Victoria Park has been voted the nation’s favourite park two years in a row, and with good reason. It has been a place of relaxation, recreation, sports, and festivities for over 170 years. The people’s park, as it is called by East Londoners, has evolved during its long life, but it remains as important to city living as ever.
The park was (formally) opened in 1845 as part of an initiative to provide green space to the growing suburbs of London. Dubbed ‘the lungs of the East End’, it was immediately embraced by locals as a space for leisure.
Thousands descended on the park each weekend to bathe in the lakes and the old lidos, while the sprawling greens were recognised as ideal spots for meetings.
There’s so much going on in the affectionately-named Vicky Park at any given time that it can be hard knowing where to begin. This insider’s guide covers the essentials of the park – its history, its activities, its cafes, and its sights – so you can get straight into the business of enjoying it to the fullest.
Cafes and pubs in Victoria Park
Victoria Park is not only a great day out because of its vast and varied greenery, but also thanks to the fact that it cradles some of the East End’s favourite cafes and pubs.
A picnic in the sun is a lovely idea, but London’s climate doesn’t accommodate year round; luckily, the two cafes in Victoria Park are great spots either to dodge a quick weather change or sit out and enjoy it. There’s Pavilion in the west and The Hub in the east, and both are great spots in their own rights.
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. Head there to find great food, including a fusion of your favourite fresh baked goods, eggs, and traditional Sri Lankan dhal.
The Hub sits on the other side of the park, and it has made use of its playground-hugging location to be a prime spot for children and families. Their kids’ pasta for £3.50 is their most popular item, but they’re also a favourite for healthy breakfasts like porridge with poached seasonal fruit.
If coffee and tea aren’t your beverage of choice on a day out, there’s a number of lovely pubs surrounding Victoria Park. To the north there are the aptly named Royal Inn on the Park and The People’s Park Tavern, while along the south edge there are The Crown, the Lord Morpeth, and the Eleanor Arms.
Clubs in Victoria Park
Victoria Park has been a great spot for community groups and clubs since it opened almost 200 years ago, and the modern clubs who use it as their base or meeting spot uphold this.
Whether you might be interested in joining these crews or just watching their activities ignite an already lively park, there are a few to look out for.
In St Augustine’s Hall on the very north-east corner of the park is Victoria Park Harriers and Tower Hamlets Athletics Club. The membership of approximately 400 includes track, field, road, and cross-country athletes, but don’t be intimidated: while it includes members of the British team, it’s also completely open and welcoming to beginners and those of all ranges.
The club is a charitable organisation which aims to provide a friendly environment for the local community to take part in athletics and social activities around them.
If athletics aren’t your cup of tea, the lake in the park sees a sport done by wind and remote control. 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.
Being such an old favourite park of London, it’s not surprising that some old classic sports make it their home. The Victoria Park Bowls Club has been running for 119 years and is run by a strong- and community-minded group who enjoy hanging out in the park as much as they enjoy bowls.
They host a number of open days, so if you’re interested in trying out bowls, keep an eye on our event listings.
Victoria Park’s market and festivals
Victoria Park Market is a relatively new addition to the park, but a resoundingly popular one at that. It isn’t a traditional farmers’ market, but a produce market, where locals and visitors can buy fresh, organic produce and ingredients.
You might not be visiting it at its pedestrianised walkway between Bonner Gate and Gore Gate just for its produce, however. The stalls on the market also house an astounding range of food.
From Vietnamese grilled chicken salads to beef bourginion burgers to vegan tiramisu, it’s a perfect spot to try a new dish or indulge in an old favourite. Plus, unlike other East London markets, you have the whole of Victoria Park’s greens and benches to enjoy your meal.
Victoria Park has historically been a perfect spot for summer festivals. In the ’70s it was Rock Against Racism, but since then it has seen Field Day, Lovebox, and its most recent festival of choice is All Points East.
This festival not only has two weekends of chart-topping headliners around a summer bank holiday, but also sandwiches between these weekends a free week of entertainment called In The Neighbourhood, supported by the council and numerous local groups. 2019’s weekdays saw free pop-up tennis, aerial acrobatics, and a craft beer fair featuring local brewers.
Canals around Victoria Park
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.
Victoria Park is bordered on two sides by Regent’s Canal and the Hertford Union Canal. In times long since past the southern border of the park would have been edged by dozens of bustling factories and warehouses. Residential buildings take up most of the canal-side real estate now, but a few old industrial beauties remain, among them Chisenhale Works and the Gun Wharf.
Victoria Park landmarks
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’.
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.
Another 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.
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.
History of Victoria Park
The park was (formally) opened in 1845 as part of an initiative to provide green space to the growing suburbs of London. It was immediately embraced by the East End as a space for leisure. Thousands descended on the park each weekend to bathe in the lakes and the old lidos, while the sprawling greens were recognised as ideal spots for meetings.
At the turn of the 20th century ‘The Forum’ at Victoria Park was one of the city’s leading debate spaces. Hundreds, often thousands, gathered in the shadow of the Burdett Coutts drinking fountain to discuss politics, religion, and economics.
There’s a good few beautiful old things in Victoria Park, but the oldest is probably the two stone alcoves that rest on its eastern edge. They’re remnants of Old London Bridge (although suspicion persists that they’re actually from old Westminster Bridge) and are over 250 years old.
Most of the noise comes from music nowadays, and that’s not too often. Victoria Park is a tranquil place. It has its moments, of course. The Clash famously played to Victoria Park in 1979 as part of Rock Against Racism, and nowadays All Points East is the festival of choice.
Liked reading this? Enjoy green spaces? Check out the fascinating history of Mile End Park.
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