Best Rides: Parks and green spaces of south-west London

The borough of Richmond has some of the country’s finest parks and manor houses. Paul Luton from Richmond Cycling Campaign leads this scenic tour.

For a downloadable map, click here.

This south-western corner of London offers probably the finest leisure riding in the capital. Along with the vast expanse of Richmond Park, cyclists can enjoy many miles of traffic-free paths in Wimbledon Common, along the River Thames and through Bushy Park and Twickenham.

The area has long attracted royalty, with English kings at the manor house in Sheen from 1299, which Henry VII renamed Richmond in 1495. Later Hampton Court ( and Kew were royal venues, attracting a wealth of courtiers, poets and painters. Royal fondness for hunting is the reason for the area’s fabulous expanses of semi-wild parkland, which we can enjoy today.


The view from here has been celebrated for centuries in poetry and painting, although the song ‘Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill’ seems to refer to Yorkshire. The Scottish poet James Thompson described the view in the 1740s:
“To lofty Harrow now, and then to where
Majestic Windsor lifts his princely brow.
In lovely contrast to this glorious view,
Calmly magnificent”
Amazingly the same can be said today, with only Twickenham rugby stadium and the ineptly-named Regal House office block intruding. For 200 years local authorities and residents have fought to preserve the view. On the left-hand bank of the river you can see 17th-century Ham House. This was given in 1625 by Charles I to William Murray who, as Charles’ whipping boy, had taken his punishments as a child. William’s loyalty during the Civil War led to his being created Earl of Dysart and to his death in exile, but his descendants lived here making few changes after 1680, until presenting the house to the National Trust in 1948.

Richmond Park is the largest Royal Park in London, covering an area of 2,500 acres. From its heights there is an uninterrupted view of St Paul’s Cathedral, 12 miles away. It was enclosed by Charles I in 1637, taking parts of the manors of Ham and Petersham as a hunting park with herds of red and fallow deer. Pedestrians were allowed rights of way, but this has had to be defended over the centuries against Rangers trying to keep the public out. 

Today it is a National Nature Reserve with many ancient trees and acid grassland. Notice the way that deer browsing has pruned the lower branches of trees to a level plane. We pass the White Lodge — a Palladian hunting lodge built for King George I and now the centre of the Royal  Ballet School (as seen in Billy Elliot). Isabella Plantation is a spectacular garden of clearings, ponds and streams established since the 1950s. Recently an off-road path for mountain bikers and walkers has been created, but it has a 10mph limit and gets very congested on Sundays.

Hampton Court was begun by Cardinal Wolsey, Chief Minister of Henry VIII in 1514, but when Wolsey fell from favour in 1529 he thought it politic to present it to the King. Henry enlarged the palace further and the western end, much as he left it, is the best surviving British example of a royal palace of the 16th century.

The eastern court was rebuilt for William and Mary by Sir Christopher Wren from 1689, in emulation of Versailles. This is the part that we see first from the riverbank through the wrought-iron screen (Jean Tijou) and across the recreated 17th-century privy garden. We swing round to the front of the palace which appears typically Tudor although the Gatehouse was originally two stories taller. After the mid 18th century the palace went out of use as a royal residence and became the tourist attraction that it remains today. NB - You will need to walk you bike through a section of the grounds here. 

Bushy Park was enclosed by Henry VIII, obliterating existing farms and again there remain herds of red and fallow deer. Charles I had the Longford River dug to bring water from the River Colne 12 miles away. As part of the William and Mary rebuilding of Hampton Court, Wren laid out the Chestnut Avenue, aligned on the great hall of the palace, and installed the Arethusa fountain from Somerset House in the centre of a large circular pond.

At a similar period Bushy House — still convincingly 17th century despite incorporation into the National Physical Laboratory — and Upper Lodge were built for aristocratic residents. Work has recently been carried out to restore part of the Upper Lodge water gardens created in the early 18th century by the Earl of Halifax, borrowing water from the Longford River. 

Crane Park is in the flood plain of the little river Crane, flowing from North London to the Thames at Isleworth, that was kept free from housing until the 20th century as the water was used to power gunpowder mills which occasionally exploded. A little way upstream an 18th-century tower remains that was certainly used to give warning of fires and possibly also in the manufacture of lead shot. The area of the gunpowder mills here is now a nature reserve.

Downstream the park is formalised as ‘Kneller Gardens’ named after Sir Godfrey Kneller. Born Gottfried Kniller in Lubeck, Germany, and a pupil of Rembrandt, he was appointed Principal Painter to the Crown by Charles II. He built a house locally on the site now occupied by the Royal Military School of Music — Kneller Hall. 

On the other side of a picturesque bridge is Eel Pie island, a renowned location for jazz and the rhythm and blues boom of the early 1960s. The Rolling Stones (who played their first gig at what is now the Bear pub opposite Richmond station) were regulars at Eel Pie along with The Who and many others. 

Marble Hill is a perfect gem of a Palladian Villa built in 1724 for Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, to a design by the Earl of Pembroke and Roger Morris. She had been Mistress to George II whilst maintaining a good relationship with the Queen and was the centre of a literary circle including Pope, Swift, Gay and Walpole. The house was the inspiration for many American Colonial houses and is now run by English Heritage with elegant 18th-century interiors. 

In contrast to Richmond, Kingston grew up as a market town and the centre has been substantially rebuilt in the last century, so items of interest are less obvious. Seven Anglo-Saxon kings were reputed to have been crowned in the 10th century on a stone now positioned outside the Guildhall. Kingston Bridge replaced a medieval timber construction in 1828 and was widened in 1914 and again in 1999

Strawberry Hill is a bit off route, but Horace Walpole invented Gothic Revival with his “little plaything house” here from 1747.

Twickenham parish church has a medieval tower but the body collapsed in 1713 and was rebuilt in brick to a design by the architect John James.

Richmond Bridge is the oldest surviving Thames bridge downstream of Abingdon. Constructed in 1774 (the commissioners included ‘Capability’ Brown, David Garrick and Horace Walpole), it was widened and flattened in 1937.

It's mostly on good surfaces, with much off-road and there’s really only a couple of cheeky climbs, one from the station to Richmond Hill and another in the road past White Lodge. But there's some good descents and the second part of the ride is fairly flat. Depending on stops – and there's plenty of pubs and cafes – you need to allow 3 to 6 hours.

Richmond is well connected with mainline rail services (to London Waterloo), London Overground trains and it's also at the end of the District Line.