Leaving London for a day trip sounds great in theory, until you clock that the South Coast is becoming an extension of High Street Ken, Cambridge is as rammed with students as it’s ever been, and that, of course, you’ve almost entirely forgotten how to use transport that doesn’t involve touching in and out. The good news is that you don’t really have to leave London to feel like you’ve had a break. Here are our favourite places for getting some garden and waterside vibes without leaving zone 4.
There are garden restaurants, and then there’s the cafe at Petersham Nurseries. It’s essentially a cafe in the greenhouse of a private garden in Richmond, with Italian food that’s pricey, but always extremely pretty and the kind of thing even your pickiest friend would nod approvingly to. Get a plate of their saffron gnocchi with mussels and peas and sit in their absolute stunner of a conservatory, which opens onto an actual meadow during the summer. As far as escapes go, it feels like you’ve left town because you basically HAVE left town. Factoring in the walk from Richmond tube, it’s a proper mission, but compared to getting on the train to Oxfordshire to eat at a mediocre country pub, we’ll take this any day.
The Quince Tree is a kind of low rent version of The Petersham Nurseries. That fact that it occupies a greenhouse in the accessible (relative to Richmond) Clifton Nurseries in Little Venice means that if you squeeze in a light lunch here after a walk along the canals, you might as well be a thousand miles from London’s lunacy. In fact there’s barely anything here to remind you that you’re only a few minutes on a bus from Marble Arch. It’s equally good as a morning spot for a quiet coffee and a laptop session, although perhaps not ideal if you’re prone to summer allergies.
Getting lost in Holland Park’s Japanese gardens is already an escape, but it doesn’t involve food or drinks, so we can’t really list it here. But stumbling upon Belvedere in Holland Park takes it up a couple of notches. It’s an old restaurant and ballroom that dates back to the 17th century, and has a faded grandeur that reminds us of the dance hall from Beauty and the Beast and a real-life Hotel California. The French and Italian food is tasty (though it can feel like you’re eating in a posh restaurant, circa 1994), and even though it’s quiet much of the time, having lunch on its outdoor terrace that overlooks the garden is a peaceful way to escape for a few hours.
A disused car park in the backstreets of Hackney Wick isn’t an obvious place to escape the stress of London, but turn down an alley (stay with us here) and you’ll reach Grow, a little haven along the River Lea. Everything is apparently locally grown and fairtrade, but the main headline is that there’s an excellent riverside setup that’s hard to beat, and on a sunny afternoon it’s full of locals watching kayakers and paddleboarders coast along the water while sipping cold drinks and eating halloumi and pulled pork buns. There are usually DJs and live bands at the weekends as well, so it’s also easy to make a night of it with a few mates.
The Mayflower Pub is the oldest boozer on the Thames, and a great spot to pitch up for a session at the weekend when you just want a drink and to catch some lazy river vibes. It’s a ‘proper’ pub, then - the inside’s cosy and looks like it’s barely changed for centuries, and there’s a lovely outdoor terrace that overlooks the water, good for drunkenly screaming at the odd kayaker after several rounds (just like Magaluf). As for food, it’s just as old-school - there’s a different pie each day and standards like fish and chips, though disappointingly there is avocado on the menu. They even cater to vegetarians.
Standing on Shoreditch High Street doesn’t sound like a promising place to start for a great escape, and neither does eating lunch inside an old school canteen. Our repressed memories of being locked inside the stationary cupboard aside, things change when you take a couple of turns from the main road, and you’ll end up at a quiet square and the entrance to one of our favourite restaurants in East London. Pressing the buzzer to the Rochelle school and opening the gate into the garden that Rochelle Canteen sits in is a delight we’ll never get tired of, and we could easily say the same of the simple but excellent British food. Hit it for a supremely chilled breakfast or glorious lunch, especially when they start setting the garden furniture outside.