Kensington Roof Gardens Mary & Martha Tours

Posted by: marymarthatours | August 13, 2010

Kensington Roof Gardens

In our last blog, I mentioned the Kensington Roof Garden as one of the secret gardens of London. I thought you might like to know a little more about this fascinating location.

The story begins in 1935, when Trevor Bowen, vice-president of the firm that owned the Derry and Toms Department Store building on Kensington High Street, visited Rockefeller Center in New York City. He was so impressed with the roof gardens there that he hired the designer, Welshman Ralph Hancock, to create a roof garden for the Derry and Toms building.

Old Derry and Toms Bldg (photo by T. Blomberg)

The Kensington Roof Garden covers 6,000 sq. meters (1.5 acres) and is the largest roof garden in Europe. Before planting could begin, extensive preparation had to be made. A thick bituminous base was laid to prevent leaking to the floors below. This was covered with rubble to aid drainage and then 3 feet of soil was added.

Hancock divided the area into three themed gardens:

  • The Spanish garden is based on the Moorish style found at the Alhambra in Spain. It includes formal walkways, an ornate central rill, Spanish façade with Moorish columns, palm trees and other hot-climate plants.

Spanish garden, 1995

    Kensington Roof Gardens Mary & Martha Tours
  • The Tudor style garden includes stone archways and brick walkways, wrought iron accessories, and the wonderful fragrance of lilies, roses, lavender, and wisteria.
  • The English woodland garden meanders like its stream around the pavilion that now houses the Babylon Restaurant. There are over 30 species of trees with some of them dating from the original planting. Sharing the pond area with pintail ducks are the garden’s four flamingoes.

Martha in the Woodland garden, 1999

The Garden was officially opened in May of 1938. Since then it has had its ups and downs. Despite being hit by two bombs during the London Blitz, both Derry and Toms and subsequent owner Biba’s Department Store maintained the gardens carefully. In 1975, however, Biba’s sold the building to a company that converted the interior into smaller shops and neglected the garden on the roof. Instead of a large team of gardeners, one part-time person took care of the garden.

Rebirth came with the purchase of the gardens in 1981 by the Virgin Group of Sir Richard Branson. The old restaurant was replaced with the up-scale Babylon Restaurant. Extensive maintenance work on the gardens was completed in the spring of 1992. In 1995, when we first visited, Martha and I thought the gardens were fabulous. We visited the Kensington Roof Garden again as a part of our M&M Magical Gardens of England tour in 2007. We had a lovely lunch at the Babylon Restaurant, and took our group photo in the Spanish Garden. Although I thought the gardens looked a bit rundown then, another round of restoration has recently been completed. The Spanish garden has seen a return to its original pink walls (found on a rediscovered fragment); the Tudor garden has been replanted in a striking black and white color scheme; and the Woodland garden has new lawns and boxwood hedges.

It certainly seems that the Kensington Roof Garden is worth another visit. A word of warning: The Restaurant and Garden are frequently hired by private groups for meals, gatherings, and parties. If you’d like to visit, we would suggest that you call in advance [+44 (0) 207 937 7994] to be sure that you can get in. To find the entrance, you go to the Derry Street side of the building and look for the entrance marked “99 Kensington High Street”.

(by Mary)

To check out the Babylon Restaurant, go to www.roofgardens.virgin.com


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