Since last week and for another two weeks, those, that were lucky enough to grab tickets (sold out now), were able to check out Buckingham Palace Gardens. London’s biggest private garden stretches over 39 acres and keeps 11 full-time gardeners and various contractors busy. From July it will be open to the paying public for picnics and walks (£16.50, discounts available).
The only way to access the gardens today was by booking a tour. 90 minutes for a tour around a garden did not sound attractive to me, but I was hoping to be able to take some nice pictures, so did get myself a ticket.
An ancient institution
You realise quite quickly that you’re dealing with an institution that has been around for hundreds of years and one that isn’t known to be an ‘early adopter’. You have to print out the tickets. Neither the webpage, nor the ticket, nor confirmation email contain a postcode or other useful directions. You are simply being asked to show up at The Royal Mews at 2pm for a 90min tour. I recommend using the postcode SW1W 0PP. The entrance to The Royal Mews is in Buckingham Palace Road, on the other side of the street (from the postcode address).
Admittedly, with Google Maps it’s reasonably easy to find, so I arrived about 15mins before the time, only to be told that the tour will start 15mins late. Our three tour guides were very pleasant. The main guide, a lady in her fifties, was doing most of the talking.
A ‘working garden’
We heard a lot about how the garden is a “working garden” not just a “leisure garden”. Every year there are the two or three major Royal Garden Parties, each with 8,000 guests or so. Then there are roughly one gazillion other events per week. Her majesty likes to keep busy, we get it.
No scissors involved but they do take the mowing part serious
To anyone who has not been born and bred in England, it sounds completely unbelievable, but they do indeed mow the lawn every week, twice a week ‘when required’. Our guide also told us that the type of lawn used was a heritage mix of three varieties that are very hard to come by. Over a century or more lawns have become darker everywhere else in the country. This was driven by a number of factors, like price, resilience, and, interestingly, the needs of major league sports. A white golf ball, football, or rugby ball can be spotted much more easily on a dark lawn than on a bright lawn.
Security guards and helicopters
You walk past by surprisingly few heavily armed guards. I think I counted only one, and I’m pretty solid up to about five or six, when the other hand comes into play. Partially, this might have had to do with the fact that the Queen was not actually in residence. Most of that side of the Palace, that points towards the Gardens, was under scaffolding. A helicopter seemed to have landed shortly before we arrived. We had not been in a position to spot it landling, as we had been waiting indoors. The pilot only left his cockpit while we were passing by his toy.
Vicky and Albert
We walked past two London planes that, we found out, were called Vicky and Albert. You guessed it: they had been planted by the former Queen and her beloved consort. Unusual for trees (they usually leave a wide gap between themselves), the two trees were almost touching each other. With typical English humour and quite to everyone’s including my own amusement, our lead guide made fun of the kitschy side of this romantic story.
We learned that some of the two giant rows of trees that lead from the Constitution Hill side of the Palace towards Hyde Park Corner, were planted with one thing in mind: shield the royals from curious glances of guests of the high-rise hotels in the vicinity. At the time, the cheeky owners of those hotels had started to advertise their rooms with slogans like “enjoy a royal view from your window.”
As in any city, the buildings grew taller over the years. So the thing that perhaps struck me most about the Gardens today, was that from nearly every single point along the way I could see quite a large number of windows of the surrounding buildings. This meant, of course, that anyone behind those windows could see me or any royal in my space, if they liked.
When I asked our guide what the royals do about this, she kind of implied that they are not around much anyway. Only the Queen lives here. And she’s quite a busy bee, so will almost never venture into the garden, unless she’s forced to, as part of some event. And those events are typically accompanied by a garnish of several dozen photographers and hundreds of commoners anyway, so the added inconvenience doesn’t matter to oneself.
We passed by the wooden garden hut. It had initially been in a sunny place, but then been moved next to a large tree with a lot of shade. Unsurprisingly, the relentless English sun had rendered the continued presence in the initial spot untenable. A wicker corgi was staring at us from behind the glass windows.
From there we went on to the rose garden, which looked completely unassuming. No idea what had happened there, but this was not a cool rose garden, with most plants hardly reaching knee-height.
Most of the rest of the walk was around the lake, which had initially been kept floated by an overspill feed from the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park. Nowadays, whenever there was a need, the lake was fed by the Gardens’ own source. While we couldn’t see much of the waterfall, we could certainly hear it.
There are two islands on the lake. Both of which were created on order of Prince Albert, who wanted to create bird sanctuaries. No one but the birds and himself were to access the islands via the wooden bridges he had built. It’s possible that the islands were as much a sanctuary for the Queen Consort as they were for the birds.
Fatal Fate of Flamingos
One story we heard was about the flamingos which had been presented to the Queen as a gift by the London Zoo. One dark winter night, the lake froze and a very happy fox had a great meal. They were never replaced. To this day urban foxes occasionally rock up in the Gardens. No one knows how they find a way in or out.
Dead trees alive
I’m not much of a horticulturalist, but it was interesting to hear about some of the rarer species. In some cases, trees received as gifts from foreign dignitaries, were extremely rare. A Chinese redwood tree, gifted by the Chinese ambassador, had been officially declared extinct until they found some survivors in the 50s.
Book your tickets
One thing I will say about this tour: it’s not detailed and deep enough to be interesting for even a superficial, amateur botanist or plant aficionado. It’s definitely not got any juicy bits for royalists, like who did whom behind which bush or something. And it’s certainly dead boring for anyone else. I also thought it was silly that we were only allowed to take pictures at the very end, and only from literally the most boring spot on the tour. You could either take a picture of a green lawn or of the trees that surrounded the lake.
I’d advise anyone against this tour, but by all means book your tickets now for the Gardens themselves. It is one of the coolest places in London to meet up with friends for a cucumber sandwich and some Pimm’s, so don’t miss out.
Looking for more fun things to do in and around London? Check out our posts about North London Skydiving, the London Rally School, the Thames Rockets, and our walks with Go London around Leigh-on-Sea and in Berkshire.