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The Discreet Charm of The Roof Gardens of Kensington

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

London Visitors is the official blog for the Visiting London Guide .com website. The website was developed to bring practical advice and the latest up to date news and reviews of events in London.
Since our launch in 2014, we have attracted thousands of readers each month, the site is constantly updated.
We have sections on Museums and Art Galleries, Transport, Food and Drink, Places to Stay, Security, Music, Sport, Books and many more.
There are also hundreds of links to interesting articles on our blog.
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National Open Gardens Day at The Roof Gardens of Kensington

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The success of the National Gardening Week, which was launched by the RHS four years ago has led to the first ever National Open Gardens Day on 17 April 2015.  To celebrate the incredible array of  gardens in this country,  the RHS have asked gardens that normally charge for entry or that are closed to the public on that day to take part.  The RHS is kick-starting the campaign and its gardens and many RHS’s Partner Gardens will be joining too and throwing their doors open for free as will some of the  National Gardens Scheme gardens.

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Entrance to the Gardens on Derry Street

London has many wonderful and impressive gardens, however The Roof Gardens of Kensington is one of the most unusual and unexpected horticultural delights of the city.

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.

When you arrive at the Roof Gardens, you are transported into almost surreal world high above Kensington High Street. However this is not a fantasy terrace with views all over London, this is a real walled garden with over 60 trees, some planted over 70 years ago.

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Remarkably considering the size, it is not one garden but three. You step out into The English Woodland Garden with a lawn and a couple of bridges and plenty of colour with thousands of plants fighting for your attention. But its is the ducks asleep on the lawn and the strutting flamingos walking around the garden that you tend to focus on before you follow the winding path to the Tudor Garden.

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The Tudor walkway and the three courtyards are planted with plants that would recognisable in Tudor England. This is a peaceful and relaxing place to sit and admire the pots of Lime that guard the archways.

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It was in this peaceful oasis that I came across Head Gardener of the Roof Gardens, David Lewis. I was interested how the minimal depth of soil 18 inches could sustain so many trees and plants. David’s answer was it necessary to make sure you planted the right sort of plants for the environment, he also suggested that it was exciting to maintain the traditions of the garden but also try to keep it up to date with some of the latest horticultural developments. David is restricted in some aspects due to the trees being made subject of preservation orders in 1976 and the gardens being acknowledged as a place of ‘ Specific Historical Interest’ and given a Grade II listing by English Heritage.

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Head Gardner – David Lewis

If the visitor is surprised by the gardens up to this point, the sight of the Spanish Garden will really excite the senses. Based on the Alhambra in Granada, the Spanish Garden offers a distinct Moorish flavour with a white campanile with bell complementing the view of the spire of  the local church.

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The previous two gardens seem muted compared with the colour schemes in this Mediterranean  haven, bright and colourful English plants  are mixed with Mediterranean trees  to provide a wonderful sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the London streets below.

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Although the Roof Gardens of Kensington is a RHS Partner and part of the National Open Gardens Day, the good news is that the Roof Gardens of Kensington are open to the public at other times. If there is not a private event in the gardens, visitors can take a walk around the gardens free of charge.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

To find out more about the Gardens and find out about  openings , visit the Roof Gardens  of Kensington website here

To find out more about the  National Gardening Week and the National Open Gardens Day, visit the RHS website here 

London Visitors is the official blog for the Visiting London Guide .com website. The website was developed to bring practical advice and latest up to date news and reviews of events in London.
Since our launch , we have attracted thousands of readers each month, the site is constantly updated.
We have sections on Museums and Art Galleries, Transport, Food and Drink, Places to Stay, Security, Music, Sport, Books and many more.
There are also hundreds of links to interesting articles on our blog.
To find out more visit the website
here