Beautiful Widernesses

If you've had a claustrophobic week of playing human tetris on packed tubes, being glued to your desk in a busy office then collapsing in an exhausted heap on the sofa each night, some serenity in the great outdoors is the balm you need for the sometimes overwhelming pace of urban life. Here are some spots round London where you can experience the feeling of infinite space and tranquilly, and surrounded by so much beautiful nature, you'd never guess that you're in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world.

Leg o' Mutton Reservoir, Barnes

This disused reservoir alongside the Thames is a serene and  mysterious place with shaded waterside glades that are perfect for quite contemplation and relaxation. Chances are that you won't see another person the whole time you're there. If you feel like a longer walk, start at Putney Bridge and follow the river bank round past the London Wetland Centre to the reservoir for a picnic, then head on to Mortlake High Street for a cold pint at The Ship.

Stave Hill and Russia Dock Woodland, Surrey Quays

I used to live at the edge of this miniature fairytale forest on the Rotherhithe Peninsula which is built on the site of a former dock, and I love the area. It's a glorious place to spend an afternoon, with trails following the long, thin strip of woodland towards the remaining quaysides. At the edge of the wood is Stave Hill, a man-made tumulus built with the rubble from the docklands development, which offers excellent sunbathing spots in summer and the perfect sledging run in winter, as well as breathtaking views of the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf at night. For a weekend walk, start at Canada Water tube and follow the canal and footpath round to the woodland, climb Stave Hill and enjoy the ecology trail in the wood. Then head over to Surrey Docks Farm to pet some baby goats and enjoy some of the farm's own produce in the cafe.

Walthamstow Marshes and the Middlesex Filter Beds

As a current Walthamstow resident, I spend many an afternoon enjoying the beautiful nature on my doorstep including the Walthamstow Wetlands Centre, the largest urban wetlands in Europe. My favourite walk follows the marshes that start just beyond the Coppermill Lane Water Works and lead you through a glorious swathe of countryside bordered by the River Lea, a favourite spot for blackberry pickers in Autumn.

After saying hello to the horses at the Lee Valley Riding Centre, you can stop for a swift half at the canal-side Princess of Wales pub, then follow the canal all the way down to the Olympic Park. Along the way, you'll see the entrance to the Middlesex Filter Beds, a disused Victorian water treatment centre that has been reclaimed by wildflowers and brambles and makes a nice picnic spot.

Welsh Harp reservoir, Hendon

This unlikely beauty spot sits alongside a junction of the M1 and the North Circular, but despite its unpromising geography you'd never know that you were so close to two of the busiest roads in the country. The reservoir is home to a sailing school and is surrounded by lush pockets of greenery, making it a lovely destination for a walk after visiting bustling Wembley or the Brent Cross shopping centre nearby. For a longer walk, continue up to the Fryent Country Park or down to Gladstone Park, which Mark Twain fell in love with on a visit to England in the 19th century.

Twickenham riverbank

The stretch of riverbank between the riverside towns of Twickenham and Richmond is one of my favourites. As well as offering wide stretches of beautiful water meadows, the walk also takes you past the creative enclave of Eel Pie Island, Orleans House Art Gallery and the historic stately homes of Marble Hill House and Ham House, which sit across from one another on opposite sides of the river but and connected by a quaint ferry service, and are both open to the public. Stop for some lunch at 17th century The White Swan pub on the riverside, then continue on to Richmond to visit the farmers' market and enjoy the riverside terraced gardens.

Isabella Plantation, Richmond

This secret woodland garden is tucked on the opposite side of Richmond Park to the town but is well worth a visit. In late spring, the garden bursts with brightly coloured azaleas and neon yellow arum lilies along its ornamental watercourses, and in autumn is filled with a show of red and gold leaves.

The walk back through the park will take you past the resident deer herds and fish ponds, then down the grand mansions and terraced hill gardens of Richmond Hill.

Epping Forest, Snaresbrook

The ancient woodlands of Epping Forest are London's largest open space and burst out in a wild corridor of green from Leyton in East London all the way up to Epping in Essex. The section between Snaresbrook and Whipps Cross contains the interconnected Hollow Ponds, which are lined with reeds and teeming with a wide array of birds.

On a Sunday, start with a drink at the Sir Alfred Hitchcock Hotel, named after one of Leytonstone's most famous sons, then enjoy the surreal feeling of walking though woods that inhabitants of the area have enjoyed since Neolithic times. Walk past imposing Snaresbrook Crown Court for a well-deserved roast at cheap and cheerful Toby Carvery.

Lee Valley Park, Cheshunt

If you're dying to escape the city for some fresh air but don't have time to go too far, a great destination is the Lee Valley Park, accessible at Cheshunt. Less than 15 minutes from Tottenham Hale Station, this huge park just a stone's throw beyond the city limits stretches for miles through the Upper Lee Valley. From Cheshunt Station, you can take a relaxing walk through the network of lakes and riverways and see snowy egrets nesting in the trees, a sight that looks like something straight out of Harry Potter. For a longer walk, you can head on to Lee Valley Park Farm, where you can purchase fresh milk from the dairy from an ingenious vending machine and walk through an enclosure full of giant tame rabbits. Downstream is the Lee Valley White Water Centre, which offers an array of reassuringly dangerous-looking activities for aquatic daredevils. 

Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park 

A short walk down the Thames Path past the Millennium Dome and the Emirates cable car is the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park, a lovingly curated wilderness built on the site of another former dock. It contains a series of walkways around ponds full of boisterous carp that zoom around just under the surface bothering the ducks, and the shores are dotted with hides for ornithologists to watch and record the many species of birds that visit the park. The pathways are lined with willow archways and carefully designed insect habitats, and the small visitor centre runs workshops for children to learn about the park's flora and fauna. Just up the river is the might Thames Barrier, an amazing sight spanning the river.