London Museum Challenge #12: Chelsea Physic Garden

June 23, 2013 § 2 Comments


This post represents ambition thwarted, or at least delayed: my mother visited me several weeks ago, and, both of us recently having read Molly Peacock’s marvellous biography of Mary Delany, The Paper Garden, over the winter, we had a perfect day planned: a visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden followed by a visit to the print room at the British Museum to look at some of Mrs Delany’s collages. Of course, the weather conspired against us, and it poured more or less from dawn to dusk. We still made it to the British Museum and the more-than-adequate substitute for the garden was an enthralling exhibition of netsuke at the Japanese embassy (thank you Fran!) with Edmund de Waal’s hare with amber eyes as its centrepiece, so I could hardly complain.

I have been hoping in vain since then for a sunny Sunday to visit the garden. However, it’s become painfully clear that none are forthcoming, and spring and summer are speeding by (not that you would know it by the weather), so this morning I decided to bite the bullet and go, despite louring clouds and a stiff breeze.

The Chelsea Physic Garden is the oldest botanic garden in London (1673), and the second-oldest in England (after Oxford’s). Founded by the Society of Apothecaries, its emphasis is, not surprisingly, on medicinal and other useful plants. If that sounds dry and dull, think again. It’s every bit as fascinating and beautiful as Kew or its even more distant descendant, the Eden Project – but on a much smaller scale.

The garden occupies an odd-shaped wedge of land, not quite four acres, on the bank of the Thames, and surrounded by brick walls high enough that you can’t see over them, which makes arriving there feel a bit like entering a secret garden. The garden is divided into several different sections – medicinal plants, edible plants, order beds, glasshouses, historical beds (each one dedicated to a past gardener, like Philip Miller (the first head gardener) or William Forsyth (namesake of forsythia), or another illustrious botanist like Sir Joseph Banks), and an amazing rockery whose plants grow among chunks of lava rock that Banks used as ballast on his expedition to Iceland – with a mossy statue of Sir Hans Sloane at the centre, casting a benevolent eye over his domain.

Four acres might seem like nothing, but the garden is so cleverly laid out that there are surprises at every turn – a bed planted with cornfield flowers hiding an ancient pond, sublimely fragrant Rosa gallica spilling out of beds of otherwise rather drab plants, a glasshouse full of ferns tucked into a corner. The labels offer up myriad interesting titbits – among others, I learned that the drug that controls Parkinson’s comes from broad beans, that tea plants were originally transported from China to India in a contraption called a Wardian case (still used today – well, at least at the Chelsea Physic Garden), and that the rose family is a lot (a LOT) bigger and more varied than I thought it was.

What I liked most about the garden, though, wasn’t the beauty of the plants or the deluge of fascinating information, but its vitality: despite being 340 years old, it doesn’t feel like an historical artefact trapped in amber. It’s still involved in much the same work that it was set up for – research, conservation and education – and in many ways it’s a living ark, with a seed bank that’s part of an international network with other botanical gardens. It also has its share of quirks – where else would you come across a lichen-encrusted bench with a placard on it warning you not to sit on it because the lichen is currently being studied?

The garden has a café called Tangerine Dream, so in the spirit of adventure and thoroughness I decided I had to see if it lived up to its excellent reputation. The cakes didn’t disappoint, although I couldn’t help wishing it had been warm enough to enjoy my tea outside.

Maybe the next time I go, the sun will be shining…

Tally: 12 down, 11 to go


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