Summer in London is stifling. Sun melted tarmac, tube lines humid with sweat, the inevitable parade of radioactive orange cocktails splashed drunkenly down clothes. In an attempt to escape the hell of crowed roof-top bars and heaving pubs, you might think it wise to head for the more verdant spaces of the city. But alas, Hyde Park’s grassy expanses will inevitably be strewn with barely clothed bodies and the remnants of weekend joviality, while the likes Clapham Common and Victoria Park play host to organ-vibrating sound systems and overpriced beer stands for the summer’s festival season.
Luckily, escaping the horrors of summer city living is easily achieved by heading to the capital’s lesser-known green spaces for a chance to catch your breath. From sky-high enclaves draped with exotic flora to miniscule woodlands tucked behind suburban streets, one of London’s best kept secrets is its glut of hidden gardens.
The Barbican Conservatory
This steamy jungle atop London’s most celebrated modernist monolith was designed by the building’s forward-thinking architects, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. Under a 23,000 square foot roof of glass and steel, you’ll find verdant vegetation of over 2,000 exotic plants and swooping walkways that cut between oversized date palms and alongside a pond home to koi carp and terrapins.
To catch a sight of London’s highest tropical rainforest you’ll have to hot-foot it to Moorgate on Sundays when the doors open between 12 noon and 5pm. Avoid the avid selfie takers ogling the ever-popular swiss cheese plant (monstera deliciosa) and head to the arid house on the east side of the conservatory, where you’ll find a collection of cymbidiums – that’s cool house orchids to the uninitiated – alongside an expansive collection of cacti.
Silk St EC2Y 8DS, barbican.org.uk
Dodge the tour groups, taxis and ticket touts of the West End by sliding down one of the less-than-savoury looking alleyways leading to this award-winning community garden. Listening to the joint ensemble of birdsong and singing bells coming from St Giles Church, it very much feels like a hidden paradise. Built in the 80s on a former car-park, head down the hidden path between the fish pond and the gardener’s nook to find a bench wedged under a canopy of Weigela. Even if the summer heavens open, a rambling rose and ivy overhead offer sufficient shelter against unseasonal rains.
21 Stacey St WC2H 8DG, thephoenixgarden.org
Tucked behind a row of Islington townhouses and just minutes from Caledonian Road, London’s smallest nature reserve is – well – extremely small, sizing up at a petit 0.35 hectares. But don’t let that put you off a breezy stroll through the mature woodland. Once the garden of nearby St Andrew’s Church vicarage, the wooded idyll was abandoned to nature in the twentieth century, before being snapped up the council in the early 70s and, twenty years later, declared a Local Nature Reserve (avoiding an earlier plan to plonk some housing on it).
Head down on Tuesday afternoons for a short walk around the sycamores, ash and horse chestnut trees and keep a keen eye out for the friendly neighbourhood great spotted woodpecker.
Crescent Street N1 1BT, islington.gov.uk
The Charles Dickens Museum Garden
Skip the exhibitions at the Charles Dickens Museum and make your way to the back of 48 Doughty Street for a cup of tea in the building’s delightful backyard accompanied by a flick through A Tale of Two Cities. Once the family home of Dickens, it’s not difficult to imagine the author taking a seat in this slice of serenity at the heart of Bloomsbury. Green metal tables litter the surprisingly expansive garden, surrounded by pots of lavender, flowering camellias, heady jasmine scents and even a gravestone, dedicated to Dickens’ first cartoonist, Robert Seymour. Open Tuesday to Saturday, it’s rarely overcrowded and the opportunity to grab a hot cuppa risks a Miss Havisham-style long stay admiring the blooms.
48 – 49 Doughty St WC1N 2LX, dickensmuseum.com
Fenton House and Gardens
Avoid the swollen crowds on Hampstead Heath over summer by slipping into the landscaped gardens of this 17thcentury merchant house. Now a National Trust property, the blooming gardens of Fenton House are spread across three levels and boast a 300-year-old orchard, walled kitchen garden and vegetable plot. Neatly trimmed topiary border formal lawns, while the sunken rose garden offers a feast for the senses during blooming season. The historic orchard contains over 32 different varieties of apples and pears, if you’re peckish.
Hampstead Grove, Hampstead NW3 6SP nationaltrust.org.uk
Named after the Old General Post Office staff who once frequented the shady walkways of this courtyard garden, you’ll find a memorial commemorating men and women who have given their lives attempting to save others at Postman’s Park. Around the corner from St Paul’s, the park memorial was funded by a radical socialist GF Watts. The central stone plinth is now frequented by city suits catching some lunchtime rays between the summer flowering Musa basjoo (banana tree) and the brightly planted flower beds.
Look out for the tiled plaques boasting of brave deeds carried out by Londoners past, from pantomime artiste Sarah Smith, who died “attempting in her inflammable dress to extinguish the flames which had enveloped her companion” (1863), to wee little John Clinton, aged 10, who drowned in 1894 near London Bridge.
St Martin’s Le-Grand, EC1A
St George’s Gardens, Bloomsbury
Designed by William Holmes in 1885, the weeping ash and plane trees that crowd this verdant Bloomsbury oasis grow on ground marred a darker past. These gardens are former graveyards for two neighbourhood churches and in 1777 became the site of the first recorded case of ‘body-snatching’ in England. Now transformed into gardens, the expansive lawns and ivy-covered tombs still sit on consecrated ground.
62 Marchmont St, WC1N 1AB