The last place I'd expect to find a pocket of verdancy is basically down the street from Terminal 4 at London's Gatwick Airport. But that's exactly what I found when spending two full days and nights at the Hilton London Gatwick Airport.
It all started with the hurricane that hit New York City. My flights were so delayed that I had to change my itinerary. The result: I had to stay near the airport for two nights. Now, you'll rarely see me write about chain hotels, but this is one of the exceptions. Staying at any airport hotel could spell disaster with noisy rooms, out-of-the-way hotels that require taxis to the airport, bad hotel food, and basically nothing to do except connect to wi-fi. This wasn't my experience here where they have an all-you-can-eat happy hour -- it was so large, I skipped dinner both nights -- in the Executive Lounge. Costa Coffee's sunny sitting area with skylights on the first floor made a perfect quiet spot to work while sipping an iced cappuccino. The hotel is directly connected with the South Terminal so I didn't have to wake up super early to make my connection after I checked out. (There was also a Boots shop where, if you forgot any toiletries or you needed any over-the-country medications, you could easily stock up on travel sized items.) And,maybe the best thing about my stay: when I asked the concierge if there were any parks nearby -- it seemed like a stupid question but I was hopeful anyway -- she replied that there was a large park and I could take a bus (#10) across the street to Crawley (15 minutes away) and then either walk a little over a mile or switch to the #2.
Tilgate Park turned out to be a gem for the whole family. This expansive park covered with well-tended lawns, gardens, lakes and woodlands, is also home to several hundred animals, some endangered. At their Nature Center, I spotted wild guinea pigs, chattering lories (which have hairy tongues), a large Stanley cranes (the national bird of South Africa), terrapins (that bury themselves in the mud each winter), a mara (a large rodent that's native to Argentina), along with pea fowl, goats and many more creatures.
Near one of the lakes ringed by a boardwalk, I learned some botanical facts, including that the oak trees nearby can support more than 400 species of insects.
I strolled to the walled garden -- interestingly, during World War II, it became a horticulature research station -- that's appropriately named, given that it's surrounded by tall hedge rows. Families stopped to picnic at some of the benches set beside blooming flowers and water features.
At the wildlife garden, I wandered past a pond covered with water lilies, and then inspected the nettle, holly, purple buddleia.
Curvy paths wind under towering trees to the Peace Garden that commemorates both VE Day and VJ Day. Tall grasses snuggle minute ponds. I found that the only other people here were two mothers with their strollers who sat under some shade trees.
Past the azaleas, heather, moss and a petite waterfall, I amble to a dense pine forest that's so thick with conifers that it almost blocks out the sun.
An equally placid Heath Garden is carpeted with camellias and rhododendrons. Again, I find that I'm all alone.
Tilgate Park, once known as the Tilgate Estate, was originally part of a forest that dates back to the Norman conquest. The three lakes are said to date to the 17th century when they were served the iron industry by driving waterwheels. Champion trees, including Chinese dogwood and Blue Atlantic cedar, dot the landscape.
Tilgate Park is all about eco-consciousness, protecting the plants and animals while providing environmental education. So I was quite surprised to find out that the Crawley Borough Council intends to lease the park to a private company for 25 years beginning in 2012. I talked to numerous residents who are angered by this action which will result in the construction of a gift shop and concessions as well as boat ride facilities and much more, turning this community park into almost an amusement park. This is a Facebook page to oppose this action. I'm hoping the Crawley residents can stand up against this action.