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Almost Private: A Secret River Garden in Central London

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Almost Private: A Secret River Garden in Central London

November 14, 2017

Since the 12th century there has been a ‘”Great Garden”‘ next to the River Thames in central London, originally occupied by the Knights Templar. Lawyers quickly followed, easily outlasting the crusading knights: they have been the main residents at the Temple for the last 700 years. The garden is accessible to the public, though it looks rather private; you just need to remember that outside the hours of 12:30 to 3 pm, weekdays, the gate is closed. Head over there with a sandwich.

Photography by Jim Powell for Gardenista.

A glow of purple from the shady ground cover Liriope muscari can be glimpsed through gaps in the hedge along the Victoria  Embankment.
Above: A glow of purple from the shady ground cover Liriope muscari can be glimpsed through gaps in the hedge along the Victoria  Embankment.

In the 1960s, the idea of a female head gardener at the Inner Temple was tentatively broached and dismissed, while dogs were firmly banned until the 1980s (Baroness Butler-Sloss, aunt of actor Nigel Havers, was instrumental in reversing this). During the last 10 years, the Great Garden has been made great again by Andrea Brunsendorf, a woman who happens to be German, with the encouragement of her spaniel, Boris. This year, the High Border has seen its best season yet.

 Tufts of Miscanthus nepalensis in the foreground, with self-seeded Clematis &#8
Above: Tufts of Miscanthus nepalensis in the foreground, with self-seeded Clematis ‘Lambton Park’ spilling on the ground, just out of the way of the main path.

When Andrea started, she found a park-like garden in a classic Edwardian layout, with rolling lawns, mature trees and lots of roses. In the early 20th century, William Robinson, the iconoclastic “wild” gardener (who was at his most vocal when Edwardian gardens were at their most gaudy and wasteful), was a consultant at the Inner Temple. He advised leaving it mainly alone, planting only deciduous trees. His spirit has been revived in Andrea’s joyous perennial-based planting. He might even forgive her for tucking in the odd miniature pine.

Big buildings, textural  planting. Canna musifolia towers over dahlias, arching heads of pink Persicaria orientalis, and dark Hibiscus &#8
Above: Big buildings, textural  planting. Canna musifolia towers over dahlias, arching heads of pink Persicaria orientalis, and dark Hibiscus ‘Mahogany Splendour’.

In nurturing the garden and giving it a more personal atmosphere, one of Andrea’s main challenges has been in hiding things. The tops of double decker buses passing by the river end of the garden is less of a problem than the lawyers’ buildings themselves, which are almost all 20th century reproductions. The 1950s brick must have been chosen for its enduring quality, since it refuses to mellow with time. The solution? Ignore it, filling the borders with plenty of movement and height, plus color. Red brick calls for plenty of pink, red and yellow flowers: they don’t go but they are very distracting.

During the Second World War, most of the buildings of the “inn” that face on to the garden were destroyed. Rubble was piled up on the High Border, while flower beds immediately below were given over to “Dig For Victory” vegetable growing. More than a decade after the end of the war, gardeners were still struggling to flatten the lawn, since a blimp had been moored there, leaving deep foundations.

Behind this great distracting symphony is a car park. Included here is Dahlia &#8
Above: Behind this great distracting symphony is a car park. Included here is Dahlia ‘Otto’s Thrill’, Miscanthus ‘Silberfeder’, Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Herbstonne’ and Aster pyrenaeus ‘Lutetia’.

One of Andrea’s volunteers, Hilary Hale, has written an entertaining and scholarly booklet on the garden. According to William Shakespeare—not an accurate historian—the Wars of the Roses were first sparked by flowers plucked from the Temple Garden, as re-enacted in Henry VI, Part One.

The garden was given a lasting design by Robert Marnock, curator of the botanical gardens at Regent’s Park, in the 1860s. This was in response to the construction of the Victoria Embankment, which blocked direct access to the river, while enlarging the garden. A tunnel for the London Underground also changed the topography. Marnock planted an avenue of pollution-resisting London plane trees on the broad walk over the District Line, and most remain. “The garden has always been at the vanguard,” says Andrea.

 Above: The main gates and this sun dial of 09 survived the bombing in World War II, which destroyed most of the buildings.
Above: Above: The main gates and this sun dial of 1709 survived the bombing in World War II, which destroyed most of the buildings.

Andrea’s collection of Coleus by the sun dial, with taller Tagetes ‘Burning Ember’, shows the kind of fearless planting more usually found at Great Dixter than in a London park garden. The poinsettia-like leaves of Coleus, with its retro splashes of acid green and maroon, might worry conventional gardeners. But, as Andrea says, it was a popular bedding plant in Victorian and Edwardian gardening and: “It reminds us of our heritage.”

 Above: Help yourself to walnuts. Tree circles may make incursions into the lawn but they prevent a patchy effect under trees, while avoiding soil compaction around the roots, since people do not park themselves at their base.
Above: Above: Help yourself to walnuts. Tree circles may make incursions into the lawn but they prevent a patchy effect under trees, while avoiding soil compaction around the roots, since people do not park themselves at their base.

After the Knights Templar settled on the parcel of land that was to become the Inner and Middle Temple, water would run up to the buildings, depending on the tides. The Victoria Embankment was built as part of an 1860s sanitation program, combating the “great stink” oozing from the Thames.

The Inner Temple Garden, from behind the High Border looking towards the River Thames.
Above: The Inner Temple Garden, from behind the High Border looking towards the River Thames.

N.B.: There are more secret or semi-secret gardens in London. See:
A Secret Garden in the Middle of Regent’s Park
A Secret Courtyard Garden in Piccadilly

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