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Kensington High Street is still one of West London’s most popular shopping streets, however in the street’s glory days from the late 19th century until the mid-1970s, the street had three large department stores: Barkers of Kensington, Derry & Toms and Pontings. Eventually Barkers bought Pontings and Derry & Toms but still run all three as separate entities. In the 1930s, Derry & Toms were extensively refurbished with Europe’s largest roof garden area being created on the roof of the building.
The gardens were the idea of Trevor Bowen, the vice-president of Barkers, the department store that owned the site . The gardens were laid out between 1936 and 1938 by Ralph Hancock, a landscape architect at the cost of £25,000 and were opened to the public in 1938. A shilling was charged for entry which raised £120,000 for charity over 30 year period.
The gardens have an intriguing recent history which have included being part of the headquarters of the iconic Biba store in the 1970s, the location of the short lived Regine’s nightclub in 1980 and has been owned by Richard Branson and being part of the Virgin Empire since 1981.
When you arrive at the Roof Gardens, you are transported into almost surreal world 100 feet above Kensington High Street. The first surprise is that unlike many high rise terrace gardens with views all over London, this is a real walled garden with over 60 trees, some planted over 70 years ago.
The second surprise considering the size, is that it is not one garden but three. You step out into the English Woodland Garden with thousand of plants, a stream, and a couple of bridges.. This particularly English scene is slightly disturbed by the strutting flamingos walking around the garden.
The Tudor Garden includes a Tudor walkway and three courtyards which are planted with plants that would recognisable in Tudor England. This is a peaceful and relaxing place to sit and admire the pots of fruits and hanging wisteria around the archways.
The final garden offers the biggest surprise of all, based on the Alhambra in Granada, The Spanish Garden offers a distinct Moorish flavour with a white campanile with bell. It offers a little piece of Spain with fountains, vine-covered walkways and Chusan palms.
Remarkably the gardens have changed little since their 1930s heyday and will hopefully see little change in the future because the trees in the gardens have been made subject of preservation orders in 1976 and the gardens have been acknowledged as a place of ‘ Specific Historical Interest’ and were given a Grade II listing by English Heritage.
Although the gardens surround a two storey Clubhouse which hosts private events such as conferences, parties and a private members club, the gardens are open to the public when there is not a private event taking place. Visitors can also dine in the Babylon Restaurant which overlooks part of the Roof Gardens.
It is not just the spring and summer that attracts the visitors, the Roof Gardens are open all year around and have an extensive programme of events throughout the autumn and winter. These include the Roof Gardens award-winning Live! music nights in October plus Halloween, Firework Night and New Years Eve events.
The Roof Gardens of Kensington are one of the hidden delights of London and have been used as a location in a number of films and television programmes, Roy Orbison was filmed walking around the gardens singing one of his greatest hits, Pretty Woman in a 1964 Top of the Pops film.
The Gardens are free to visit, however it is worth contacting the Gardens before visiting to make sure they are open to the public on the day you would like to visit.
For more information about the Roof Gardens and events, visit the Roof Gardens of Kensington website here
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