Men are from Mars, women from Venus, but by the time they’re middle aged, they both come from the garden centre. Somewhere deep in our biological code, there’s a recessive gene which kicks in at 40 and makes you start liking things your parents enjoy. I spent my childhood being dragged round stately homes and gardens listening to nothing but Radio 4 and swore blind I’d never go near any of them ever again. Then, one weekend I found myself visiting Hughenden Manor. Next, I discovered the Today programme. Before I knew it, I was a full blown addict. Even now, I still have fond memories of listening to Radio 4 on my commute – And trust me, there aren’t many things you miss about trekking round the M25 twice a day, every day.
Fortunately, getting my garden fix in London is proving a lot easier. London has always been one of the world’s greenest cities: There are around 175 km2 of parks, squares and gardens in the capital, approx. 40% of its total area. Places like Hyde Park and Kew Gardens are magnificent and justly famous, but ask any Londoner what their favourite bit of greenery is and they’re much more likely to tell you about some little-known corner of the city where you can really escape the hustle and bustle.
Judging by the number of visitors there when I went, it seems even Londoners have yet to discover the Barbican Conservatory. Built in the early ’80s, the Conservatory was originally designed to hide the theatre’s 36m tall Fly Tower where all the stage machinery and sets are housed. It surrounds the giant structure and cleverly uses it as a centre-piece from which tropical plants and ferns cascade down in some strange, concrete version of the hanging gardens of Babylon.
Bizarrely, it’s the concrete which helps to make the Barbican Conservatory such a magical experience. Even in the densest areas of greenery, the brutal ’70s architecture still peeps through. The jungle seems just to have sprung up and reclaimed the city. The lack of crowds and fairy tale sound of bird song only enhances the effect. I couldn’t quite figure out whether I was on the set of a Disney film or 28 Days Later.
You really can lose yourself here. The atmosphere is seductively temperate (unlike so many hothouses, you don’t have to drown in your own sweat to enjoy!) and as one of the world’s largest conservatories, there are over 2000 different species of plant plus a host of birds and tropical fish – everything from ferns to fig trees, asparagus and capsicum. Every time I thought I was done, some new nook or cranny would magically appear to lure me further and further in. It’s easily missed, but do hunt out the extraordinary cactus room right at the back of the mezzanine level – A little bit of Death Valley in the heart of EC2.
Of course, being the Barbican, it’s not just the Conservatory where you’re at risk of losing yourself. It’s long had a reputation as one of London’s most difficult buildings to navigate. True to form, I had to ask at least 4 different people for directions before I eventually found where I was going. In fact, it’s entirely possible the Conservatory isn’t one of London’s best kept secrets at all, it’s simply that most Londoners are still wandering aimlessly around the Barbican trying to find it: Just make sure you go before they do.
The Barbican Conservatory is on the 3rd Floor of the Barbican Arts Centre, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS. It’s open Sundays from 11am – 5.30pm.