Friday, June 22, 2007

Harry Potter and the Garden of Secrets

It’s not often that NoCrowds get a chance to ride the Harry Potter tidal wave. Put “Harry Potter Tours” into Google and you will find over 10,000 entries, everything from Harry Potter’s South of England Tour to the Harry Potter Tour to London for the Release of Book Seven. What an industry! But not one of those tours mentioned the fact that you can visit a screaming mandrake plant, yes, the one featured in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, in a 17th century walled garden in the centre of London.

Founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries for the study of medicinal plants, the Chelsea Physic Garden is London’s oldest botanic garden and one of the best kept secrets in town. Historians, crime writers, gardeners, doctors, film buffs and newt catching kids will all love this four acre site between Royal Hospital Road and the River Thames, not far off the Kings Road

From the weird mandrake plant that actually resembles an ugly screaming baby to deadly nightshade (or “belladonna” because Venetian ladies would use it to dilate their pupils) to the Pacific yew tree used to make the cancer treatment “Taxol”, every plant has a tale to tell. There’s the story of the cotton plants sent from the Garden to the new colony of Georgia in America and the tea plants which were smuggled out of China by the Scottish botanist, Robert Fortune to start up India’s tea business.

On a recent visit with a “twenty something” visiting American, we chose to go on one of the Garden’s guided tours which is included in the price of a ticket. It was led by David, a gentleman straight out of central casting, who somehow managed to educate and entertain an eclectic group of visiting lady gardeners, new age herbalists and us. His descriptions of some of the effects of plant poisons were particularly vivid. When we finished our tour, my young friend remarked, “I loved it. My Grandmother would REALLY have loved it.

If you are travelling with young children, this garden is a wonderful haven in a built-up part of the city where children can run around, go pond dipping for bugs and newts and get something nice to eat at the café. In a Charles Adams moment, I really enjoyed the numerous posted warnings about the hazards posed by the poisonous plants, the bees and the ponds which none of the happy children nor their parents seemed to notice.

All in all, I can think of no better break from the upmarket, but not very interesting, shops of the Kings Road (it’s the same stuff you can get at the upmarket outlets at home) then an hour spent in the Chelsea Physics Garden. It is amazing how many things in our medicine cabinet have a link to this bucolic and historic place and you will be further amazed by the role plants play in our heritage and our lives. If you are looking for a place to eat after your visit, head for Foxtrot Oscar next door. Everyone who has ever eaten there, except me, seems to have been seated next to Prince William and they make a great burger.

Chelsea Physic Gardens
Swan Walk
London SW£ 4HS
Tel: 020 7352 5646

Closest Tube station: Sloane Square

The Garden is open April – October
Wednesdays, 12pm-dusk or 9pm whichever is earlier
Thursdays and Fridays, 12-5pm
Sundays, Bank Holidays and Good Friday, 12-6pm
Admission Charges
£7.00 for adults and senior citizens£4.00 for students*, unemployed people* and children (5-15 years old)*

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