Secret London: Garden Museum and Thames Barrier Park

Image: Garden Museum

Last week the Balcony Gardener team took a morning out of the office to glean a bit of inspiration from two very different green spots in London. Firstly, we crossed over Westminster Bridge in the direction of Lambeth for a morning at the Garden Museum. Based in the deconsecrated parish church of St Mary-at-Lambeth, the Garden Museum sits adjacent to Lambeth Palace and overlooks the River Thames. It was the first museum in the world dedicated to the history of gardening.

The museum houses permanent exhibitions, including old gardening tools, prints and photographs of different gardeners and their gardens and a large collection of catalogues and brochures. Besides this, there were also two other features of the Garden Museum we wanted to experience first-hand, namely Sorrel Ferguson’s award-winning cafe and the shortlisted designs for London’s High Line project.

The cafe was named alongside restaurants at New York’s Guggenheim and the Hermitage in St. Petersberg as one of the top museum eateries in the world. In the Summer you can enjoy lunch outside in the Knot Garden – a 17th century style garden created in the early 1980’s by the Museum’s President, The Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury. Inspiration from the 17th century is due to the tombs of the great plant gardeners and collectors, John Tradescant the Elder (c.1570-1638) and Younger (1608-1662), both of whom reside in the garden. (It is also the burial place of Anne Boleyn’s Mother.) The small garden is cared for by an enthusiastic small horticultural team of staff and volunteers. Planted in the garden are beds of herbs and vegetables used in Sorrel’s recipes. On the chilly day we went, we were treated to slabs of freshly – still warm – homemade bread and bowls of soup seasoned with herbs from the garden. Delicious!

Fletcher Priest’s winning design

We’ve featured New York’s High Line on previous blogs and wanted to see the final shortlist of designs for London’s own version. We visited a few days before the High Line Symposium, an event co-ordinated by the Mayor and lead by visitors from New York. The Symposium discussed the successes in New York and how – if ever – a London version could be built. The final competition was won by Fletcher Priest Architects with their “Pop Down” designs – an undergound garden using the old Mail Rail tunnels that run just North of Oxford Street and have been out of action for over a decade. The underground garden would be lit via fibre optic ducts up to the surface, where scultpural glass mushrooms would harvest light allowing real fungi to grow down below. Whilst no financial or actual planning is in place, it’s interesting to see how the High Line – or indeed Low Line maybe realised in London.

After our morning in Lambeth, we boarded the tube and DLR in the direction of the Thames Barrier Park, ‘the first riverside park to be built in London for over 50 years.’ In 1995, the London Docklands Development Corporation launched an international competition to create a new riverside park. The site had been derelict and contaminated for many years, meaning the design involved a two-stage implementation process. The first stage of meant the area needed to be de-contaminated and ready for planting, whilst the second phase consisted of building the new structures, installing the water feature, constructing the hard surfacing and planting the new vegetation. The design competition was eventually won by landscape architect Allain Provost (Groupe Signes) of Paris and architects Patel Taylor of London. The Anglo-French design team’s winning competition proposal was to develop a strategy based on the creation of ‘a clear urban and park framework which envisages contrasting spaces for different uses in the park’.

We had never visited the park before, and it was more than worth our trip out East. It has a lush sunken garden of waggly hedges and and offers perhaps the best views from land of the fabulously sculptural Thames Barrier. The park features a children’s play area, a fountain plaza where kids can splash about and a five-aside football/basketball court. According to the original designs and planting, the green trench running through the park was intended as a reminder of the site’s dockland heritage. It provides a sheltered microclimate for a ‘rainbow garden’ – strips of coloured plants. A Pavilion of Remembrance near the River commemorates local people who died in the Second World War. The park and its design have won many prizes over the years, from both the British and American Institutes of Architecture. Up close the park really is a feat of green engineering and ingenuity – the Thames Barrier is a brilliant backdrop.

On our way home we took a detour to the Cable Cars that fly you across the Thames from Excel to the Dome – a brilliant pit-stop and well worth a try!