London is having a heat wave this week, and there’s nowhere more perfect to spend it than inside the verdant and blossoming Chelsea Physic Garden. It’s a vast parkland that never feels overly crowded, and its location - next to the Thames in Chelsea - makes it the ideal, easy to access destination for relaxing in the June sunshine. In fact, as the New York Times reported earlier this month, new studies show that a visit would also be good for your health.
The garden was established in the Seventeenth Century as a physic garden which was a place to grow medicinal herbs and to train apprentices how to use these plants for healing. Over the centuries, as needs changed, the site morphed into the botanic garden you see today. Although the general layout and design still mirrors its origins.
I can remember visiting the garden for the first time. I located the entrance in the brick wall on Swan Walk. The unassuming gateway does nothing to prepare you for the staggering size of the garden. Even now, five years later, I continue to be astounded that such a garden (such a huge amount of open land) can exist right in the centre of London. And I think this is why it’s so perfect. Even when it appears to be crowded with visitors, you can easily find a secluded, shady spot or make a circular path through the garden somehow never encountering anyone else.
Another delightful aspect of the garden is its assortment of glass houses to explore. There’s a large one at the far end of the property and several smaller ones clustered near the shop. They are crowded with specimens (my favourite being the brightly coloured geraniums) and have a timeless quality. I would love to know when they were built.
Entering these structures feels like stepping into a dollhouse made of glass. In Summer, sunshine dazzles and glitters off the window panes. And during more typically English weather, milky-cloudy light makes the houses perfect for photography. There are accretions of potted plants and flowers, moss spanning the spectrum from ochre to dark blackish-green, and cactuses that appear to have been there for decades - or longer? The same concentrated earthy smell hangs in the air whenever I visit.
There’s a lovely cafe where you can sit at wrought iron garden tables in the sunshine or under an airy canopy at tables decorated with flowers pulled from the garden that morning.
Another highlight of the garden is their bookshop. It has one of my favourite collections in the world. Whoever is responsible for stocking the small shop sources fabulous material - it reminds me of the types of books you would see in a corner of Daunt’s Books in Marylebone. The selection leans more towards cultural history as opposed to how-to’s, which is exactly what I crave reading.
I hope my images give you an even stronger sense of the Chelsea Physic Garden. You can find prices and opening / closing times here. The garden is currently promoting a Food Is Medicine theme with a special trail and a sculpture by Tom Hare which you can see a photo of below.