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).
Share this:

The great fire of London walk

Both of my kids enjoyed learning about the great fire of London at school. We visited some of the places below when the kids were younger but as they were both eager to revisit the Monument I devised a themed ‘Great fire of London’ day.

Museum of London

We started with a visit to the Museum of London to see their Plague and Fire gallery. The best place to begin is by watching the 6 minute video which gives an overview of the fire and a day by day account from some of the eye witnesses. You might also like to pick up the War, Plague and Fire family activity sheet from reception (or download in advance from their website).

Afterwards take a walk around the gallery and see some of the objects relating to the fire. Our favourites were smoke blackened tiles unearthed in a cellar in Pudding Lane back in the 1970s. You can also try on a fire fighters leather helmet and compare it with our modern day equivalent.

St Paul’s cathedral

St Paul's cathedral
St Paul’s cathedral

After leaving the museum we walked to the Monument past St Paul’s cathedral. The previous cathedral, known as Old St Paul’s, was one of the casualties of the fire. Many people had put their belongings into the crypt, believing they’d be safe from the fire but sadly it was not to be and the cathedral burnt. The current cathedral was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and rebuilt after the fire once attempts to restore Old St Paul’s were stopped.

We’ve visited St Paul’s Cathedral before so didn’t go in this time but if you’ve never been it’s worth it for the climb up to the Golden Gallery. It’s not cheap but you can get slightly reduced prices by buying tickets online.

Monument to the Great Fire of London

Monument to the Great Fire of London
Monument to the Great Fire of London

On to the Monument, which was designed by Wren and his colleague Dr Hooke, as a memorial to the Great Fire. This stone column is 61.5 metres high which is the exact distance from its location to the start of the fire.  It’s fun to climb the 311 steps to the top and take in the view over London although you may need to queue for a while to get in.

View from the Monument
View from the Monument

The view had changed significantly since I last climbed the Monument as the new Walkie Talkie skyscraper now dominates the area! You can always pretend it’s not there and look out to the Thames and Tower Bridge instead. There is wire fencing all around the viewing area which can make it a little tricky to take photographs (hence no photo of the Walkie Talkie) but at least you’re safe.

Once you’ve squeezed back down the stairs you can pick up  a free certificate to show you’ve climbed the Monument.

Certificates from the Monument
Certificates from the Monument

Pudding Lane

Just down the road from the Monument is Pudding Lane, the source of the great fire. The only reminder nowadays is a small plaque on one of the buildings. The road itself is nothing special, I think a new bakery would be a great addition!

Pudding Lane
Pudding Lane

All Hallows by the Tower

All Hallows by the Tower is the oldest church in London. It’s location next to the Tower of London means that it received plenty of beheaded bodies from the executions.

It’s also the church where Samuel Pepys climbed the tower to view the progress of the great fire. The church survived thanks to surrounding buildings being demolished to create firebreaks. It didn’t fare so well in the second world war though and in the crypt you can see lead which melted from the roof during the bombings. In the under croft you can also find an excavated Roman pavement, dating from the second century.

We finished our tour with a quick trip to Borough Market. This has a tenuous link of existing at the same time as the great fire, but we only really visited for its yummy food!

More info:

  • The Museum of London is free although a donation is appreciated. The museum is open daily from 10am-6pm. It’s a short walk from either Barbican or St Paul’s underground stations.
  • The Monument costs £4 for adults, £2 for children. The stairs are the only way to get up and the staircase is pretty narrow, as is the viewing platform. It can be a bit of a squeeze when trying to pass people. I wouldn’t personally recommend it if you have pre-school children but we did see a few being carried up.
  • All Hallows by the Tower is free to enter. It’s open 7 days a week except during services. The nearest tube station is Tower Hill.
Share this: