The Chelsea Physic Garden, nestled alongside the Thames on the Chelsea Embankment, is one of London’s best-kept horticultural secrets and my very favourite place to spend a leisurely afternoon. You enter it from Swan Walk, through a discreet iron gate in a high brick wall, half-hidden by foliage that spills over it exuberantly, as if escaping from the space inside. I always imagine myself going into the secret garden in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s book of that name (one of my much-loved childhood reads). Once inside – just like in the book – the secret garden opens out gloriously in front of you. However often I go, I am always amazed that such a thriving botanical Eden can fit into such a comparatively small space.
This is a working garden, which was established in 1673 by the Society of Apothecaries, to grow and trial materia medica for pharmaceutical use, using specimens brought back from all over the world by individual travellers and the ships of the East India Company. Its plants are still largely laid out in beautifully kept study beds, neatly labelled and grouped by genus. Earnest visitors with notebooks pore over them, noting down the precise botanical name for a particularly striking item they hope to order later, to add to their own herbaceous border at home. Gardeners tend the plants discreetly, weeding, digging, watering and planting, apparently oblivious to those around them.
You can still see plants here that are more unusual and varied than anywhere else I know in London. Even my second favourite London location – the gardens of the Middle Temple further east along the Embankment – can’t compete. My personal favourites are the tree peonies but in February the garden boasts dozens of different species of snowdrop, the bell-like flower of each more pristinely white among its green leaves than the next. The trees in the garden are as special as the flowers – the ones I love best are the handkerchief tree (I’ve never learnt its Latin name) that overhangs the main lawn and the Tamerisk tree when it’s in full mauvish-purple bloom.
At the end of the gravel walk that takes you into the heart of the garden, perched above a pool and a rock garden, stands a life-size stone statue of Sir Hans Sloane, somewhat battered by the elements over the years. It is, in fact, a replica of the original, which is better protected from the weather at the British Museum. In 1712 Sloane – a physician and collector of plants and curiosities – bought the freehold of the Chelsea Physic Garden and leased it back to them in perpetuity for £5 per annum. Delightfully, this is still the sum the garden pays to the Cadogan Estate today, for this prime site in the heart of Chelsea. In return the garden was to provide Sloane with 50 new plant specimens annually – with no repeats. A pretty tall order, even with the garden’s access to shiploads of exotic new specimens from abroad. I wonder if they still have to provide them today.
The garden’s stately greenhouses contain a profusion of plants that need to be sheltered from even the temperate microclimate of the garden – yes, that’s another reason for coming. On a slightly chilly spring day it will be warmer in the Chelsea Physic Garden.
But, of course, for me the greatest attraction of the Chelsea Physic Garden is that it is at once a delightful retreat from urban life, and a piece of the very history I study. To go through that gate in the wall is to be back with the sights and smells at the beginning of the modern world – the coming together of exploration, discovery and the new medical and botanical sciences in the late 17th century.
I confess that the final thing that draws me time and again to the Chelsea Physic Garden is the Tangerine Dream café, nestled alongside the 17th-century red-brick curator’s house, with its covering of climbing roses. Tangerine Dream serves the most delectable cakes you’ll ever taste, in a style entirely in keeping with the garden’s old world charm. Its serious food is terrific too but I’m rather sold on the cakes. Give me a lemon drizzle cake with luscious icing, a lavender scone or a piece of chocolate cake topped with caramelised violets or rose-petals, and I’m happy.
Lisa Jardine is presenting ‘The Seven Ages of Science’ on BBC Radio 4 starting on August 6 at 9pm. For more in our editorial series on London & The World please visit www.ft.com/reports/london-world-2013