On the leafy outskirts of London, down a narrow country lane, lies a hidden wonderland: palm trees and succulents; pastel roses, edible flowers, and magenta bougainvillea; dreamy glass houses filled with Indo-French treasures. This is famed Petersham Nurseries, a living, breathing fairytale with a history steeped in mythology.
In far West London, sandwiched between Richmond Park and the Thames riverbank, is a small village called Petersham. This spot has existed since ancient times and appears in the Domesday Book. The village - along with equally charming Ham next door - gained popularity in the 1600’s when privileged Londoners (looking to escape the plague and other unpleasant aspects of the big city) began moving west and creating the beautiful homes still standing in Petersham now. Over the centuries, the village continued attracting wealthy families who built even more magnificent houses. And yet, unlike bustling Richmond, the railway never came to Petersham which made the village difficult to reach: its status as a protected, affluent and hidden enclave was maintained, right up until today. Petersham continues to be a challenge to reach from central London, and I tend to include it as part of a trip to the botanic gardens at Kew.
Petersham Nurseries - the combination garden centre / restaurant / lifestyle shop and all around magical place - is THE destination in Petersham Village. But thinking more broadly about British culture, garden centres and plant nurseries are uniquely popular and especially beloved in this country. The idea of the garden centre as a destination (enough to do there for a day trip, or at least to fill an afternoon) is unique to the UK. As an American, I had never encountered the garden centre on such a large and popular scale until I moved to Norfolk and visited Notcutts for the first time. (None of the wild romance of Petersham but not completely dissimilar either.)
The rise of the garden centre in the UK began in the late 1950’s. Postwar, gardeners no longer had to devote space and time to cultivating vegetable patches for food, as they had done during the blitz. Suddenly, people had both the disposable income and energy to put into their home gardens, and a new wave of nurseries popped up, eager to cater for the gap in the market. This coincided - in the 1960’s - with the creation of containerised plants: plants that previously could only be sold at particular times of the year, were now possible to sell year round.
It was with this context that in 1962 the original Petersham Nurseries Ltd. was established and built on the spot it still occupies today. In fact, the famed glass houses are actually the originals from the early 1960’s.
Fast forward forty years to 1997. Bordering the plant nursery stood Petersham House, a stunning mansion originally built in 1674 and up for sale. The storied Italian businessman Francesco Boglione and his Australian wife, Gael, purchased the exquisite country home and - over the next five years - restored the fairytale property.
By the early 2000’s the nursery (at the back of the Boglione’s newly refurbished home) was in severe disrepair and likely going to be sold to a property developer. With no background in horticulture, the couple purchased the dilapidated space. The family spent the next fifteen years creating, developing and finessing what we recognise today as Petersham Nurseries: an internationally known and celebrated destination that is a garden centre, restaurant, and lifestyle emporium.
Today, Petersham Nurseries is comprised of the plant and flower nursery (including the garden shop); two dining venues; and a lifestyle shop. As I was told during my visit, anything you see on the premises, you can buy and take home. Everything is available for sale. One of the missions of the Bogliones is to enable people to create a home envonirment similar to the one they have styled and curated for themselves.
In one of the glass houses you will find an array of stylish gardening products and accessories. There are rows of seed packets, vintage-style gardening tools, chic copper misting bottles, gardening gloves and baskets. Both inside and outdoors, there are containers for sale of lavender, succulents, ferns, roses and hydrangeas.
In 2004, shortly after opening Petersham Nurseries, the Bogliones created Petersham Cafe with Skye Gyngell as its first chef. The romantic restaurant space is inside a glass house with exquisitely carved wooden tables and chairs, mirrors and paintings. Overhead, rattan Indian blinds filter the sunlight, and a deep purple bougainvillea trails across the entrance. In 2011, the restaurant won a Michelin star.
Eventually a tea house opened serving rustic hot food, fresh salads and imaginative cakes from a self-serve line in one of the old brick cottages. You can take your food into a garden area or one of the glass houses to eat. (The ‘cafe’ is the higher price point, sit-down restaurant, and the ‘tea house’ is the more casual, self-serve cafe; Petersham closes at 5.00 PM, so neither serve dinner.)
The emphasis in both the cafe and the tea room is on just-pulled-from-the-garden fruits and vegetables, edible flowers and herbs all grown right in the nursery. And what isn’t sourced from the nursery itself is supplied by a Devonshire farm owned by the Boglione’s son. The interest (and genuine passion) is focused on freshness, seasonality, sustainability and environmentalism.
The famed, highly desireable lifestyle shop sells furnishings imported from France, Italy and Morocco. The larger pieces are called “uniques” (as I’m told the brand calls them) and are one-of-a-kind items such as weathered sideboards, vintage china hutches and carved wooden dining chairs. The most frequently bought items are the roll top benches, the bistro table and chair sets, and the French Anduce planters and pots. Smaller treasures include: straw baskets and bags; imported soaps and candles; tableware, glassware and utensils; charming retro-style editions of paperback books; and decorative items brought back to this dazzling emporium from India. I recognise some pieces of china and pottery that I’ve seen sold in other boutique shops around London, so I assume those are made more locally, somewhere in the UK.
And yet … if you’ve never been to Petersham Nurseries I’m unsure whether what I’ve described conveys the magic of this space. You could envision Liberty (the famed department store on Great Marlborough Street). Imagine if Liberty’s top floor of imported home furnishings had a garden centre attached (Liberty already has a cafe). In fact, at least two of the niche brands Petersham sells I’ve also seen in Liberty: Astier de Villatte pottery and Cire Trudon candles. Both brands are super desireable, French, and trade on charming stories of historic origins.
A more widely known and potentially analogous spot is the lifestyle chain Anthropologie - if it was (even more) high end with an outdoor component and a brand inspired cafe/restaurant. These analogies are imperfect, but if you’ve never been to Petersham Nurseries then they go some way towards explaining the aesthetic I’m attempting to describe.
I think the magic of Petersham - what makes it feel like the setting for a fairytale, a secret garden - is that the entire complex is outdoors. Even when you think you’re inside (eating in the restaurant, browsing some seriously luxurious products), you are always aware (and part of) the natural world. You might be eating in a Michelin-star restaurant, but the ‘floor’ is the same warm-hued, loose earthen soil as throughout the rest of the nursery.
Butterflies, birds and bumblebees drift in and out, while you dine and shop; coral coloured dahlias from the cutting garden (just steps away) decorate wrought iron tables and fill the glass vases for sale in the store. Glittering sunshine filters through all that shimmering glass and the smell of the outdoors - of the garden centre, of the natural world - is always, ever-present. When Petersham Nurseries is described in journalism and essays it is often referred to as an Eden or Arcadia. And it is - verdant, hidden, timeless.
When I visited Petersham most recently, I sat alone for a few moments in one of the glass houses sipping elderflower and mint cordial on a blazing July afternoon. I was struck by the diversity of people surrounding me. And yet, we all had the same look of wonder and appreciation - and sheer delight - spread across our faces.
[With a special thank you to Paula Fousler, Marketing Manager at Petersham Nurseries, for spending so much time with me, one recent afternoon, answering my questions and showing me around.]