Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2017
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God save the green

London's secret gardens and parks

Don’t tell anyone, but I’m going to let you in on a secret. Two-and-a-half secrets, to be exact. Everyone knows London has some great parks and gardens. Some of the greatest, in fact. Hyde Park (aka the Queen’s backyard) is 143 hectares in central London of lawns, lakes, horse trails and even Speaker’s Corner where tourists come for the speeches and stay for the heckling.

But the city also has a few secret gardens, hidden down side streets or through non-descript gates, that are a bit more difficult to find. Risking the ire of protective Londoners, I’m going to spill the beans on three of them. Don’t tell them I told you.

The Chelsea Physic Garden

66 Royal Hospital Road, along the Chelsea Embankment; www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk

This is really just half a secret. The garden is not really hidden, but it is largely unknown, and a good place to start to understand how the cold, soggy UK became so obsessed with gardens.

It was founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries (they don’t make names like they used to). The garden was devoted to what would now be called agro-business and genetic mining. Located by the river Thames, in a warm(ish) microclimate, it gathered seeds from around the world looking for beneficial and profitable properties. Think tea, tobacco and opium poppies. You know — the stuff empires are made of.

Today the garden has over 5000 species of plants, divided by application, such as ayurvedic medicine, Maori medicine and Chinese medicine, as well as Western medicinal uses such as oncology, gastroenterology and analgesia.

St. James’s Square

Gate off Charles II Street, Picadilly

Yes, for centuries the Brits have taken their gardens very seriously indeed. But sometimes they just want to stop and smell the roses. In private.

Tucked away behind London’s most fashionable streets are squares with central private gardens: only those living on the square have keys.

One of the few exceptions is also one of the most distinguished. St. James’s Square, a quiet enclave just a few blocks from Piccadilly Circus, was one of the best addresses in London. Close to the Houses of Parliament, residents have included earls, dukes and several Prime Ministers.

Today the Square houses private clubs and corporate headquarters. One happy result is that it makes it impossible to keep track of who has the right to use the central park, and the gates are left open during the day. Pick up some overpriced but delicious treats from Fortnum & Mason, just around the corner on Piccadilly, and settle in for a Georgian picnic on the grass in your own private garden in the heart of the city.

St. John’s Lodge Gardens

Inner Circle near the Park Office, The Regent’s Park; www.royalparks.org.uk/regents

At 166 hectares, The Regent’s Park is even bigger than Hyde Park. A one-time royal hunting ground, in 1811 it was redesigned by crown architect John Nash as an elegant Regency park.

It still has that graceful feeling, with boating on the lake, a bandstand, open-air threatre, wooded walkways and the London zoo. Horticulturally, its pride is its extensive and varied rose gardens. But that’s the obvious stuff — possibly missed by the casual tourist, but well known to Londoners.

The hidden jewel can be found by passing through a gate off the Inner Circle in the heart of the park. It’s easy to miss. And even if you do see it, you are likely to think it is a private entrance to St. John’s Lodge, one of the few remaining grand residences inside the park. It’s not. It leads to what used to be the garden of the Lodge, which is now open to the public.

Once beyond the gate, lush formal gardens, invariably empty, extend in gradually constricting circles until you end up at a bench nested in a semi-circular arbour. From the bench all you can see is trees, flowers and the Lodge in the distance. You can hear the fountains and birds. You can smell the green. It is a perfect, private spot in the heart of London. And if anyone asks how you found it, don’t tell them I told you.

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