I love London. And I love exploring London. Even after years of living in London (ok, near London nowadays) it never gets old. There are still heaps of places to discover. So, going on a tour to discover some of the secret gardens in London was the perfect Saturday activity.
London has plenty of parks and I am sure you know (or have heard of) quite a few of them: Hyde Park, St. James’s Park, Green Park would probably be the ones most tourists would come past during their endeavours in London. But these are not all. There are loads of lesser knows small gardens and parks dotted all around London. In fact, almost half of London is green space (a whopping 47%).
And we are talking a huge variety of gardens here. From Royal Parks to church gardens, allotments, communal gardens, roof gardens… you name it.
Well, when I say secret gardens in London, this isn’t strictly true. They aren’t really secret. Just not as well-known as some of the others. London’s hidden gems, so to speak. So maybe I should refer to them as hidden gardens in London? But then, we all love a secret, so let’s stick with secret gardens in London.
Luckily, exploring most of those secret gardens in London does not require any breaking and entering. Do you remember that scene in the movie ‘Notting Hill’ where Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts leave the birthday dinner and walk home through Kensington? They climb over a wall, to access a private garden.
As romantic as the scene was, no wall climbing required this time. Loads of the secret gardens in London are open to the general public. In fact, if you were to walk through the City during lunch break on a summer’s day, you would quickly realize just how many little gardens there are. As a lot of them are popular lunch spots for the people living and working in the vicinity. But then, some gardens are so well hidden, that you wouldn’t notice them, even if you walked past them every day on your work commute.
To dive deeper into the topic of secret gardens in London and to discover some of London’s hidden gems, I joined a walking tour offered by Living London (And just to be clear: This is not a sponsored post. I did pay for my ticket).
We were a group of just ten people (all women incidentally) and Saira, our guide for the day (and owner of Living London) had come up with a tour that lasted around 2 1/2 hours and took us through a great variety of secret gardens. Whilst referring to many more gardens along the way. Telling us all about the history of these hidden gems and stories of people connected with the gardens. And generally, just sharing her absolute passion for London with us.
Whilst I will happily share with you some of the Secret Gardens in London, I won’t share with you the entire tour. But I would definitely recommend you go on one of the tours, if you’d like to know more.
We only covered a handful of gardens that day, but Saira told us that there are actually hundreds of secret gardens in London. So, I can sense more exploring coming up.
Enough of the introduction, let’s start with the first of London’s hidden gems:
St Dunstan-in-the-East (EC3)
As our Secret Gardens in London tour started at Monument, our first stop was St Dunstan in the East. Maybe not such a secret nowadays, as it has become a rather popular Instagram spot for travel bloggers and fashion photographers alike (there actually was a couple there taking fashion shots whilst we were there).
St Dunstan in the East is a public garden nowadays, but originally started life as a church back in 1100. Badly damaged during the Great Fire of London, the church was re-built, and a new church tower was added by Christopher Wren.
Over the years, it fell into disrepair, was re-built again in the 19th century and eventually damaged again during the Blitz. Nowadays only the church tower and some of the outer walls remain and the entire site was transformed into a public garden in the 1960s.
The garden houses an amazing variety of plants. So, it is well worth coming back for in the height of summer.
To make the most of this unusual setting, I would recommend visiting either very early in the morning or just before dusk, to capture the sun falling through the windows. In the right light, this must be absolutely magical.
London’s hidden gems: Gibbons Rent (SE1)
Just a few steps away from the busy London Bridge area is a well-hidden garden. To be honest, this is a proper secret garden. As there is no way I would have entered, even if I happened to walk past. But even though it feels a little as if you are entering into someone’s back yard, Gibbons Rent is in fact a communal garden and open to the public. The local residents along with St Mungo’s maintain the garden and donated the plants. Gibbons Rent even comes with its own little library, hidden in a cupboard of course.
Unfortunately, there is no seating available in this little alleyway (but then again, probably to prevent people from sleeping rough in here). But I can see those large flowerpots making comfy(ish) seats in summer to sit and enjoy the peace and quiet (and get a beautifully framed view of the Shard).
Secret Gardens in London: Cross Bones (SE1)
Cross Bones started its life as a burial ground and a good 15.000 people were laid to rest here. It was an unconsecrated graveyard for those that were forgotten: prostitutes, single women and their babies.
After the graveyard was closed in the 19th century, it was forgotten, and the area was eventually turned into a car park. When works for the extension of the Jubilee Line started back in the 1990s, the graveyard was eventually excavated. The remains found can nowadays be viewed in the Museum of London.
For now, the area has been turned into a Garden of Remembrance. Complete with a long wall of ribbons to commemorate those forgotten women that were buried here. But unfortunately funding isn’t guaranteed. So it is unclear how long this will remain a garden before eventually being built over again.
The garden is open to the public. But only, if there are enough volunteers around to staff the garden. Luckily for us, it was open the day we visited. If it is not, you can still view the ribbons and catch a glimpse into the garden from the side alley.
Red Cross Garden (SE1)
Just a few steps from Crossbones Graveyard is the Red Cross Garden. A beautiful little garden with a row of picturesque cottages (social housing apparently, how I’d love to live in one of those) and a hall, established by the social reformer Octavia Hill back in the 19th Century. There’s even a blue plaque on the hall to commemorate Octavia Hill and her work.
OK, there you have it. A small selection of Secret Gardens in London. But as mentioned earlier, there are loads more dotted all-around London. So, next time you visit, why not explore a few of those.
If you are interested in learning more about London’s hidden gem, I would recommend you book one of the walking tours with Living London. Because it is not just about finding those spots. It is the stories behind the gardens, the anecdotes of people connected to them, that give them meaning. And Saira does a fine job telling those stories and making you a part of it all.
Tell me. What is your favourite secret garden in London? Which London hidden gem would you recommend?