London – The Chelsea Physic Garden

One of the things I like best in Chelsea is the old herb garden, the Chelsea Physic Garden, that makes a home of peace with its base on the Embankment and the western angle at the beginning of Cheyne Walk and the end of the Royal Hospital Road, once called the Queen’s Road in honour of Catherine of Braganza, Charles IL’s Queen.

My friendship with the garden is based on no intimate acquaintance, for not to every one is it given to pass the iron gates that guard its fragrant stillness. If you would do more than gaze through the iron bars at this enchanted space that dreams away the year round undisturbed, you must write to the Clerk of the Trustees of the London Parochial Charities, 3 Temple Gardens, E.C.4, and ask for a ticket of admission to the most ancient Botanical Garden in England.

Once you have taken the trouble to secure this card you may stroll along the paths of the Chelsea Physic Garden that are much as they were when Evelyn went there on 7th August, 1685, to visit “Mr. Wats, keeper of the Apothecaries’ Garden of Simples at Chelsea,”and admire the innumerable rarities there, the “tree bearing Jesuit’s bark, which had done such wonders in Quartan agues.”

The Apothecaries’ Society laid out the garden about two hundred and fifty years ago. They leased the ground at that time, but later on Sir Hans Sloane gave them the freehold with one of those quaint conditions attached that lend a refreshing grace to a legal transaction.

The Apothecaries had to despatch 2000 specimens of distinct plants, grown in the garden well dried and preserved and sent in batches of 50, every year to the Royal Society. One would like to know what the Royal Society did with them, but the most interesting things in history are so often left out.

In 1899 the garden was handed over to the Trustees of the London Parochial Charities, who maintain this delectable if deserted London corner for the teaching of botany and for providing opportunity and material for botanical investigation.

Perhaps it was the attraction of the Physic Garden that influenced the choice of the Huguenot market gardeners who settled in Chelsea when they were driven from their own country by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. It startled me to find that at the time when England was merry, the Guilds were every bit as dictatorial as the Trades Unions are today. More so, in fact, for while a goodly percentage of our workers and nearly all our waiters are now said to be foreigners, none of the foreign workmen of the seventeenth century were allowed to carry on their trades in London and compete with their English confreres.

So the hatters went to Wandsworth and the silk mercers to Spitalfields, and the nurserymen chose the village of Chelsea lying two miles out of London along the river bank.

Their spirits may still hover among the perfumed beauty of the annual Chelsea Flower Show of the Royal Horticultural Society. It is held in the grounds of the Chelsea Hospital once a year at the end of May or the beginning of June, when the delicate loveliness of the flowers attracts an immense number of garden lovers.

And now to tell you how to reach the Chelsea Hospital, the Flower Show and Ranelagh Gardens.

I have never been able to discover whether the extreme reluctance of the British to give a detailed address is due to a naive belief that everyone is born into this world with an intimate knowledge of the topography of London, or to a malicious delight in puzzling the ignorant, but I have a deeply-rooted conviction that the maze was an English invention. So to the stranger bewildered by the laconic “Chelsea “on the cards of admission to the Flower Show I would say that it is reached either by the District Railway to Sloane Square station and then a short walk down Sloane Street to Pimlico Road, or by the ii or the 46 bus that stops at the corner of Pimlico Road and Lower Sloane Street.

The Flower Show is one of the most charming events of the London season. In no other city in the world may you see anything like this meeting of the great brotherhood of gardeners of every social rank gathered to admire the gorgeous achievements of the grand masters of the art of growing flowers; where peeresses humbly consult horny-handed experts and frivolous young men reveal unsuspected enthusiasms for blue aquilegias.

The adjacent Ranelagh Gardens are often called Chelsea Hospital Gardens, perhaps to avoid confusion with the grounds of the Ranelagh Club at Barnes. They are closed to the general public during the three days of the Flower Show, so if you go to see the flowers you have the added and unexpected pleasure of wandering through the green glades of Ranelagh undisturbed by the shouts of the Pimlico children.

There are no flowers in these gardens, but they have a peculiar charm of their own. There is none of the flatness of Hyde Park-the undulating paths and quaint bosquets belong to another day when powdered courtiers pursued fair ladies in the pleasure gardens that were so much the fashion. The story of Ranelagh is bound up with the history of the Georgian period. There is not a book of memoirs but mentions this famous pleasure resort. Walpole said of it, “Nobody goes anywhere else; everybody goes there. My Lord Chesterfield is so fond of it that he says he has ordered all his letters to be directed there.”

It is quite true that everybody went there. Johnson, whom I find as hard to keep out of the description of any part of London as Mr. Dick found it to keep King Charles’s head out of his memorial, was very fond of going to Ranelagh. Boswell says that, to the remark that there was not half a guinea’s worth of pleasure in seeing Ranelagh, he answered, “No, but there is half a guinea’s worth of inferiority to other people in not having seen it.”

There is little left of the actual gardens where Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, Walpole, the beautiful Duchess of Devonshire, the King of Denmark, the Spanish ambassadors and the entire English Court used to take part in the merry-making, but you may be sure they all walked up the broad avenue of trees that once shaded the brilliant scene. In the seventeenth century the property belonged to Viscount Ranelagh, an Irish nobleman by whose name the gardens are still called.

When the estate was bought by a syndicate after his death a huge rotunda was built with boxes all round. It must have been something like the Albert Hall, and every night the place was filled with fine ladies and wits, rubbing shoulders with all classes of society come to gaze at the attractions and listen to the music. The vogue of Ranelagh lasted many years and only ended when the rotunda was pulled down at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Every now and then one meets pessimistic creatures, usually artists, who shake their heads and say that Chelsea is going to the dogs-by which they mean that all the old studios are being taken by speculators with the intention of converting them into flats.

But the Chelsea of today is as charming as it ever was. There are just as many famous inhabitants. Sargent, Derwent Wood, Augustus John, Glyn Philpot, Wilson Steer and many another well-known genius, all live within sound of the “Six Bells “and some studios must have been saved from the speculator judging from the number of Chelsea addresses in this year’s Academy catalogue.