Last weekend was the annual ‘Open Garden Squares weekend’ run by London Parks & Gardens Trust (www.opensquares.org/). I was asked to accompany my father to one of the gardens, and could choose which one – on looking through the booklet, there were so many that I would have loved to visit – what a shame that the weekend could not last for seven days!
The Chelsea Physic Garden it had to be. Founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, the garden was originally established to train apprentices from the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London in the use of medicinal plants. Today, it provides just under 4 acres of fascinating, tranquil flora. I have heard excellent reports from everyone I know who has visited, so was keen to see for myself. Easy to get there by tube from Victoria, or a direct bus to the Kings Road from Streatham.
The area is divided into clearly defined and well thought out spaces, to educate visitors about the broad range of uses that plants have been put to through the ages, and in the present day, for remedies and pharmaceutical medicine across the world, alcohol production, and musical instruments among others. The garden also features the largest outdoor fruiting olive tree growing in Britain, a living plant amphitheatre, Victorian fern house, Mediterranean plant collections in traditional style glasshouses and the oldest rock garden in Europe.
We arrived in time for the Open Squares’ special, early Sunday morning opening. The walk along Chelsea’s streets from our transport had been a treat itself, even on a dull morning the grand villas of Chelsea and open tree-lined streets lift one’s spirits. The entrance to the garden is hidden along a beautiful high brick wall, reminiscent of the book ‘The secret garden‘. Stepping through the heavy iron gates was no disappointment – an immediate feeling of calm tranquility – a secret garden indeed.
The proximity to the Thames and high walls create an artificially warm atmosphere, allowing an impressive and fascinating array of native and non-native species to grow happily, alongside ponds teaming with wildlife (though their tadpoles were quite a long way behind mine at home, so perhaps I’ve created an even more successful micro-climate here in South London!)
My lasting impression was one of inspiration – it feels like a plantsman’s garden – created and tended for the interest of the individual plants within it rather than their contribution to impressive or dramatic planting schemes, as at Wisley. But it also feels like a real garden – clearly tended with care and foresight by impressively visionary and knowledgable gardeners, but real in the sense that the plants were healthy, but not all perfect – isn’t that the way that gardening should be going / growing… rather than relying on easy fixes in the form of toxic chemicals at the first sign of something being naturally imperfect?
I have read many rave reviews of the cafe and quality of food at the garden – a good place to stop for a cup of tea and slice of cake, if not lunch – it was too early for either yesterday, but the visit to these elegant gardens was itself rewarding sustenance for the mind and soul.
If the aim of the garden is to foster a greater understanding and closeness between people and the plants and vegetation that form such a large, if anonymous, part of our everyday lives, then it fulfilled its remit for me.
“To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves”. Mohandas K Gandhi.