This article is part of a guide to London from FT Globetrotter
Visitors to London soon find Hyde Park, but there is so much more to enjoy. The city teems with gardens, small, large, Japanese, natural or proudly tended to the last cubic inch. Many of the smartest London squares maintain gardens in their central spaces, open only to residents who live within an agreed distance. If you want to enjoy a garden-square fantasy in honour of Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in the film Notting Hill, mark down the weekend of June 11-12. London Square Open Garden days will occur then, keenly prized occasions for which tickets should be booked as soon as possible (London Gardens Trust will guide you, and also to much else about garden days in the city). Among dozens of good options, Ecclestone Square in Pimlico, SW1 is a top choice, never more so than this year in memory of a mastermind: the photographer and gardener Roger Phillips, who died in 2021 after doing so much for the garden over the past 30 years.
My top six elsewhere begin with the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, easily accessible by London’s Underground and Overground. Kew is not only a centre of botanical research and classification behind closed doors. The gardens have been given a welcome new emphasis in the past 20 years: they are what the public, now paying for entry, wishes to enjoy. The new double border down one of the central walks is not to be missed from mid June until mid October. Nor is the excellent Agius Evolution Garden, laid out in 2019 to present the world’s evolving flora age by age. It combines the results of scientific study with beauty and real surprises. The Alpine House is also unmissable, especially in April and May. It displays the finest alpine and small hardy plants from collections grown with consummate skill behind the scenes.
Not too far from Kew is my favourite London garden, the Isabella Plantation in Richmond Park. Its prime time of glory is April until late May, when the camellias, magnolias, bluebells, azaleas and rhododendrons flower superbly beneath a canopy of tall trees, many of which are oaks. It was given this style of planting by George Thomson, an enlightened civil servant who set to work on it in the late 1940s. He arranged for inmates on day release from London prisons to clear the plantation’s dense undergrowth and prepare it for his vision. We owe him and them a lasting debt.
For history, my first choice is Chiswick House, the home of the great art connoisseur Lord Burlington in the early Georgian age. Intelligent restoration has recently revived the central villa and its landscape after many years of divided ownership and public neglect. The house is an icon of Palladian style, based on drawings by Andrea Palladio, the master architect of Vicenza in the late 16th century. The garden gives a fascinating sense of the change from this classical formality to a more natural English look, achieved in the 1720 by two geniuses, Charles Bridgeman and the delightful William Kent. To one side of the main walk, a later Italian garden leads up to a conservatory which houses superb camellias, many of them old and rare. Be sure to look for it if you visit in early April.
In Chelsea, at 66 Royal Hospital Road, the Chelsea Physic Garden is historic too. It goes back almost 350 years on this same site, where pharmacists grew plants with medicinal uses. The greenhouses are being restored and replanted, and the garden’s walls protect some superb shrubs, including a big specimen of the single-flowered rose, Bengal Crimson. From late May onwards the formal beds, arranged by botanical genus, are full of interest. The garden is a treasured oasis just off the thundering traffic of the Thames Embankment.
Up in Hampstead, be sure to book into Fenton House, on Hampstead Grove, NW3 6RT. Since the 1950s, this fine brick house, built for a 17th-century merchant, has been gardened by the National Trust, which opens it on Fridays and Sundays. It has a walled garden, excellent evergreens (most of them formally clipped), some fine flowery planting and an orchard full of fruit trees. It is a London visitor’s best hope of catching a breath of the English countryside in a city setting.
My sixth choice is also on the up: Stephens House and Gardens in Finchley at 17 East End Road, N3 3QE. The Victorian house belonged to Henry Stephens, who was known as “Inky” because of his commercial empire of fountain pens. He gave his home to the public on his death. His garden was designed by the great master of the Gardenesque style, Robert Marnock. It is now being excellently replanted after major grants for the purpose. The rock garden, bog garden, borders and fine arboretum lie in a lovely green park, still under-visited. Get in there before the rest of London reawakens to it.
Otherwise, watch for gardens wherever you walk. If business takes you to the City or pilgrimage to St Paul’s Cathedral, go across to the excellently planted gardens in front of the remains of old Christchurch Greyfriars. Head on to the nearby Barber-Surgeons’ Hall and slip round the side into the good medicinal garden, which is maintained behind it with an adjoining area of wild flowers. (The City of London offers a guide to its parks, gardens and churchyards.) There is so much more to London than tarmac, noise and the struggle of shopping.
What’s your favourite London garden at this time of year? Tell us in the comments
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