Discovering the roof gardens of London

 

We always visit London during February half term. I’ve learnt the hard way that the big attractions attract big crowds so I try to choose a less popular, more quirky option. Our theme this year was roof gardens!

The Roof Gardens, 99 Kensington High Street

I’ve walked along Kensington High Street many times but until last week I had no idea that on the roof of the building above we’d find trees, a stream and four flamingos! Yes, you’ve read that correctly. The 1.5 acre roof gardens took 2 years to build and opened to the public in 1938; visitors paid a shilling to enter with the monies raised going to charity. Nowadays Sir Richard Branson leases the roof gardens along with a private clubhouse and restaurant on the 7th floor.

The Spanish garden, The Roof Gardens
The Spanish garden, The Roof Gardens

We signed in at reception and took the lift up to the 6th floor before stepping out into the surreal experience of a Spanish garden. Modelled on the Alhambra in Granada it certainly brightened up the grey and dreary London sky.

Flamingos at The Roof Gardens
Flamingos at The Roof Gardens

There’s also a Tudor garden but our favourite was the woodland garden with its free roaming flamingos. This contains over one hundred trees, including six that have been there since the garden opened. Plenty of spring bulbs were pushing through the soil and a few were already in flower.

The Roof Gardens, 99 Kensington High St, London
The Roof Gardens, 99 Kensington High St, London

The middle of February is never going to show a garden in its full splendour but we thought it was great. We’ll definitely pop back to the Roof Gardens in summer to see it in its prime.

Sky Garden, 20 Fenchurch Street (Walkie Talkie)

I’ve always wanted to visit the Shard but why pay £25 when you can experience similar views and a sky garden for free at 20 Fenchurch Street? Admittedly the Walkie Talkie, so called because of its bulbous shape, is less aesthetically pleasing. It’s also significantly lower than the Shard but it still provides a great vantage point. And perhaps the Shard is too high to get decent photos?

Sky Garden at the Walkie Talkie
Sky Garden at the Walkie Talkie

I’d booked tickets to the Sky Garden a few days previously. We turned up an hour early but the staff were accommodating and let us in before our timed slot. My passport ID was checked and bags security scanned before we stepped into the lift. I haven’t been in many skyscrapers so I was surprised how quickly we zoomed up to the 35th floor.

Sky Garden, 20 Fenchurch St
Sky Garden, 20 Fenchurch St

The views are stunning. There are no information boards but most buildings are instantly recognisable. We enjoyed looking across to the Gherkin and at a helicopter flying at the same height as us. Aside from the views, I’d describe the sky garden as corporate. It’s the kind of planting you get in posh offices. Nice enough, but soulless. Maybe give it a year to mature and it’ll look better. If you visit for the views you’ll love it! I wouldn’t visit just for the garden.

Views from the Sky Garden
Views from the Sky Garden

Upon leaving we discovered both lifts were temporarily out of order and awaiting repair. The attendant announced he’d take 8 people down in the maintenance lift. At this point I started to worry we’d be trundling down the outside of the building in a cage. After several minutes of my mind running through doom-laden scenarios (Towering Inferno) the lift door suddenly opened and we were able to leave. A few seconds later and we were safely on the ground floor. Phew!

SOAS Japanese Roof Garden

Expectations for our final garden were high, but it’s unfair to compare this garden with either of the previous ones. It’s much smaller and has minimal planting. Instead, the SOAS Japanese Roof garden is all about the stone with sandstone, slate and granite chippings providing texture and interest.

Japanese roof garden, SOAS
Japanese roof garden, SOAS

There’s seating for those who wish to enjoy the peace and meditate but we didn’t linger. I’m sure it’s lovely in May when the wisteria flowers but on a cold February day we were happy to return indoors. An interesting garden to visit if you’re already in the area but I wouldn’t make a special trip just to see it.

More info

  • The Roof Gardens at 99 Kensington High Street are free to enter but ring before you visit to ensure they are not closed for an event.
  • The Sky Garden is open from 10am-6pm weekdays, 11am-9pm weekends. Visits are free although you’ll need to book a timed slot in advance. Remember to bring ID with you.
  • The SOAS roof garden is on top of the Brunei Gallery and is open whenever the gallery is (generally 10.30am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday).
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30 thoughts on “Discovering the roof gardens of London”

  1. Great photos of the Kensington roof garden. I knew it was there but didn’t know it was open to the public. My mum remembers it from the 60s, it was the roof of a department store. I’m going to go. Looks amazing. One day I will probably go to the Sky garden (for the views), but as you said, I assumed that it would be quite corporate. My roof top experiences, on my blog, are the national Portrait Gallery restaurant, pop in early before food & just have a coffee. Not high but beatiful views. Also you can visit the roof of One New Change for free, the shopping centre next to St Paul’s. Both on my blog, search in side bar for National Portrait Gallery & St Paul’s. Thanks for sharing this post, can’t wait to visit the Kensington roof gardens.

    1. Thanks for your comment and recommendations Katherine, I’ll pop over and take a look. I don’t think many people are aware of the gardens – there was only one other visitor whilst we were there, although I’m sure that it’s busier in season. I would suggest waiting for a few weeks before visiting so that the spring flowers are out.

  2. What a great idea – I read about the ‘walkie talkie’ garden (another disappointed review) but I hadn’t thought of visiting the others. More things for my London list!

    #brilliantblogposts

  3. I keep meaning to go to Kensington roof gardens. I used to want to go for the food and drink but as I get older, I actually want to see the garden too! I really must do that this summer. Thanks for sharing #PoCoLo

    1. Thanks Merlinda. I liked how there was still so much greenery even in the middle of winter. I’ve seen some photos of it in summer and it looks amazing.

    1. I didn’t know about them either. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve walked past them whilst shopping in the past.

  4. Considering how easy Kensington is for us, and how much my kids would love the flamingos, it is shocking we have never been. Right! Must go! And the walkie talkie one! And the Portrait Gallery! And the St Paul’s one!!!

    Not a garden, but the cafe in Peter Jones at the end of Kings Street in Chelsea has lovely views over the rooftops if you can get a seat near the window.

  5. I love the cheeky flamingo sign…. made me giggle at the thought of drunk flamingos.
    WOW… the views from the sky garden look spectacular, and yes I would have panicked too at the thought of no lift.

    #countrykids

  6. What an interesting day out for you all, I’m sure it’s an interesting sight to see a full garden with added flamingos on the roof of a building in the middle of London! The kids look like they’re taking full advantage of the views from the top of the walkie talkie building. Thanks for linking up with Country Kids.

    1. It is amazing isn’t it. Not the sort of thing I’d have thought about visiting before but as I get older gardens seem more interesting!

  7. Now I wish we lived that bit closer, these look amazing places to visit. Thanks for sharing, maybe I will just have to add it to the (growing) list of things to do when I’m brave enough to visit with both my children 🙂

    1. You’ll have to Iona. It is pretty straightforward to travel around outside of peak hours and is definitely worth it.

  8. I never really thought about being able to go up to roof gardens. Sounds like something a bit different and definitely worth it for the views from some of them.

    #Countrykids

    1. It was good to do something a little different, particularly in half-term. Just too many people at the big attractions for my liking.

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