London is famous for its gardens: the formal layout of Regent’s Park, the meadowlands and lakes of Hyde Park, while Kew Gardens is, justifiably, one of the world’s finest botanical gardens.
But what about the others I wondered, as I left Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and headed into the city. What about those green spaces on Google Maps that don’t have ticket prices attached, where a creaking iron gate reveals secret gardens known only to savvy locals. Which of those have their own stories to tell?
And it didn’t take me long to find my first secret garden.
With bags unpacked in my room at The Rubens Hotel, a short walk from Victoria station and overlooking the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace, all I had to do was look up.
For while the hotel is known for its stylish accommodation and charming lounge offering elegant Afternoon Tea, it’s also become famous as the home of the largest living wall in London. Paths and benches may be in short supply, but this astounding vertical garden of over 10 000 plants is a vital green lung in bustling Victoria.
Planted as a bio-diversity wall to attract birds and bees, everything from flowering bulbs to wild strawberries are planted here. Two-thirds of the wall is evergreen, and the plants were selected to provide a flush of colour throughout the year. The garden harvests rainwater off the roof, which also helps with street flooding during downpours, and the wall insulates the hotel from harsh winters and hot summers.
And, of course, there’s cleaner air on offer for the thousands of tourists wandering up to the Palace. Air quality is precisely why you’ll see plane trees planted abundantly across London, as I discover at Mount Street Gardens in Mayfair.
The gardens were laid out in 1889 when London was increasingly industrialised and heavily populated, which meant the air quality was pretty awful.
Plane trees (Platanus x hispanica) were hardy enough to withstand the sour air, and today Mount Street is home to few majestic specimens. But the gardens are also a surprisingly rich arboretum: you’ll find Dawn Redwoods and Willows from China, Mimosa from Australia and Camellias from Japan. It is a delightful haven from the boutique-laden streets of Mayfair.
But I wanted to stretch my legs after the flight, so head south towards the river.
One of my favourite walks in London begins at the Thames-side statue of the Celtic queen Boadicea. From here, London stretches out towards the East as I wander the north bank. The London Eye turns lazily round, the chimney of the Tate Modern reminds of old transformed into new, while The Shard pierces the skyline as a symbol of modern, connected London.
Just past the Temple tube station, I stop and turn left. A gate through the iron railings leads towards the buildings of the Inns of Court. This is the heart of the British justice system, and it’s not uncommon to see wigged and robed barristers wandering the flagstone pathways.
But it’s Inner Temple Gardens that you’re after. There has been a garden here since medieval times, and the modern-day layout reflects its varied history. Wander through the three-hundred-year old gates and the garden’s ancient orchards are remembered in the variety of fruit trees; including walnut, quince and black mulberry; while the Long Border remembers the Wars of the Roses.
The garden has a rather illustrious history in horticultural circles too. In the 1800s it introduced an annual show of chrysanthemums, which later became the Royal Horticultural Society’s Spring Flower Show. By 1911, the Show had become so popular it was moved to a site in West London. And so, the Chelsea Flower Show was born.
My next stop is Monument tube station. It’s a busy hub thronging with visitors, nearly all of them aiming for the stone column designed by Sir Christopher Wren to mark – in height – the 202-feet to the bakehouse where the devastating Great Fire of London is said to have started.
I wander east, past Pudding Lane where the flames that changed the city licked into life, and to the ruins of a church known as St. Dunstan in the East.
There has been a church here for nearly a thousand years, and was restored by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire. However, it was no much for German bombs in World War II.
It remained a shell for over two decades until the church was transformed into a remarkable garden in 1970, and is today a quiet haven in the bustling eastern reaches of the city. Ivy crawls across Gothic arched windows, and trees grow respectfully in what was once the nave of the church. Office-workers sit in quiet contemplation, the buzz of the city muted by the hallowed stone walls.
And if the weather’s fine, there’s no need to return underground to find your next secret garden.
With plenty of moneyed bankers working in and around St. Paul’s Cathedral this is a distinctly gastronomic corner of London, with Gordon Ramsey’s Bread Street Kitchen and Jamie Oliver’s remarkable Barbecoa butchery a few steps apart. For a taste of Asia, stop in at Ping Pong for top-notch dim sum.
I keep walking though. Up St. Martin’s Le-Grand and in the gate at Postman’s Park, where large specimens of Japanese Banana and ‘Dove Tree’ are worth seeking out.
First opened in 1880, the park is named for the humble postmen of the nearby General Post Office that would rest weary feet on shady benches. It is also – perhaps fittingly – also home to a striking memorial to everyday heroes.
The Watts memorial dates back to 1900, and commemorates acts of bravery by ordinary citizens through the previous century. Fire looms large in many of the memorial plaques, a stark reminder that not even Wren could save the city from the flames.
From here, I head north to Bloomsbury where the terraced rows of high-priced houses hide one of the city’s loveliest corners.
St. George’s Gardens was established three hundred years ago and – like many of London’s green spaces - began life as a burial ground for two nearby churches. St. George’s is notable for a rather macabre reason too: in 1777 the first recorded instance of body snatching of corpses for medical research took place here.
Body-snatching aside, it didn’t take long before the graveyard was full and urban London had overrun this quiet corner. As London grew more crowded the dilapidated churchyard became one of the earliest urban graveyards to be transformed into public gardens, creating “open-air sitting rooms for the poor,” as housing reformer Octavia Hill once put it.
With the exchange rate hovering at R20 to the pound I thought I qualified rather well, and found the sanctuary of mossy tombstones and spring daffodils a fine place to enjoy a morning coffee. Towering plane trees shade the handful of pathways, and if you turn your eyes skywards you might spot the Sparrowhawks, Robins and Wrens that call this green lung home.
The area also has plenty to offer once you’ve sat for awhile. The British Museum, with its remarkable Reading Room, is a short walk away across Russell Square, with plenty of boutiques and pubs to while away an afternoon.
Or wander to the south: off Grays Inn Road the Charles Dickens Museum occupies the house that the famous author called home in the 1830s. It was here that he wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, and twice-weekly guided walks bring the history of Dickensian London to life.
Gardens have long been part of life in the capital, and given the time there are dozens of other secret corners to explore. The Japanese Garden in Holland Park. The pergola gardens to the west of Hampstead Heath. The rambling forests and haunting tombstones of Highgate cemetery. The quirky outdoor art in Islington’s Duncan Terrace Gardens. The rambling Phoenix Garden in St. Giles.
Then there’s the bizarre rooftop garden – complete with fish and flamingos – atop a department store in High Street Kensington. London is full of surprises and although the city may be expensive on the rand, soaking up the herbaceous history of the city is entirely free.