The Square Mile’s Other Sky Garden


Another research day, and this one takes me to Fen Court, where a new rooftop garden, better than the glorified food court at the top of the Walkie Talkie, is open to any and all, and affords terrific views of the city. And unlike the Walkie Talkie it doesn’t need to be booked for a visit – just turn up. It’s bare at the moment but will be fully planted in summer.

Finding the entrance is a challenge – it’s inside the building with rotating flowers on a circular ceiling at 120 Fenchurch Street. As in other tall buildings you need to go through an electronic bag search but apart from that there are no restrictions. Take the lift to the 15th floor and you’ll find yourself on a quirky roof with plants, a stream and a little knot garden, affording an unusual viewing angle on the city. There in the background you can see Tower Bridge. The view of the bridge from the other direction has now been wrecked by the construction of the looming Walkie Talkie, which bisects it. As an architect told me, ‘views can’t be monetised.’

London is stormy and silver-grey today (as it is most winter days) but if strangely often at its best in such conditions; there are fewer people on the streets, and there’s a sense of enclosure that suggests there should be a London version of ‘hygge’. My brother’s family have been working on our family tree and discovered we were all born within a tiny section of central London. It’s shocking to think that you don’t escape your origins.

The Square Mile is getting more and more roof gardens. I used to love sitting in the roof gardens of Derry & Toms in Kensington, but talks between the owners Virgin and the landowners collapsed last year and this extraordinary space, with its Italian and Spanish gardens, fully mature trees, lawns, flamingoes, bridges and streams, is now shut. I was there one Christmas when they brought a grand piano out onto the snowy lawns and we all sang carols.

There are still other gardens; Number One Poultry is a great outdoor space but gained an unfortunate reputation after a number of stressed stock jobbers chucked themselves from the roof. More open spaces are arriving on tall new buildings, even though the matter of security stops most from being visited spontaneously. The Barbican Conservatory is the second largest in London after Kew Gardens, and is hardly visited at all. You’ll find it upstairs in the main Barbican building near the art galleries.

Certain things always strike me about the city’s Square Mile. It retains its narrow alleyways no matter how many new glass boxes are raised. Its population appears on the streets at one and vanishes at two. Church bells can be heard at lunchtime throughout the area (especially now that there are fewer vehicles on the streets). There are almost no trees; the only part of London I can think of that doesn’t have many. It does, however, have quite a few church gardens and ruins where workers can sit among the gravestones with their packed lunches. This one is at St Dunstan’s in the East, bare now but flower-filled in summer.

Today I’m on the hunt for a very specific remnant of old London. I’ll be heading West and South but if I find what I’m looking for I won’t be able to include it here, as it forms the climax of the next Bryant & May novel.


10 comments on “The Square Mile’s Other Sky Garden”

  1. Roger says:

    “The Barbican Conservatory is the second largest in London after Kew Gardens, and is hardly visited at all. ”

    Things may have changed, but that used to be because it was impossible to get permission to go in. I managed to go in once, as someone had left a door open, and I had about twenty minutes to admire it before security came to throw me out. They told me they’d been watching on CCTV all the time, but rejected my request that they could just carry on doing that.

  2. Ford says:

    My favourite is the Chelsea Physic Garden. I know a nice boozer close by!

  3. Ford says:

    Roger, the Barbican Conservatory is supposed to be open. There’s a small piece about it in the Jan issue of Gardens Illustrated p. 70! It has a website –

  4. admin says:

    I’ve always found the conservatory open – sounds like you were unlucky.

  5. Jan says:

    I’ve never had grief getting to see the Barbicans conservatory or gardens Roger.

    It always tickles me how the trees within that space always sort of look a bit like Bonsai trees cos of all the massive development that’s surrounds them. Sort of weird I went there when it was snowing once and it was like being inside a snow globe.

    I think I know where u r off to Chris I am a bit tucked up at the moment but will e mail you a couple of my really crappy photos to try and get you moving along toward another couple of interesting venues. I reckon I sent you a photo of the place you have in mind not long back.

  6. Jan says:

    Worry not I’ll keep me cake hole shut.

  7. Trace Turner says:

    I was taken to The Gardens nightclub in the late 1980’s and it’s one of my favorite memories of that time. I took my husband there for lunch a few years ago on a bright clear November day and had another pleasurable visit. Perhaps one day it will open again.

  8. Ian Mason says:

    I find myself imagining the twist at the end of a story that would comfortably fit into one of those Hammer Horror portmanteaus, where as the banker’s body falls to the pavement an ethereal trapdoor opens and when the body stops the soul continues plummeting ever downward for eternity. Next segment, something nasty but deserved happens to Joan Collins.

    Sorry, I’ll get my coat…

  9. Roger says:

    This was twenty or thirty years ago – I was on my way to one of the top-storey cinemas they used to have .I never bothered since. I’ll have another look next time I’m there.

  10. Martin Keefe says:

    I can’t hear anything about the Derry & Toms roof garden without thinking of Jerry Cornelius. Some things just lodge in one’s brain.

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