Princess Diana Memorial Playground
The Princess Diana Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens is absolutely fantastic. My children think it's the best thing in the whole of London, and entry is free!
A paradise for children, the 'pirate ship playground', as my two boys call it, is located in the north-west corner of Kensington Gardens - just a short distance from Princess Diana's former apartments in Kensington Palace. Of the monuments created by the Diana Memorial Fund following her death, it is by far the most loved and most successful. More of a 'play garden' than a playground thanks to the beautiful design and landscaping, the play equipment is almost entirely constructed from natural materials. It is a wonderful place for children and their adults to have adventures.
Princess Diana Memorial Playground: The pirate ship and surrounding sandy sea form the centre piece of the playground.
Officially called the 'Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground', it was opened in June 2000, having cost £1.7 million to build. Money well spent, I think, as it has worn extremely well, and continues to be meticulously maintained - you'll be hard pressed to find a single piece of litter, and anything broken is invariably fixed by our next visit.
Many playgrounds claim to cater for all ages, but I think the Princess Diana Memorial Playground really does. It is open to children 12 and under, and designed to enable less able and able-bodied children to play together.
The 'Peter Pan Playground'
The playground is inspired by Peter Pan, due to the many links between Kensington Gardens and J.M. Barrie's classic story. In fact, it is on the site of an earlier Peter Pan themed playground, which was built at Barrie's expense in 1906. However, the interpretation is so subtle (no Disney-style branding here!) that most visitors are probably hardly aware of the Peter Pan link. But if you do know the story, you can have fun looking for references!
The centrepiece of the Princess Diana Memorial Playground is a huge pirate galleon, becalmed in a sandy sea (compare it with the Golden Hinde
and you'll see that it is pretty much 'life size'). Entered via thick rope gangways and ladders, the ship has rigging to climb, a crow's nest to keep watch from, a hold to explore and the captain's cabin with a ship's wheel. It is always swarming with children setting sail for distant shores and fighting imaginary battles. For fans of Peter Pan, the ship is clearly Captain Hook's Jolly Rodger. "Avast belay, yo ho, heave to, A-pirating we go!"
The little boats are lots of fun for smaller children.
For very small children, nervous of navigating the big ship, there is a flotilla of smaller boats, suspended so that they rock gently. Sitting in these little boats, moving the rudder and pushing sand down the small 'plughole' (which stops the boats filling up with sand) kept my boys happily occupied for hours when they were toddlers.
The crocodile lurks nearby... If you've read Peter Pan
, you'll know to listen out for the tick-tock of the clock!
Around the ship is an exciting landscape of sand (lots of it) and rocks to climb on, with water channels and features deep enough for lots of imaginative play, but shallow enough to prevent children from getting completely drenched (well, on most occasions at least. A change of clothing is always a good idea however!). Peter Pan fans will recognize it immediately as the magical shores of Neverland, with the mermaid's lagoon and Marooners' Rock rising from it. Can you spot the crocodile?
Younger children are absolutely thrilled by the two water fountains and pumps (there's something magical about the combination of sand and water!) and can spend literally hours filling the channels and creating miniature dams. It is very helpful to have a small sand bucket for this, but most children make do with a parent's disposable coffee cup from the café at the entrance.
These walkways are accessed by steps, ladders and poles, and exited via slides!
Spreading out from this central hub are several other 'zones', each with its own character and theme. Everything is close together, but the clever landscaping and imaginative planting make it a real pleasure to discover each area. Again I'm reminded of Neverland: "Of all delectable islands the Neverland is the snuggest and most compact, not large and sprawl, you know, with tedious distances between one adventure and another, but nicely crammed."
The landscaping is superb - the Princess Diana Memorial Playground is full of flowers and bushes with interesting shapes and textures - and there is a surprise around every corner. A 'telescope' contains a colourful kaleidoscope. A treasure chest is half buried in the sand. A pebble path leads to a secret tunnel, much too small for grown ups...
A secret tunnel big enough only for children.
Playhouses and a seesaw made out of a whole log.
