They say no research is ever wasted and one of the many rewards of years spent researching successive editions of Museums & Galleries of London is that when I came to writing the London Garden Book A-Z, I already knew that it would feature several great museums that also have terrific gardens. Revisiting them with my garden writer’s hat on was a revelation and made me appreciate what amazing added value a garden can confer on a museum – be it purely aesthetic (a nice place to take a stroll or have your lunch) or actively interpretive, enhancing visitors’ understanding of the collections within.
Here are five of the best in brief (more detailed entries can be found in both books):
The Garden Museum
The obvious place to start if you like museums and gardens. This quirky little gem tells the story of gardening and is picturesquely located in a redundant church on the south bank. Vintage tools and horticultural paraphernalia bear witness to centuries of mankind’s ongoing battle against weeds, pests and diseases, while the pretty garden shows the struggle isn’t always in vain. Capitalising on its sheltered churchyard setting, the garden centres on a charming 17th-century style knot designed by the museum’s President, the Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury. The knot is planted with historically accurate plants, many of them introduced to this country in the 17th century by the Tradescants, father and son plant-hunters, whose magnificent stone tomb can also be found within the churchyard. Beloved by the gardening community, the museum is also esteemed for its excellent café – on fine days, visitors can enjoy coffee and cake in the garden.
The Geffrye Museum
The Geffrye’s sequence of garden rooms perfectly complements its indoor collection of reconstructed domestic interiors, which charts the middle class living room from Tudor panelled times to Manhattan-style city ‘loft’. The outdoor rooms take in a well-stocked herb garden before leading the visitor through several centuries’ worth of garden trends, from minimalist style Georgian display beds to overstuffed Victorian bedding schemes and blowsy Edwardian Arts & Crafts rustic idyll. One of my favourite places in London – and now a bit easier to visit thanks to the opening of Hoxton tube station nearby. Great café and shop too.
The Horniman Museum
Public gardens have been part of this local museum’s identity since it was founded in 1902 by tea tycoon Frederick Horniman ‘to bring the world to Forest Hill’. The Horniman’s 16-acre spread has recently undergone a major renovation with new display gardens designed to link more closely with the museum’s anthropological collections. Once a bastion of Arts & Crafts planting the Sunken Garden has been transformed into a dye Garden and there’s also a Sound Garden which harmonises (sorry) with the Horniman’s interactive display of musical instruments. Outside much-loved historic features such as the 1903 bandstand are still firmly intact, as is the famous over-stuffed walrus, which presides over the delightfully old-style natural history gallery like a genial genius loci.
Horticulture and history go hand in hand at Bexley’s magnificent local history museum. The architecturally distinguished building (part Tudor hall, part swanky Jacobean mansion) was once home to a Lord Mayor of London as well as being a top-secret code-breaking station in WWII, but its historic rooms now recount Bexley’s history from the year dot. Outside there are 65 acres of award winning gardens and parkland to explore, including a rose garden, topiary sculptures, show gardens, orchards, a productive kitchen garden and a modern palm house.
Wildlife Garden, The Natural History Museum
A lovely, living annexe to the Natural History Museum, this wildlife garden is a testament to nature’s resilience even in the most urban of environments. Hard by the busy Cromwell Road, the garden recreates 9 semi-natural habitats – such as chalk downland, woodland and reedbed and since its installation in 1994 this carefully managed 1 acre plot has become a magnet for over 400 species of butterflies and moths, as well as birds, mammals and bees. And every summer after the flowers have set seed on the meadow habitat, a small flock of sheep are bought in to graze the land in the traditional manner – a sight for sore eyes in London (or anywhere for that matter).