Southwark Park is a true hidden gem. Situated in the historic riverside district of Rotherhithe, Southwark Park is one of the lesser-known parks of London, but it's still hugely popular amongst locals. Southwark Park offers the chance to get some fresh air and indulge in nature for a few hours, or participate in sports if you're feeling active.
The park is divided into two halves, separated by Carriage Drive. If like me, you are walking from Bermondsey Station, you'll come across the northern part of Southwark Park first. Here you'll find the central bandstand, a couple of tennis courts, the bowls club, and sprawling green areas for picnicking or sunbathing (when the weather finally gets better). Despite visiting on a Bank Holiday weekend, this section of the park wasn't very busy, but there were several families enjoying an early lunch, and the tennis courts were all in use. Cross Carriage Drive and you'll reach the southern part of the park, which is more spacious and has more amenities: there's the Southwark Pavilion Café, a playground, boating lake, outdoor gym, running track, cricket club, and family centre.
In the centre of the northern part of Southwark Park lies the bandstand. This dates from 1884 and was previously cited in the Royal Horticultural Society Grounds at South Kensington. The bandstand was designed in 1861 by Captain Francis Fowke, a British born architect and engineer whose work usually adopted the Renaissance style. Fowke is also known for working on parts of the Royal Albert Hall, the Natural History Museum and the V&A. Unfortunately, the original bandstand was destroyed during the Second World War. Luckily, the park received a £2.5 million contribution from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the bandstand was rebuilt by the Dorothea team, who also modelled on the Clapham Common bandstand.
When you enter the southern part of the park, you'll see two statues on your left-hand side. These are called "caryatides" and were designed and constructed by Henry Poole RA. They were originally part of Rotherhithe Town Hall before it was converted into a library and museum in 1905. Much like the original bandstand, the library was severely damaged during the Blitz and the caryatides were moved to a new housing complex in Elephant and Castle. This was later scheduled to be demolished, so the sculptures had to find a new home. This is how they ended up in Southwark Park. What differentiates the two Caryatides is that one is detailed with oak and the other laurel. Oak symbolises virtue, strength, resiliency and longevity, while laurel is a token of peace and quiet, as well as triumph and fame.
Southwark Park playground can be found next to the lake and café. It has most of the things you'd expect from a playground: slides, swings, two rope climbing frames, and benches and grass for having a picnic. The playground was unsurprisingly one of the busier areas of the park on the Bank Holiday weekend and it's was full of younger children who live in the vicinity. There is a fenced-off section of the playground for toddlers, and the equipment is very safe, so you don't have to worry about your little ones having any accidents.
As with a vast majority of London's other parks, Southwark Park is a haven for sports enthusiasts. If you don't like the sound of being stuck in a hot and smelly gym this summer, you're always welcome to use the outdoor gym. It's next to the rugby club and has a range of equipment to choose from. You can also enjoy a game of tennis in Southwark Park: there are four courts in the northern section of the park and you can book via Clubspark.
At the Hawkstone Road end of Southwark Park is the athletics centre. The 400m running track is suitable for both casual and serious runners, and there are jumping pits for triple and long jumpers. London City Athletics Club and London City Runners Club are both based at the athletics centre. At present, the centre is open on Tuesdays (6:00 – 8:30pm), Thursdays (7:00 – 8:00pm), and Saturdays (9:00 – 12:00pm).
Southwark Park also boasts three grass football pitches, a cricket strip and a bowling club. Every Saturday at 9:00am you can join the park's 5km parkrun, which is completely free and suitable for all ages and abilities. Just turn up in your sports gear and bring some cash so you can grab a coffee afterwards with the other runners.
Nature is in abundance in Southwark Park. One of the main features of the southern section of the park is the lake. It opened in 1885 and received two swans from Queen Victoria. Now you'll also be able to spot herons, coots and mallards in and around the lake. Prior to the pandemic, the lake was used for boating. It has a fleet of rowing and pedal boats, which can accommodate up to 5 people, and is usually open on weekends and during school holidays between April and October. However, it was closed on the Bank Holiday weekend.
As you stroll around the park, you'll notice numerous trees. There's a multitude of plane trees, particularly around the bandstand, as well as a walnut tree (opposite the art gallery), a few silver maples, a red oak, and swamp cypresses. When I entered the park via the Jamaica Road entrance, I spotted a blossom tree on my right. It seemed to be the only one in the entire park, and I doubt it will still be in bloom. If you want to catch the blossom next year, be sure to visit Southwark Park in April.
If you walk around the lake you'll come to the Ada Salter Garden. Created in 1936 as a place for mothers and the elderly to rest, the garden was previously called 'the Old English Garden', but was renamed after Ada Salter's death in 1942. Ada Salter was the Mayor of Bermondsey in 1922 and aimed to improve the area by replacing slums with model council houses. She also wanted to provide residents with an environment that was good for the mind and body. Ada planted a number of trees in Bermondsey and organised community events. The Ada Salter Garden is set out in a formal style, with three pergolas and a range of plants and shrubs. It's a quiet part of Southwark Park to get engrossed in a book or do a photo shoot. The pergolas were just starting to show the first signs of wisteria during my trip to the park.
Forgot to bring a picnic with you? Don't worry, there's a café in the southern part of the park, opposite the playground and next to the lake. Southwark Park Pavilion Café opened in early 2020 and is easy to spot, with its striking geometric exterior designed by Bell Phillips Architects. The café offers plenty of hot and cold refreshments and light meals for visitors, including sandwiches, paninis, baked potatoes and salads. You can also try one of their fresh stone-baked pizzas or treat yourself to a scoop or two of ice cream (flavours include strawberry, mint, Ferrero Rocher and banana). Southwark Park Pavilion Café is currently open every day from 9:00am to 4:30pm, and also houses the park's only toilets.
You can easily spend a whole day in Southwark Park, but there are plenty of other things to do in the neighbourhood. King's Stairs Garden, Maltby Street Market, Arch Climbing Wall, Surrey Docks Farm, Surrey Quays Shopping Centre, Brunel Museum and Stave Hill Ecological Park are all a short walk away from Southwark Park. Alternatively, you can catch the Jubilee Line or 47/381 buses to London Bridge and have a wander around Borough Market or Tate Modern. Shakespeare's Globe, the Tower of London and St Paul's Cathedral are also near London Bridge.