Chelsea Physic Garden, a hidden jewel

Chelsea Physic Garden contains the oldest man-made rock garden in Europe. It has Grade II* status.

Chelsea Physic Garden contains the oldest man-made rock garden in Europe. It has Grade II* status.

THERE are probably thousands of people living and travelling nearby who don’t even know it exists.

They go about their daily lives, thundering past in buses and cars, sometimes looking out of a top-floor window, unaware of the verdant jewel in their midst.

The Chelsea Physic Garden is one of those places that you may have heard of but have never got round to visiting.

It’s not the easiest place to reach by public transport but it more than justifies the effort.

Pick a warm day for your visit and you will appreciate the greenery, the calm and the atmosphere. It really is an oasis next to Chelsea Embankment, hemmed in on three sides by flats and by two- and three-storey houses.

Thanks to a charming and knowledgeable volunteer guide,, we emerged with a clear idea of how and why the garden came about. Although she immediately confessed that she was not a botanist, that didn’t matter.

She knew the names of enough plants in the beautifully organised beds to fool me. She had mugged up the garden’s history, ancient and modern, to ensure that her group of visitors went away well briefed after more than an hour of gentle walking.

Our attention was drawn to treasures like the largest olive tree growing out of doors in this country. We saw the pomegranate tree, we saw individual beds of plants cultivated for all kinds of purposes, medicinal, nutritional and practical.

Among them was the fibre bed which contains plants grown for use in the textile and rope-making industries, along with a border of plants used in the cosmetic and perfumery industries. Visitors are shown the garden of world medicine, systematic order beds, the history beds, the North American beds, the pharmaceutical beds, and many more.

The garden is laid out on 3.8 acres of prime real estate. Just imagine what a piece of land of that size in Chelsea could fetch on the open market for housing of the more up-market kind. However, that will never happen.

Since Sir Hans Sloane, as Dr Sloane, bought the manor of Chelsea from Charles Cheyne in 1712, the freehold of the garden has been safeguarded.

The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries had founded their Physic Garden in 1673 but were finding it difficult to maintain.

Sloane, who had studied at the garden as a young man, granted the Society a lease in perpetuity, in return for a rent of £5 each year which, even to this day, is paid to his descendants. Not surprisingly there is a handsome statue of Sir Hans prominently positioned in the garden. It is a replica of the 1733 original by Michael Rysbrack.

It was in 1983 that the Chelsea Physic Garden was set up as an independent charity and opened to the general public.

You certainly can’t argue with its description as a centre of education, beauty and relaxation. It was a disappointment, though, to have chanced to arrive fairly late in the day, at a time when the café had closed prior to re-opening for the evening session.

But that was our fault, not theirs. Among their specialities were the delicious-sounding lavender scones, probably made using lavender grown just yards away from the door.

Do visit if you have the chance – the Happy Moonraker found it magical, but check opening times carefully. http://chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk/

1.A replica statue of Sir Hans Sloane in the Chelsea Physic Garden. The generosity of Sir Hans in 1722 ensured that the Society of Apothecaries could keep their garden in perpetuity. They had founded it in 1673.

A replica statue of Sir Hans Sloane in the Chelsea Physic Garden. The generosity of Sir Hans in 1722 ensured that the Society of Apothecaries could keep their garden in perpetuity. They had founded it in 1673.

 

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