I think of all the incredible places my love for the natural world has led me. There’s Iceland: wild, brooding, beautiful, with its dark coastlines and countless waterfalls. The tiny Swiss town of Interlaken, surrounded by the snow-capped Bernese alps, will forever hold a special place in my heart. And how could I forget Western Australia’s hidden bays and white sandy beaches?
And yet, when I was asked the other day to “share [with us] your ultimate nature escape, and tell us what it means to you”, I realised my answer — the honest one, not the one everyone wants to hear about traversing mountain ridges or river rafting — was the one that seemed most boring, but teaches a surprisingly valuable lesson.
My ultimate nature escape is my local park.
When I first moved to London from Singapore a few years ago, I felt like I may as well have moved to the international space station. I didn’t know anyone or anywhere in particular yet — but I did know that St James’s Park was just around the corner. And so from the very beginning I found myself going there, camera in hand, trying my best to capture the lake, the curious squirrels, the ducks and geese, full trees and flower beds in the summer and bare branches and snowy slopes in the winter.
The park’s residents gradually became familiar to me, like the pelicans Louis, Vaclav and Gargi, with whom I share one highly prized, hilarious selfie. (They’re descendants of pelicans first gifted to the UK by the Russian Ambassador in 1664, reminders of a sepia-tinted gung-ho version of the ‘good old days’ where things like Russia giving us pelicans happened.) There’s also a funny old bird who’s built a nest on the lake — I joke about how lucky he is to live so central, with such a great view, rent-free.
It was a breath of fresh air amongst the chaos of its Westminster surroundings. I marvelled at how much life teemed in this tiny pocket square of nature. Stepping into the park was like switching on a light or hitting a pause button: all at once it made everything brighter and any background noise vanish. I brought friends here for cheerful summer picnics, I brought family here to resolve long-held disputes. Taking you on a tour of the park would be like walking back through a house of memories: we could make a pit stop at the place I stopped to make snow angels one magical winter’s day, or I could point out to you where I laid flat on my stomach for a good ten minutes trying to get a psychotically perfect photo of a random pigeon.
I’ve loved St James’s park over the years and through all its seasons, and it’s been there for me throughout mine. It’s taught me how much beauty and life there is in even the smallest of places. But most importantly, it taught me that some of the most incredible places are the most understated. What I mean by that is this: I’ve visited places that would easily come in the ‘top ten’ of any ‘ultimate outdoors escape’ list. They’re truly epic. I love to climb, and dive, and hike. No, I can’t do any of those things in the park. But I realised you don’t have to be atop a mountain, hanging off a rock surface, to enjoy nature. It doesn’t matter if I’m diving off a remote island or simply sat in my neighbourhood park — there is only one constant, and that is this: the world is an amazing place. What for all the breathtaking images social media paints of faraway landscapes and the twilight beauty of mountain ranges at dusk and dawn, simply spending time in your local park is restorative. You can escape into nature much closer than you think.