Every May sees garden lovers from all over the world flocking to the Chelsea Flower Show, but keen horticulturists need not visit Chelsea only in May, as the Chelsea Physic Garden is just a few hundred yards down the road.
In 1683 the garden was founded by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries as a place to grow the plants they used for medicine. Junior apothecaries studied here and one them, Sir Hans Sloane (he of Sloane Square), went on to be so successful that he was able to purchase the manor of Chelsea and then leased out four acres of land to the Society of Apothecaries at a rent of £5 a year in perpetuity. £5 was quite a lot in 1722, today it would barely buy you two coffees but it is still the rent today.
As you enter the garden, the beds to your left are devoted to dicotyledon plants (that means that the seed produces two leaves). In late April when I visited, some plants were in full flower but you see that visitors later in the year will be treated to other flowers and the pomp of full summer foliage.
At the foot of the Sir Hans Soane statue a rock garden can be found. This is no ordinary rock garden, no this is a Grade II listed rock garden. Its rocks are volcanic stone brought back from the coast near Reykjavik by plant hunter extraordinaire Sir Joseph Banks, especially for the Physic Garden, the rest of the stone comes from the Tower of London which was undergoing restoration in 1772 when the rock garden was constructed. That’s just rocky part, the plants are pretty spectacular too.
All the plants in the garden are either edible or have a medical use. These two colourful specimens are the hop used for making beer and the Judas Tree, the flowers of which you could add to a salad.
Looking at gardens is thirsty work so thankfully the Physic Garden has the whimsically named Tangerine Dream café in which to sit with a cup of tea (or lunch) and gaze over the tranquil grounds. One of the things that made for that tranquillity was a lack of children, lots of the plants are poisonous and for looking only, I think that maybe the Chelsea Physic Garden is place to visit with grown-ups.
CHELSEA PHYSIC GARDEN
Swan Walk, London W3 4HS
Open: Monday 11am – 5 pm (garden only, café and shop closed, enter via 66Chelsea Hospital Road)
Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 6pm (or dusk if earlier)
Late opening until 10pm on Tuesday and Wednesday in July and August
Admission: Adults £9.50, concessions £6.25, children under 5 free