22nd September 2021
by Peter Coles
In August, during one of the dullest, wettest summers I can remember, I had the pleasure – and privilege – of being invited for a tour of one of the most extraordinary gardens in London - and possibly anywhere. The place : Kensington Roof Garden, on top of what was once Derry and Toms department store. My guide: Sharon Scott, Head Gardener.
The top-floor restaurant is currently being transformed into a private members' club, so I needed special permission to gain access to the garden that surrounds it. My pretext was to pay a visit to what might be London's highest black mulberry tree, even if, at around 10 metres, it is not the tallest.
What I discovered, high above the traffic and bustle of Kensington High Street, took my breath away. Here, as well as an 80-year-old black mulberry, leaning lazily beside a flowing stream, are 1.5 acres of trees, herbaceous borders, lawns and follies. There is a Tudor Garden, a Woodland Garden (where the mulberry is), and the pièce de résistance, a Spanish Garden, inspired by the Alhambra Gardens in Spain. Over it all presides Sharon, who admits that she has one of the best workplaces in the capital.
London's highest, even if not the tallest, black mulberry by the stream in the Woodland Garden, one of several themed gardens on the roof of what used to be Derry & Toms department store on Kensington High Street
Sharon, the Roof Garden's head gardener, in the Spanish Garden
Derry and Toms department store opened in 1938 with, on the top floor, a restaurant (the art deco Rainbow Room) and 1.5 acres of roof garden, stocked with trees and around 500 shrubs. The garden was designed by Ralph Hancock, borrowing ideas from his Garden of the Nations' (1933-5} on the eleventh floor of the RCA building at the Rockefeller Center in New York, USA. The themed gardens are still mostly intact, as is the little waterfall, pond and babbling stream. In its heydey there were live pink flamingoes. but today a family of ducks has claimed their territory.
Vintage postcard from 1957 when the garden was already mature
Derry & Toms, which I remember visiting with my parents as a child, closed its doors in 1973. For a couple of years, it was taken over by Biba's hippy emporium, complete with Rainbow Room restaurant and roof garden. Since then the building has been a Marks and Spencer store and, from 1981-2018 Virgin Limited Edition ran the top floor site as a nightclub and restaurant. The lease has now been taken over by a private members' club. According to Sharon, the public will be able to access the gardens once the refurbishment is finished, though I don't know if there will be any conditions.
It's hard to believe you're in the heart of London up here
text and photos (c) Peter Coles. Postcards from Peter's personal collection.
Morus Londinium is hosted by the Conservation Foundation and is maintained by the voluntary contributions of Peter Coles, with the generous contrinution of a Vicky Schilling travel bursary (2021) from the Tree Register. Peter would like to acknowledge past grants from Goldsmiths, University of London (CUCR) and the Worshipful Company of Weavers, as well as the original grant from Heritage Lottery Fund (2016-18). Morus Londinium is a 2021 winner of the European Heritage Awards / Europa Nostra Awards 2021. Peter's book, Mulberry, is published by Reaktion Books (2019).