There is an under 3s area with a large wooden tractor and trailer, a seesaw made out of a whole tree trunk, and lots of snug little wooden playhouses, any one of which would serve nicely as 'Wendy's little house' (it suddenly occurs to me why these play houses are often called 'Wendy houses'!). Next to this, shaded by a huge London plane tree, is a toddler sand area - perfect for those who find the central 'lagoon' a little too big and busy - with boats and a sand sieve and sand chute, plus a rather friendly wooden sea monster who is lifting his coils out of the sandy sea for little ones to sit on. In the far corner are swings for both big and little children, sensibly located to minimize the danger from children running past.
The Tepee Encampment features totem poles and three large tepees.
Further on, past the lagoon, is the Tepee Encampment with three rather thrillingly 'proper' tepees - obviously home to Tiger Lily and her 'redskins'. Look out for the beautifully carved totem poles. From here you can go up the steps to 'the fort' which overlooks the central lagoon area. There's a treasure chest here to defend!
Friendly carved sheep - perfect for feeding, petting and climbing on.
Leaving the Encampment, there is a grassy area inhabited by a family of plump, friendly wooden sheep, perfect for picnics. To one side a little path leads through the bushes to a great elevated walkway among the trees, accessed by ladders, slides and poles. A wooden rocking frog sits near his wobbly lily pads, and everything is watched over by a huge carved owl. But can you spot the little boy disappearing into a tree?
Even young children can make nice sounds on the unusual hammer piano.
To the other side is a small garden with a cobbled path looping through it and a lovely 'sound garden', a shady place just right for listening. Strain your ears and you may just hear Tinkerbell's tinkle of golden bells, or Peter playing on his pipes. Make music with your hands, feet or with a mallet, experiment with the remarkable tuning stone, or sit in the beautiful wooden story chair and tell a tale. "Once upon a time..."
Unsurprisingly, the Princess Diana Memorial Playground can get really busy. Mornings are usually fine, but on sunny weekend afternoons, and in particular during the summer holidays, the playground operates at capacity. Once the staff judge that the playground is full, a queue forms, and can reach quite a length. Get there early (or later in the afternoon) if you and/or your children don't enjoy crowds.
Cobbles and textures in the sensory garden.
The Story Chair: Once upon a time...
A beautifully carved totem pole.
In keeping with the playground's excellent overall design, the whole area is securely fenced and there is only a single gate. There is always an attendant near the gate to ensure that no unaccompanied adult enters (see more on access for adults below), and no unaccompanied child leaves. Despite this reassurance it can be quite scary to lose sight of your child(ren) in the playground - there are so many different areas, so many places to hide and no single vantage point. It is a good idea to discuss in advance where you will meet if you get separated.
There is an open-air café at the entrance to the playground, serving tea, coffee and organic juices, and a selection of pastries, baguettes and salads. There is always a brisk trade in the 'hot flatbread pizzas', which come with the usual cheesy toppings, or more 'gourmet' options such as chorizo & olives or goat's cheese & peppers. Top off your lunch with Roskilly's organic ice cream. All very tasty, but rather expensive!
There are plenty of places to picnic, while keeping children in sight.
Fortunately, for those of us on a budget, picnickers are welcome (no alcohol or glass containers are permitted). There are lots of benches around the playground, or spread a blanket on the grass.
The toilet facilities are clean and spacious, and there is always at least one member of staff with first aid training on site. The Princess Diana Memorial Playground is for children 12 and under, so there are never any marauding teens hogging the pirate ship, or scaring the younger ones. Unaccompanied adults interested in visiting the playground may do so between 9.30am and 10am, prior to it opening for the day.
An elf enjoys his library in the Elfin Tree.
As you leave the playground do visit the Elfin Oak
just outside the entrance gate, a sweet carved tree trunk full of birds, animals and little people, which figures in many a Londoner's happy childhood memories. It still has its charm, despite the unsympathetic cage and canopy roof protecting it.
Essentials: Princess Diana Memorial Playground
Location & Address: Kensington Gardens (north-west corner), London, postcode: W2 2UH
Nearest Tube: Queensway, Bayswater
Opening times: Open every day of the year except Christmas Day, from 10am. Open to unaccompanied adults between 9.30am and 10am for visiting.