Written by taxi tour guide Paula
Erm, hidden gardens?… Don’t you mean secret gardens?
Well actually, no! Some of these gardens aren’t really a secret anymore, however they are well hidden and off the beaten track. As the saying goes, ‘blink and you’ll miss them!’
Here are my top five intriguing hidden gardens in London that are just waiting to be explored.
Ruins of St Dunstan in the East Church Garden
Hidden from the main road and tucked away down one of the Square Mile’s narrow side streets lies one of London’s prettiest and most Instagrammed locations. Although it does get busy, I just have to include this beautiful little garden in my list (or pocket park as it is often called).
The City of London has always been home to many churches. Most of those predating the Great Fire of London in 1666 were repaired or rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren, the architect who designed St Paul’s Cathedral. This was the case with St Dunstan in the East, in particular the tower and steeple. Sadly, it was damaged during the Blitz of World War II and unlike some of the other churches that suffered the same fate, this one wasn’t rebuilt.
Despite this, the church’s ruins were given Grade I listed status in 1950 to protect them. In the 1960s work began to turn them into a public garden which opened in 1970. Initially, the garden was used by City workers as somewhere to go on their lunch breaks. While this is something they still do today, it’s also often used for photoshoots and filming. So what are you waiting for? Grab a sandwich and a camera and go see!
The Barbican Conservatory
The City of London is home to quite a few roof gardens and terraces, many of which are recent additions. For example, there’s the Sky Garden on top of the building affectionately known as the ‘Walkie-Talkie’ as well as the terrace on the top floor of the shopping centre One New Change. On level three of a building inside an iconic 1960s/70s residential estate sits the Barbican Conservatory.
Opened in the 1980s with a steel and glass roof, this beautiful indoor garden covers 23,000 square feet and houses around 1,500 types of plant, including tropical varieties – some of them are even endangered species. The conservatory has the perfect climate for plants such as the bougainvillea and strelitzia (bird of paradise) and it‘s also home to three pools accommodating different varieties of carp fish, including Koi. All of this and it’s free of charge too! The Barbican Conservatory is open to the public on selected afternoons of the week, so you should check their website for details and to pre-book.
Cremorne Gardens, Chelsea
In the 18th/19th century, London saw so-called ‘pleasure gardens’ springing up all over the place, the most well-known being Vauxhall, Ranelagh and Cremorne. Pleasure gardens were parks or large gardens designed especially for entertainment, and they played host to all kinds of things including music, dancing, exhibitions, the circus, funfairs and even hot air balloon rides. Fans of the hit Netflix TV series Bridgerton will have seen some of this depicted, with the delightful Daphne and the dashing Duke promenading in perfectly manicured gardens or dancing under the moonlight at outdoor balls.
By the way, ‘pleasure gardens’ also had a seedy side, but that’s for another blog, another time…
In its heyday, Cremorne Gardens would have extended from today’s riverside location of Lots Road all the way up to the Kings Road. While today the garden is fairly small and mainly paved over, it’s lovely and peaceful with great views over the river. In fact, there’s even a decked pier where you can literally walk out into the Thames.
The garden’s crowning glory is a pair of original ornamental gates which once guarded the entrance. These are now inside the park complete with information boards.
Although there are some plain gates with signage on the main road, you would probably drive straight past the gardens without knowing they were there unless you were local.
St. John’s Lodge Gardens
These gardens are located in Regent’s Park, which itself isn’t hard to find as it’s one of London’s eight Royal Parks and a whopping 395 acres big. But go off the beaten track inside the park and you will find what looks like an ordinary pair of black gates – with one sometimes open and the other closed it doesn’t actually look like it’s open to the public.
As you get closer, you will find a welcome note attached to the gate, which also explains what the garden is for. St John’s Lodge is a villa that dates back to 1818 and was in fact the second villa in Regent’s Park to be occupied – one or two owners later it was acquired by John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, in 1889. The Marquess was a Scottish aristocrat with blood ties to the Royal House of Stuart, a devout Catholic convert and at one time, the richest man in the world. His inherited fortune had been made through the development of the city of Cardiff in Wales and although he loved to spend, spend, spend on the construction and decoration of various homes and buildings, he was also a very generous philanthropist. He was a man of many interests – you name it, he was into it: religion, architecture, medievalism and linguistics to name but a few.
With so many interests I guess it stands to reason that he hired Robert Weir Shultz to transform the villa’s garden into one ‘fit for meditation’, and that’s what it’s still used for today. So yes, the garden is open to the public, but no noise or crowds please.
Hampstead Hill Garden and Pergola
My absolute favourite (even though it is becoming a lot more well known thanks to the rise of social media) is the Hampstead Hill Garden and Pergola. Located in the Borough of Camden, it’s actually owned and maintained by the City of London Corporation, the governing body of the City of London. If you have never been, you really should go – it’s just like stepping back in time or into a period drama.
The garden was the idea of William H Lever, who would later become Lord Leverhulme, one of the founders of the Lever Brothers soap business (todays Unilever). In the early part of the 20th century, Lever purchased a house in Hampstead called The Hill, so called because it was situated on a hill, obviously! He later purchased some of the surrounding land and properties. He then enlisted landscape architect Thomas Mawson to design and create a large raised pergola and garden, using spoil from the excavation of nearby land whilst the Northern Line of the tube was being built. The pergola and gardens were used by Lever to host outdoor soirées or garden parties and they were enlarged and extended over the years to what you see today.
After the death of William Lever, the house and gardens were purchased by Scottish shipbuilder Sir Andrew Weir, 1st Baron Inverforth. He in turn bequeathed the house to the Manor House Hospital, which was renamed Inverforth House after his death in the 1950s. Today, the house is a private development but the Hill gardens and pergola, which were acquired by the City of London in the 1960s, are open to the public for free.
In my opinion this is one of the most romantic places you will find in London – if you’re thinking about popping the question to that special someone, then this is the perfect place to do it. Two glasses, a bottle of bubbly and a ring, nothing else is needed. In fact, if they say yes, you can even get married here as it’s also licensed for weddings (although that doesn’t come free of charge!)