East London's Victoria Park fishing pond on a frosty winter morning

Victoria Park: The people’s place for fun, food and festivals

One of London’s oldest public green spaces, Victoria Park receives around 9 million visitors every year.

Vicky Park as it is known to locals, is a place for relaxation, recreation, sports and festivities for nearly two centuries with many activities, events and festivals taking place here throughout the year.

Richard Desmond has been Chair of the Victoria Park Friends Group for seven years and has a strong connection with the green haven.

‘My earliest memories are having my baby pictures taken in the park in 1965. Victoria Park has always been part of my life.’

One of Desmond’s favourite areas of the park is The Hub, with its play area, slides and fountains. ‘The children’s area is a wonderful place to have a picnic,’ he says. ‘I also love to walk around the pagoda with the dogs.’

The park is used by the local community of all ages. The skate park is a popular hangout for teenagers to practice half pipes on the skateboards or whizz along on their BMX racers.

Desmond is a firm believer in the motto that the best things in life are free. ‘You read about poverty these days and the cost of living going up. The park doesn’t cost anything and it’s wonderful for parents to come here with their kids.’

Improving the park is one of the goals for the Victoria Park Friends and one of the changes that gives Desmond most satisfaction was getting the water fountain installed in the V&A playground.

Victoria Park
Pagoda at Victoria Park. (Stephen Catchpole)

Cappuccino anyone?

The park has two cafes: The Pavilion serves the western side and The Park Café is located in the East. One of the best places to gaze out at the boat lake is from the Pavilion Café. If it’s raining, the dome-shaped glass ceiling is light and airy, providing a cosy setting to slurp at soya latte.

Run by Brett Redman and Rob Green, the café’s food is mostly sourced from local producers including the Ginger Pig in Victoria Park Village.

Visitors to the park also love browsing the produce market, located on a pedestrianised street between Bonner Gate and Gore Gate called the Nightwalk. It’s open every Sunday between 10-3pm. Selling seasonal fruit and veg, fresh fish, locally baked bread, cakes, olives, honey, juice bar and craft beer, the market makes a great pit stop.

Anna Leigh posted on Facebook: ‘I used to rate Maltby Street market as the number 1 for the range of food options, quality of produce and atmosphere. This has now been replaced by Victoria Park Market. Top quality spread in every way and definitely worth a weekly pilgrimage at that!’

Waterways and byways

Just taking a stroll by water can have a calming effect and urban water features can have a positive effect on our health and wellbeing.

The 2km-long Hertford Union Canal provides a walking and cycling route from Mile End to the Olympic Park. From one end of it, you can see the iconic Olympic stadium.

For boats, it’s a vital short-cut from the Regent’s Canal to the River Lee, making it possible to avoid the more congested River Thames.

Did you know that the Victoria Model Steam Boat Club is the oldest in the world? It was founded in the park during 1904 and is still active today. It holds up to 17 Sunday regattas per year. Keeping up with modern times, the club also allows radio-controlled boats and hydroplanes, so very popular with enthusiasts. The first Regatta is held on Easter Sunday and the Steam Regatta is held on the first Sunday in July.

Victoria Park
A popular place for runners. (Stephen Catchpole)

Health and fitness

For those who believe their bodies are their temples, the park is a place to do some serious training. The Victoria Park Harriers & Tower Hamlets Athletics Club is open to all, regardless of whether you’re a marathon runner or not. You just need to be over the age of nine. There are over 400 members who include beginners as well as GB team members who take part in track, field, road and cross country.

For those of a less athletic disposition, there are guided walks where you can listen to the fascinating history of the park. You can download the Memoryscape Trail.

Music and Festivals

True to its Victorian origins, the bandstand is still going strong after all these years. The Victoria Park Bandstand Season, sponsored by Currells, starts in May every year and continues until September, with brass bands, orchestras and choirs.

History of Victoria Park

A petition to Queen Victoria, signed by over 30,000 local residents, kick-started the need for an East End park in 1840. This was the first public park to be built in London specifically for the people.

James Pennethorne, architect to the Commissioners of Woods and Forests prepared a design that included a parkland resplendent with trees and a grand entrance. It proved a huge success with the local people, who gathered there in precious moments of leisure from 1843 – even before the park works had been finished.

One of the most impressive sights was a Chinese pagoda, built in 1847. Chinoiserie was all the rage in Queen Victoria’s reign as China was opening up to the West. The Pagoda was purchased for display in Victoria Park and originally stood on an island in the centre of one of the park lakes.

However, the structure suffered damage during the Second World War and during the ensuing years, it fell into disrepair and in 1956 was demolished.

Thanks to a £4.5m grant in 2010, Tower Hamlets was able to begin a programme of park improvements, including a new Pagoda.

One of the most famous landmarks in the park is the Baroness Burdett Coutts Drinking Fountain, also known as the Victoria Fountain. Syliva Pankhurst drew crowds here for Suffragette rallies, attended by thousands.

The fountain was designed in 1862 and funded by one of the richest women in England, Baroness Burdett Coutts. It cost around £5,000, which was a huge sum of money in those days. Over 10,000 spectators came to the official opening of the fountain in 1862.

It was widely praised, with Charles Dickens Jr describing the fountain as ‘beautiful’.

Victoria Park
Burdett-Coutts fountain was funded by one of Britain’s wealthiest women. (Stephen Catchpole)

In 1975, the fountain was given Grade II* listed status by Historic England. Renovated in 2011, the fountain was restored to its former glory, although it is no longer in working order and protected by glass.

Greatly admired are the Dogs of Alcibiades. Installed in 1912, the original sculptures stood on either side of the gateway into Victoria Park until 2009. The stone sculptures were copies of second-century Roman statues, which can still be viewed at the British Museum.

Badly vandalised in 2011, the sculptures were replaced by replicas and face a gate named Bonner Gate after the Bishop of London Edmund Bonner who may have owned Bonner Fields on which some Victoria Park was built.

The park received the recognition it so rightfully deserved in 2014, when it was named the most popular park in the UK. It received over 13,000 votes in the Green Flag People’s Choice Awards, thanks in part to its beautiful, mature trees of holm oak, chestnut, lime, thorn, flowering cherry, alder and willow.

All photos courtesy of Stephen Catchpole.

Follow Tabitha Stapely:

Tabitha Stapely is a local resident and CEO of Roman Road Trust, a community development organisation working a community-led vision for Roman Road. Stapely is also the founder of Social Streets, a digital media company publishing high street brands.

  1. Patricia Gregory

    Love this Park always took my kids & now my grandsons.Good read & brilliant photos.

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