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Chelsea Physic Garden
66 Royal Hospital Road
Chelsea, SW3 4HS

Closest station: Sloane Square

Opening times:
Tuesday – Friday: 12-5pm
Sunday & bank holidays: 12-6pm
Special late openings on Wednesdays from 29 June – 7 September
Closed Nov – April

Prices: £9 entrance fee; £6 concessions

A secret garden in Chelsea

The Galanthus species with their white flowers mark the beginning of spring. Better known as snowdrops, they also bring to life England's oldest botanical garden, the Chelsea Physic Garden.

Whereas the term 'physic' first evoked unpleasant memories of the school subject, it means 'medicinal drugs' and secondly the 'art of healing'. This sounds much better to me.

I leave the Chelsea embankment on my left and turn onto Swan Walk. Even though the high sandstone brick wall blocks my view, I can see first barren branches of olive and yew trees stretching towards the sky. That must be it – I found it!

A secret garden

I pass the black iron-welded gate and before I know it, Ramsey welcomes me from his little hut and covers me in information and an audio guide. For the next 1½ hours, Jon Snow's voice is my companion through the garden.

Inside, I cannot shake off the feeling that I am rather an intruder than a visitor to this very special and historic place. I feel like Mary in Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel The Secret Garden, finding the key to this secret garden in London.

It has been a well-kept secret and locked away from the public until 1983. These days, it serves as a place where the past informs the future. Thanks to botanists like Thomas Moore and Sir Joseph Banks, the four-acre patch houses species from all around the world including Tahiti and Nepal.

Their legacy, formed in 1673 and initially left for Apothecaries and students from the same field, is now passed on in frequently held botanical courses to school children and garden enthusiasts alike. Frances, a volunteer guide from London, tells me that the best time to visit the garden is in May and June when most of the 5,000 species are in full bloom.

Tropical escape

Even today, on this chilly February morning, Chelsea's surrounding red brick buildings, the strips of green grass and the Thames River in the south paint the picture of the colourful Spring that is soon to come.

My favourite part is the Tropical Garden. Besides it being pleasantly warm (temperatures are kept at 18 degrees Celsius), it offers exotic plants like Capsicum Baccatum, a special variety of peppers becoming hotter as the plant ages, or Cinchona Pubescens, producing Quinine that gives Tonic water its taste.

The tropical plants are located in the Northeast, through the fragrant lemon and orange trees in the Mediterranean greenhouse. You might feel like you are on the Costa Brava but The Tangerine Dream Café next to the greenhouses with its light lunches, cakes and tea will transport you right back to the UK.

Despite its international variety of seeds and plants, the flowerbed arrangements, lush green grass as well as the brick building of the main house emanate true 'Britishness'.

A colourful gem

When asked about her favourite flower, Frances hesitates and gives me a slightly destitute look. "There are just too many!" In the end, she narrows her 11-year experience of Chelsea Physic Garden tours down to rich blue flowers like Monks Hood, which you can of course also find in the garden.

At the end of my visit, rays of sunshine break through the overcast London sky and leave me calm and content. I understand too well now why the staff are concerned about the colourful gem getting too popular. A secret is best kept - secret.

Christine Liehr