The square is to London what canals are to Venice. There are the famous squares, like Trafalgar Square, where visitors flock to see some of the capital’s best attractions. There are the squares that are triangle, like Hampstead Square Gardens. And then there are London’s garden squares, tranquil pockets of greenery in the midst of the city, and London’s main contribution to the urban experiment. The smaller, more exclusive, siblings to the mighty London parks.
The fundamental difference between a garden square and a town square is how they’re intended to be used. Garden squares are all about private usage, whereas town squares are designed for public gatherings. Town squares include Trafalgar Square and Leicester Square, very definitely public not private spaces.
The London Squares Preservation Act of 1931, instigated by a failed bid to build over Edwardes Square in Kensington, protected hundreds of these precious squares, including 18 in Hackney, and West Square in Southwark. Today, some of London’s most exclusive properties overlook its garden squares, which are often fenced and gated for the exclusive use of residents (read on for how you can unlock the gates of these secret gardens). Others are open spaces for all to enjoy. Here’s our round-up of the must visit garden squares in central London to visit this year.
London’s oldest garden square is Bloomsbury Square Gardens in Camden. Covent Garden Piazza came first in the 1630s, created by famed architect Inigo Jones and influenced by the Italian style. But it’s Bloomsbury Square that is London’s first official square. Built in the 1660s, it was followed closely by St James Square. Kensington Square came in 1681 becoming known as a London square in the middle of the 19th century. With its large lawn, cleverly arranged walkways and canopy of trees, Bloomsbury Square Gardens is a peaceful communal space, just a stone’s throw from attractions like The British Museum.
Escape the hustle and bustle of central London at Cavendish Square Gardens in Marylebone. 5 minutes’ walk from the shopping paradise of Oxford Street, and the famous Regent’s Park, Cavendish Square was built around 1717- catapulting Marylebone onto the ladder of London’s most fashionable neighbourhoods. And if you do visit Regent’s Park, Park Crescent is one of the largest, and grandest, communal garden squares in the city.
Set to be London’s most extraordinary urban garden, plans are in place to transform Grosvenor Square Garden in Mayfair into a biodiversity haven. The aim is to take the ‘wilderness worke’ design conceived by gardener John Alston in the 1720s, a celebration of the countryside in the city, and transform Grosvenor Square Garden into a garden square for modern London. Featuring two acres of biodiverse planting, a large oval green space, and water to see, hear and touch, we’re already looking forward to visiting!
Taking the crown as London’s most beautiful garden square is Bedford Square Gardens in Bloomsbury, the only London garden square designed as a whole. Built in the 1770s, surrounded by elegant Georgian townhouses and encircled by pre-world war iron railings, Bedford Square has an artistic wholeness and harmony that no other London square possesses. Look out for the nubs of sawn off railings going towards Malet Street (a remnant of WWII).
Right in the heart of affluent South Kensington and Knightsbridge sits the leafy retreat of Thurloe Square Gardens. Situated on land that dates back to 1630, the terraces, serpentine pathways and lavish flower beds were laid out in 1840. Usually a residents’ only space, you can visit this delightful garden square on the 2022 London Square Open Gardens Weekend. Nearby Brompton Square and Kensington Square have gardens just as exclusive and delectable.
As you might expect, some of London’s best garden squares are in its most exclusive areas, like Mayfair, Marylebone, Bayswater, Notting Hill, Knightsbridge, the City of London and Chelsea. In Mayfair, in the City of Westminster, you’ll find Grade II listed Berkeley Square Gardens. Protected by English Heritage, Berkeley Square’s current elongated oval featuring four grassed areas and a walkway that takes you around the oval and within, was designed in the 1760s. With its marble water nymph statues, surrounded by benches, Berkeley Square is a charming garden square to visit, in a lovely part of London.
For elegance and exclusivity, it has to be Cadogan Square. Located in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Cadogan Square Gardens is part of the Cadogan Estate, led by the 8th Earl Cadogan and with a history dating back to the Stuart era. Cadogan Square Gardens itself is nestled amongst red brick mansions. First laid out in Victorian times, the ornamental planting and verdant lawns are much the same as they were in 1886. Also part of the Cadogan Estate are the garden squares of Cadogan Place North and South, and Hans Place – once home to Jane Austen.
For a peek into the grandest of London’s squares, head to Belgravia, south of Hyde Park. Belgrave Square Garden is 4.5 acres of luscious green space, designed by George Basevi and Thomas Cubitt in 1826, making it one of the largest of London’s squares too. The children’s play area and tennis courts were added more recently. This private garden is an oasis of wisteria, roses and summerhouses. Nearby, there’s another private garden square – Eaton Square Gardens – which was once home to Prime Ministers Neville Chamberlain and Stanley Baldwin.
Just behind bustling Borough High Street in Southwark, you’ll find Trinity Church Square. It’s an unexpected find (just the kind we like) that many don’t get to see. It boasts London’s oldest statue, the provenance of which is something of a mystery. It seems that the core of it is 2000 years old whilst the lower half is Roman. It was updated in the 19th century and became a statue of King Alfred.
The square itself is part of the Trinity House corporation, and it has been since 1661. The surrounding, attractive terraced houses were built in the 19th century and became home to professional families. That made the square unusual in the Borough area – a “wealthy oasis amongst a sea of poverty” according to Southwark’s Conservation Area appraisal.
Located in Kensington W8, this charming, Grade II listed garden square is more informal and meandering than many gardens of its early 19th century creation. Its garden lodge is built in the style of a Greek temple and remains the home of the resident gardener.
Given its origins in the Napoleonic era, there’s a story – probably apocryphal but a good tale nonetheless – that it was going to house Napoleon’s officers. It rejoices in what many say is the finest old pub in London, The Scarsdale. The square and pub remain the exclusive use of those ‘who know’.
This is just a glimpse into the hundreds of gorgeous garden squares in central London. If you’ve worked up an appetite to get out exploring, check out our walks, including the Bohemian Bloomsbury walk.
London Parks & Gardens organise London open garden squares weekend annually which is well worth a visit. It’s been and gone for 2023 (10-11 June) unfortunately.