Boathouse structure in the middle of a pond surrounded by trees
Parks and Gardens

7 Historic Urban Parks and Gardens To Improve Your Wellbeing

Parks and green spaces are vital for our mental and physical health.

Whether going for a walk, a run, walking the dog or meeting friends, spending time in parks and green spaces improves our physical and mental health as well as our life satisfaction.

Here we look at some of our best historic public urban parks to explore and boost your mental and physical wellbeing.   

1. Devonport Park, Plymouth

Devonport Park is a Grade II listed park and garden, which offers a tranquil place to exercise away from the busy streets of Plymouth. In the early 19th century, the land was owned by the War Department, but concerns over public trespass sparked a need for public space.

A statue of a gun with two wheels on a stone podium in a park
Doris gun in Devonport Park, Plymouth. © Tony Atkins.

The land was leased to the Devonport Corporation and the park was created to provide a similar public space as the Hoe on the waterfront. Since then, the park has gained additions such as a Doris gun from the Boer War.

Whether it’s a brisk walk around the flower gardens and through the tree-lined paths to the Napier fountain or a tennis session on the courts and a game of football on the open playing fields, Devonport park provides a green escape to exercise at any level in the bustling urban environment.

2. Holland Park, London

Situated in Kensington, Holland Park began as an improvement project of the parkland surrounding Holland House in the mid-18th century, which was further improved by 1800 as Holland House became a centre for a glittering social, literary and political social circle.

A large pond with rocks and trees around it
Kyoto Garden in Holland Park, Kensington, London. © Peter S.

London County Council bought the land in 1953, and part of the grounds was opened to the public later that year. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea took over the site in 1986. The site remains in their possession, run as a public park.

The Japanese garden provides a peaceful, tranquil place to relax in one of the world’s busiest cities. It is also one of the few green spaces in central London that are big enough to go running in. Holland Park is a must-visit for anyone who wants a great place to exercise.

3. Botanic Garden, Cambridge

Situated on the grounds of Cambridge University, Botanic Garden was originally lain out on meadowland in 1846 at the instigation of John Stevens Henslow, Professor of Botany from 1825 to 1860.

A large fountain with flowers and benches around the outside
Botanic Garden, Cambridge. © Richard Humphrey.

The Botanic Garden can be split into two distinct areas: The Victorian gardens to the west; and the modern gardens to the east, which were developed in 1950. The gardens feature a woodland bog garden and an ornamental bog garden. You can also take a walk around the lake, which has a beautiful water feature.

4. Canon Hill Park, Birmingham

Opened in 1873, the inner-city public park has seen its fair share of history, with suffragettes targeting buildings in the park as part of their direct-action campaign. The park, which remains a municipal property of Birmingham, is a large, wide-ranging green expanse.

Path through a park, with trees on one side and a lake on the other. The trees have orange leaves which have fallen on the path.
Canon Hill Park, Birmingham. © Tom Axford.

Behind Edgbaston Cricket ground, Cannon Park is separated by a curved path into different areas of use: to the north-west the northern boating lake and flower gardens; to the south-east shrubbery, arboretum, and the students’ garden; and to the south-west lawns, games pitches, and the southern boating lake.

5. Birkenhead Park, Birkenhead

The Grade I listed park opened in 1847 and was the first park built at public expense. The barrier of social class was non-existent in the park, which was a real innovation.

Boathouse structure on a lake, with trees behind.
Boathouse, Birkenhead Park. © Historic England.

Birkenhead Park’s design is said to have impacted the design of parks both at a national and international level, including New York’s Central Park. F.L Olmsted, who designed Central Park, described Birkenhead Park as a place where ‘the poorest British peasant is as free to enjoy it in all its parts as the British Queen’.

One of the innovatory features of Birkenhead Park was the circulation and traffic segregation system, which also divides the park into areas of a different character. The chief designer Joseph Paxton created a park that resembled that of the English countryside.

The park’s best-known feature is a boathouse with a pavilion superstructure, designed to be used as a bandstand situated on the western shore of one of the lakes.

6. Saltwell Park, Gateshead

The Victorian Saltwell Park started out as gardens between 1853 and 1870 around the former private residence Saltwell Towers. The gardens were then acquired by Gateshead Corporation in 1875 and incorporated into a public park by designer Edward Kemp in 1876, earning it the nickname ‘The People’s Park’.

A red brick house with turrets, in front of the building are benches in a park
Saltwell Towers, Saltwell Park. © Les Hull.

In 1920, the park was further expanded. Towards the end of the 20th century, the park was rejuvenated by multiple restoration projects to reverse the deterioration that occurred. The park itself falls into three main areas. In the centre, the gardens relating to Saltwell Towers include a small valley or dene through which runs a stream. To the south are the former gardens of Saltwell Grove. The north side is the area laid out to Kemp’s designs on open fields.

7. Roundhay Park, Leeds

This vast 19th-century park consists of woodland, open land, two lakes, golf courses and playing fields across 700 acres. Roundhay Park started as a deer park in the 14th century. Maps of the land from 1803 show it as open land with quarries and mines.

A castle structure with two towers and a  gateway surrounded by trees
Sham Castle, Roundhay Park. © Historic England.

For most of the 19th century, it was owned by wealthy banker William Nicholson and his heirs. However, it was put up for sale in 1871 and bought by Leeds City Council in 1871. It remains in their ownership as a public park. Attracting almost a million visitors a year, the park features curving paths leading through a series of garden areas of the late 20th century, including gardens for people with limited mobility.

There is also an arboretum, where there are planted trees and shrubs likely originating from the late 19th century. One of the Park’s most notable features is a fake medieval castle built in 1811 as a summerhouse.

The role of Historic England
We’re a proud partner of the Thriving Communities programme, giving £50,000 towards projects which use the power of culture and heritage alongside nature, sport, health and financial support to benefit the wellbeing of communities most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Further reading

5 comments on “7 Historic Urban Parks and Gardens To Improve Your Wellbeing

  1. Jill morris

    Very interesting thank you for sharing, I must try and visit as many as I can

  2. Within walking distance of me in industrial Oldbury in the Black Country as it was “Red by Day….and Black by Night” as the furnaces forges and foundries of the Industrial West Midlands burned and bashed their way to prosperity in the 1960’s and 1970’s is the green gem of a space that is known as @WarleyWoods1 near Bearwood not 3 miles from Central #Birmingham. @WarleyWoods1 is a 100 acre Green space run by a #Community #Trust led by the formidable @VivCole . The Woods as it’s known locally is over 250 years old and was designed by #HumphryRepton the celebrated Estates designer from Georgian England 🇬🇧….

    • Hello Keith. It certainly sounds interesting and a Repton creation too. I shall search this park to find out more. Thank you

  3. ThingsHelenLoves

    Some beautiful places on here, but I’m beyond delighted to see Saltwell Park. I used to visit here often as a child and take my own family back whenever we are in the area.

  4. Very timely blog. I became interested in urban parks and the people who designed and paid for them during lockdown. Could you perhaps do a blog about Robert Marnock who designed the Royal Botanic Society gardens in The Regent’s Park and many others?

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