This morning I skipped regular church services for a slightly more secular outing — though the first stop was actually a Medieval church that happened to be next door to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace. The church is where the famous 17th Century gardeners John Tradescant Sr and Jr are buried, and is now the home of London’s Garden Museum. The museum itself was only so-so — a small collection of bits and bobs — but the courtyard had a peaceful garden, the cafe served a tasty pork chop. It was clearly a favorite of the local seniors… I think I brought the average age down to 67. My favorite toy in the gift shop was a set of wooden “garden elements” blocks that let you play at laying out gardens.
I had gotten the idea to visit the Garden Museum from a book I’ve been reading about the UK’s “wild gardens.” It’s a compendium of gardens known for their naturalistic style, restaurants known for their garden settings, and lodgings with gardens. On the way to the museum I stopped at another spot recommended by the book: The Phoenix Garden.
The Phoenix Garden is a tiny sliver of land in the heart of London’s West End theatre district (gets its name from the nearby Phoenix Theatre). It’s a community garden and was listed in the book and online as being open 24/7 — only it wasn’t. I could only peer through the bars at the riot of flowers and vines while appreciating the nearby bell-tower.
The highlight of the day, however, was the Chelsea Physic Garden. This one was also recommended by the book and, being in Chelsea, was further south in London than I had ever been before. The day was gorgeous, however, and the long walk along the Thames was well worth it.
The Chelsea Physic Garden was founded in 1673 by a society of apothecaries, and is thought to be the oldest garden of its kind in Europe. It’s entirely walled in, and it’s full of useful and exotic plants: plants used for medicines, fibers, food, alcohol. Some sections group plants by various historical classification systems. Other sections contain exotic specimens brought back during the great age of exploration. And there’s even a grapefruit tree in the corner that one of the neighbor ladies started growing from a seed in the 1940s–when it got too big for her balcony, she donated it to the garden, where it now provides fruit for the cafe.
The garden was an absolute delight. A volunteer tour guide led a group of us around, pointing out the highlights. For example, in the “historical” medicinal section, we learned that for a while, people thought that the medicinal qualities of plants could be deduced from what they looked like. So a plant with leaves that look like a diseased lung was used for treating, well, diseased lungs — to only accidental effect, if any. By contrast, in the “modern” medicinal section, we saw the Madagascar periwinkle (which looked like a vinca to me) that apparently is highly effective in the treatment of pediatric leukemia.
After the tour I paused at the cafe for a plate of salads (I had a helping of the heirloom tomatoes with basil, and the watermelon with feta, and finished off with cheesecake and fresh blueberry ice cream) because apparently my philosophy on visiting museums and gardens now involves taking full advantage of lunch — especially when served al fresco in a walled garden surrounded by flowers. After polishing off the ice cream, I went back to explore the parts of the garden we hadn’t covered during the tour. My favorite section was the “educational” section, where they had an exhibit showing plants used for the fibers, with examples of the textiles made from the fibers hanging on wires above the plants.