Ok, so first off I’m not sure if this is really a park, although the local council considers it so and it has three play areas. It’s more – well – a hill. Because it’s Horsenden Hill. A bit like how Ruislip Lido is a lake. It’s more than a park: wilder, older, richer and secretive. And as well as all that magical mystic stuff, it has a family dining pub with soft play and next to it.
Every day I marvel at the fact it’s just a local thing – people don’t travel for miles to get to it. I don’t know why not. It has some of the best views in London, it’s easy to reach on the Tube and is rich in both history and nature.
If you’re approaching it from Perivale Station, you come across the ‘Lower Thrift Field’ first. If you have the Childe with you, you feel a sudden painful tugging to your left arm – because in addition to a beautiful open field, half mowed, half meadow, gently leaning down to the canal – there is a playground. The first of the three. This one is half earnest wood and half 80s vintage metal horse – with the added bonus of a zip wire. It’s pretty good and the fenced in layout is perfect for ‘sitting on a bench waving’ if you have kids who don’t insist on attempting climbing equipment that is far too big for them so you have to give leg-ups. Me. Always with the muddy boot marks on my back.
Cross the road after your play and walk over the quaint/anxiety inducing (thanks, 80s public safety videos) bridge over the Grand Union Canal, complete with house boats – you’ll come across a drive way leading to Horsenden Farm and the hill’s car park. If you come by car, this is where you park. Here there is another playground, all wood and built like a huge sailing ship – there are some benches too, making it a great picnic spot. Although it overlooks the canal and house boats, the water is fenced off safely (I guess this also protects the boat residents from marauding kiddos) and it feels very secluded and peaceful. On the other side of the car park there are some toilets and old farm buildings. This used to be a cafe, but the company that ran it for the council folded – at the moment there is a community craft group there, and the farm garden is being renovated to grow produce once again. The Friends Of Horsenden Hill, and the ranger, have made great progress in tidying up the old orchard area, they even have an apple festival in autumn. Sadly though the cute little courtyard round the barns and workshop is disappointing – mainly due to lack of a cafe – compared to when I used to walk up and down the hill in a vain attempt to get Childe to pop out on her due date, back in 2014. It’s actually really frustrating to see some of the site underused: with a little investment and advertising, this could be a super popular site for families, dog walkers, joggers and so forth – a cafe could definitely thrive here and even be a venue for events, surrounded by nature and history as it is. The Friends group have done wonders but a resource like this should have a bigger strategic plan from the council, too. I just hope the council sees sense and looks into a permanent cafe and manned visitor centre. Especially now they have a Horsenden VIP … AKA the Gruffalo.
Yep. The actual Gruffalo. This has been explained to me most patiently by the Childe: he just looks like he’s made of wood because in the day there’s people and he’s shy. Silly Mummeh.
The trail takes you in a circle up to the top fields (where there are cows in summer, and therefore cow pats) and is ace. It’s pretty challenging with a buggy or scooter, by which I mean pretty deep mud and cow poo all over the shop – once a friend and I took our buggies and ended up trapped. Then a guy tried to be a hero and rescue us: he ended up sat down in the mire too. How his girlfriend laughed! How the children laughed! How I laughed until I remembered who would be cleaning the bovine fecal matter and damp soil off the Silver Cross with freezing cold hose water. So bring wellies not buggies and stash non-walkers in a sling, carrier or baby backpack.
What I like about this Gruffalo trail is that it is very rough and natural – the statues are rustic and they are not neatly placed along gravel paths – they are just there, in the wood! The signs link well to the nature thereabouts and it has a much more adventurous feel to it than some apparent nature trails. If you want to, check this video of the trail or the Google Map out before going – otherwise it could be an all-day thing hunting down Mouse, Fox and the rest of them!
Another route you might choose, is to follow the Capital Ring from the car park up to the top of the hill. Take a camera or a kite. The views are serious. So is the wind. To your left (if you’re looking into London, which is the most impressive view on a sunny day) you’ll see the steep mown slopes which make Horsenden Hill a cult destination when it snows, as well as the car park they had to close because … or so says the legend of my misspent youth … of too much funny business after dark. In front of you lies a public golf course with a bar and cafe, and all around acres of natural woodland. So of course, because I’m jaded, lazy and local I just carry on walking down to meet the road again and visit The Ballot Box. It’s clean, it has a kids menu, it has ice cream bribery and ipads on some tables. And thanks to the fact we’ve been out in the fresh air for several hours there’s zero guilt in it, hurrah!
If you want still more good clean fun, and the weather’s good, the third playground is opposite the pub. This is an older kids’ play area really, with bigger equipment. It opens out to extensive fields, the canal, ponds and nature reserves which stretch out to Paradise Fields in Greenford. In summer, these are flat enough for a stroll with a buggy and there is another public car park here too.
If it’s raining, there’s a soft play attached to the Ballot Box. Mmm cow pats and ball pit germs in one day, best be ready for bath and bed when we get home… And that really is the glory of Horsenden Hill. Aside from the beauty, nature, exercise etc … it tires everyone out. For free. You can’t say better than that for a day out!