This article was first published in St Pauls Lifestyle Magazine in May 2014.
Whenever I visit Chelsea I’m reminded how pleasant it would be to live there. One couldn’t do much better than an apartment, indeed a house on Swan Walk overlooking the Chelsea Physic Garden.
This enclave of tranquillity, verdure and heavenly scents lies between the Thames embankment at Chelsea and the Royal Hospital Road, just beyond the forbidding yet beautiful facade of the National Army Museum and the Royal Hospital, home to the Chelsea Pensioners, some of whom can usually be spotted, in their signature red uniforms, on the short walk from Sloane Square station.
Beyond the gates one is plunged into another world altogether. London’s oldest botanic garden was founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries for the purpose of training apprentices in identifying plants. It subsequently became one of the most important centres of botany and plant exchange in the world. The garden’s warm microclimate enables tender plants to flourish including a number of rare and endangered species. Over 100 types of tree, from olive and grapefruit, pomegranate and gingko to mulberry and eucalyptus grow within its walls, complemented by a collection of tropical and sub-tropical species, some housed in Victorian glass houses. An imposing statue of Sir Hans Sloane presides over the garden, overlooking the oldest man-made rockery in Europe.
True to its original spirit the garden also nurtures a huge range of medicinal plants, the use of which dates back thousands of years. Many have been re-planted in the new Garden of Medicinal Plants which opened on April 1st. From ancient Greek herbal remedies to plants used in homeopathy through to an area dedicated to horticulturally derived medicines of the future, the new area is composed of 16 interconnected plots defined by yew hedges and stone walls, all artfully and expertly designed by Head Gardener Nick Bailey.
When the garden was founded the word ‘physic’ meant ‘pertaining to things natural as distinct from the metaphysical’. The New Oxford English Dictionary now defines physic firstly as ‘medicinal drugs’ and secondly as ‘the art of healing’. One is forbidden from touching any of the plants, since many are highly poisonous or otherwise dangerous. A label for the gardeners highlights the need to wear gloves when handling a plant with hairs that cause lesions; other species advertise their own warnings in the shape of lethal looking thorns and spikes.
Whilst the Chelsea Physic Garden remains a unique resource for the study of botany with a focus on the medicinal, there is much on offer for the lay person. Children will delight in exploring hidden paths in the thick vegetation, spotting curious looking plants and the April Fools’ cactus in one of the old glass houses, as well as the fare on offer in the popular Tangerine Dream Café. Adults will appreciate the diversity of the birdsong, the magical density of beautiful plants and their heady aromas, along with the opportunity to escape the noise and bustle of the city for a quiet moment and a dip back in time.
Check opening times on The Chelsea Physic Garden’s website.
© Text: Emma Boden
© Photographs: Patrick Barthès / Emma Boden