I don't get out much: I travel. Because I don't live in—or even within driving distance—of a major city (I live on an island), I save up my shopping, entertainment, and eating out for trips. As a maximizer who grew up in a city, I love ditching driving and picking up my pace. London is perfect for me as a gardener and flower lover—offering urban gardens, stately trees, art, exotic blooms, bouquets and more. I’ve just returned home from a March trip which was my fourth trip to London in as many years so I'll list a few of my favourite shops, galleries and gardens within central London itself (defining that as tube, not train, accessed). BTW: The new app Citymapper is the bomb for navigating. So here we go...
The National Gallery is home to Monet’s impressionist paintings from his garden at Giverny, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and an exquisite selection of Dutch floral still lifes, displayed in a small room on the second floor. Eighteenth century masters such Jan Davids. de Heem and my favourite Rachel Ruysch are amongst the collection. On this recent trip I had the great joy of seeing Ruysch’s Flowers in a Vase with a Tulip, which she painted in her fifties after a long career as a painter. Ruysch’s father was a botanist involved with the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam during the Dutch Golden Age and her life story is a fascinating one. I believe her floral works have a precision and passion that surpasses her peers.
The flagship store of the Liberty brand is a wonderful Tudor revival building featuring fabrics, clothes and gifts. Liberty is known for its fine floral fabrics and while I’m not a sewer, I’ve long admired the designs. Having reached the age where I’m now worried my Liberty shirts will age me, I now pop in for handkerchiefs which make nice gifts and in the larger sizes work as a bandana/necktie. Liberty always has delicious display of cut flowers off Great Marlborough Street, just outside its floristry shop run by Nikki Tibbles, Wild at Heart.
For early morning jetlag (namely five in the morning flower fixes), nothing beats The New Covent Garden Flower Market. I've written a post about it earlier, portraying some serious misgivings about the global flower trade and the paradoxes of choice, but this time I took one of those giant Ikea bags with me and left with it filled with floral supplies and a box of blooms. (My Fritillaries were 5cm tall when I left home and I'd been ogling them online for weeks.) I made the arrangement above using a variety of Ranunculus new to me 'the butterfly', which I'd never before laid hands on. Bliss. You can tube to the market in Vauxhall, but Lyft/Uber is your best plan for a laden return journey. (Don't worry, they'll open the gate for your driver.)
The Wallace Collection, a not-to-be missed ‘house’ museum in Marylebone, also has 18th century still lifes including a beautiful one by Jan van Huysum. A 19th century piece titled Flowers and Fruit by Simon St. Jean is interesting to view in this context; you can see the lightening of style in the French School. And speaking of light: The Wallace Collection’s furniture, window dressings, and architectural detailing are particularly grand in the ‘Rococo’ rooms. For me, this airy, elegant style is epitomized by The Swing by Fragonard. This is currently my favourite museum in central London: how we view art, and in what context, is increasingly important to me.
Which brings me to the top floor of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Here artifacts are arranged by period, but also by the techniques used in production. The furniture display is fascinating and solved a recent niggling question I'd had about the scrollwork and floral designs on antique furniture and frames. (These are the kind of questions The Wallace Museum provokes). How might one carve wood with such precision? The trick I learned is in the building up of gesso, which is then sculpted into shapes. This may appear naive on my part, but so be it: that one fact elevated an already ecstatic day. There's a tremendous amount to be learned about craft on this floor of the V&A. Don't miss the British ceramics—a small but tremendously helpful collection depicting the evolution of vases, urns and vessels.
From the Wallace Museum it's only a few minutes over to the Marylebone High Street to inspect the chic linen aprons (and shoes) at Toast and pop in to the Designers Guild to see the floral fabrics and wallpapers. The Conran Shop is also in this neighbourhood and the esteemed Daunt Books has an excellent gardening section. Save some pounds for the velvet at VV Rouleaux, a ribbon shop on Marylebone Lane. (On this trip I left with more grosgrain than reasonable, having decided I might make a belt for my new pants if I could just find the right sliding buckle. Well, there's a button store down the road, The Button Queen, where two elderly men dug through an old collection of mother of pearl from the 1920s to find just the thing). London xo.
Chelsea Physic Garden, founded in 1673, is the second oldest botanical garden in England. On the north side of the Thames, the temperatures are apparently 2 degrees warmer than in the city itself. One thing that makes Chelsea great—beyond its significant history—is its location, themes (medicinal, dye plants, etc.), and size. With over 5000 species, Latin saturation will occur in about two hours and the cafe is excellent. Green peas with mint, tea, and sticky ginger cake? Check.
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is the most significant botanical garden in the world. Budget at least four hours for Kew (if not the whole day) as it includes glasshouses, long walks, countless display gardens, cafes, art, and historic buildings. I interned here in my twenties and I had trouble choosing a picture I'm so fond of the place. The tube stop for Kew is in a sweet little village, but don't miss the nearby flower shop and school Zita Elze, just steps down the Sandycombe Road. (The food at Kew isn't great, so if you have time head further out to Petersham Nurseries in Richmond which has a glasshouse cafe. You might even catch the lovely Thomas Broom-Hughes there, Head of Horticulture and Floristry.)
In 2016, I took a short class in The History of Floral Design at the Zita Elze Academy and have returned again and again to my notes from that class. The flower shop itself is gorgeous. Pop in and chat with the staff. I'm sure they'd give you a quick tour of the school. If you're interested in studying floristry in London, this is a solid 2017 list. For other hands-on experiences, try Carousel in Marylebone which offer classes in paper flower making, terrariums, calligraphy and has a restaurant featuring pop-up chefs.
How does one digest it all? Admittedly it's near impossible to slow down in London but if you do, try the quirky bar Opium in Chinatown. The name says all you need to know about the mood/decor, but the cocktails are swell and the wallpaper perfect. Opium is bit themy, so if true Mayfair madness is what you're after, try Sketch, which has a botanical bar and a restaurant straight out of a Wes Anderson movie. The whole room is done in 'Millennial Pink' and the washrooms are surreal and superb (and the most photographed in London). I saw the floral installations here during Chelsea Flower Week in 2015 and was determined to eat here this trip. Definitely worth a once.
What did I miss? Gin, botanical bars, and probably all of East London, right? And, and, and...you can see why I keep going back. I'm loosely planning to be in London again in the fall and if you'd be interested in me leading a three-day flower extravaganza, let me know. It's new territory for me, and there's much to consider, but I'm thinking of it as it might marry my love of flowers, travel and teaching. Would you be interested?
‘Our England is a garden and such gardens are not made by singing “Oh how beautiful!”, and sitting in the shade.’ Rudyard Kipling