: Wincy Aquino Ong and CJ de Silva-Ong
How can you tell what kind of traveler your friends are? By the first place they go to upon arriving.
Others head straight to the tourist traps, the museums, the coffee shops (my wife, in this case), the malls (God forbid!). I, on the other hand, when suitcases have been unpacked and knots in my Economy Class-abused body have been untangled, make a beeline towards the parks.
The parks, you say? Blame it on the introvert inside me. But, yes, parks really send me into a state of utter bliss.
The embarrassment of trees, the palette of flowers, the reflective lakes, the otherworldly sculptures, the benches, the bicycles, people writing on their journals or doodling on their sketchpads—these things are what my 33-year-old pair of eyes hunger for. Like imbibing a shot of unadulterated twee, I fancy myself mugging on the cover of a Cardigans record, or if not, a frame from a François Truffaut film.
Did London conspire to bring out a Cheshire grin in me? It was summer solstice! That meant enough daylight hours to visit the famous ones and, for a contrarian such as myself, those under-the-radar as well.
Chiswick House And Gardens
Jet lag had kicked in. I was running on fumes. I searched for the nearest swimming pool. I did some laps to clear my head of an infernal migraine. Then just a few paces from the neighborhood pool was this little known garden in the outskirts of Chiswick—a family-friendly burb, which my wife mockingly called “London’s Alabang”.
The first thing that caught my virgin eye was a glasshouse—The Conservatory. I remember being hypnotized by its architecture when I saw one in the 1990 film Dick Tracy. Later on during the course of my trip, I learned that glasshouses were fixtures in Great Britain for tropical flora to survive in the cold weather.
Coincidentally, the park was also where the first two music videos in history were shot—they were promos for The Beatles’ “Rain” and “Paperback Writer.” As I played those music videos back in my head while scanning the glass-dome ceilings, the flowerbeds and the giant urns around me, goose bumps crawled over my skin. (In a past life, I was a director of music videos.) Paul McCartney walked on the same hallowed ground I was stepping on.
All the stimuli was too much to take in. I spied an empty park bench, laid down and stared at the canopy of leaves.
Crystal Palace Dinosaurs
Another interest I do backflips for whenever I’m in another country: dinosaurs. Now, of course, I did my research. I swore to Queen Elizabeth that I wouldn’t miss the brontosaurus in the Natural History Museum. But, wait, there was more.
Four bus transfers away from the city center brought me to Crystal Palace Park. Or to an armchair paleontologist like me, Dinosaur Court. Pangs of nostalgia hit me as the dinosaur sculptures suddenly brought me back to the library in Ateneo Grade School, where I saw the self-same Iguanodon sculpture in an Usborne encyclopedia.
The park was massive—so massive that I worked up a sweat. Upon entering the grounds, you’ll see random sculptures of sphinxes and headless aristocrats. A local told me that the Halloween events here are legend.
I got lost. I stumbled upon a maze garden. Not quite The Shining, since the summer turned the barricades of green half-dead, exposing the wiring underneath. I got dizzy and bored navigating the labyrinth. Using my height as an advantage, I jumped over a wall into end of the maze. “That’s cheating, mate!” a native quipped. I ignored him.
After asking directions from a park manager, I finally found it. As I walked through a bridgeway traversing a lagoon, behind a curtain of vines, a life-sized Megalosaurus sculpture loomed over me. Cue the strains of John Williams’ Jurassic Park theme.
The parade of the giant reptiles began.
What was interesting about the sculptures was they were created in 1851, a time when paleontology was still a burgeoning discipline. True, the sculptures are not accurate depictions, but the strange imaginations of Victorian scientists and artists sure added eeriness to the experience.
My mouth remained open until the train-ride home.
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Our friend told us to visit the Royal Botanic Gardens, which was nestled in the sleepy community of Richmond, away from the hustle of the city proper. The streets are so quiet, you can hear the residents washing the dishes.
Despite the scorching heat and a ridiculously priced gate fee (GBP 15 per adult, without donations), the park is still worth the visit.
Before we wandered around the park grounds, we ate at the Pavilion Restaurant, a farm-to-table gourmet experience, akin to Jamie Oliver’s. The buffet table was a bit pricey, but the vegetables truly packed a crunch and the carrot cake was baked fresh.
Because of the summer heat, the park area was painted a dull-brown rather than the postcard-green that I imagined. The grounds were too big to explore in one afternoon—like if you multiply the UP Lagoon Garden in Diliman by ten. But still, all that Britannia was too grand to pass up.
The piéce de résistance, of course, was the Palm House Parterre—another Victorian-era glasshouse, but one that looks like a spaceship culled straight from a Jules Verne novel. A walk inside its glass panes could make one faint, given the afternoon heat and the ozone layer-like domes. To an Asian who sees tropical fauna everyday, there was nothing much to gawk at, save for exotic cacti.
But still, the Royal Botanic Gardens was a nice refresh for the brain. All that fruity oxygen pried us away from our stupor.
Have you been to these green spaces in London? What other green spaces in London, the Philippines or anywhere else do you recommend for park lovers? Share in the comments!