Explore The Garden at Buckingham Palace
Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to the press preview of the The Garden at Buckingham Palace. Although tickets are now sold out, some do occasionally become available on the day so it’s worth trying your luck on their website.
But, don’t worry if you missed out because I’m here to share a sneak peek behind the walls and some of the history of this 42 acre garden, the largest private garden in London…
The Garden at Buckingham Palace
Walking alongside the walls in Victoria, you might not guess at the oasis hiding behind them.
It’s really only from the air that you get a sense of the scale of the garden. It’s almost as big as Green Park.
Image from Wikimedia Creative Commons
The history of the garden starts with a King and the story of a spectacular business fail.
In 1608 King James I, envious of European silk production, requested the planting of 10,000 mulberry trees. These were important because fussy-eater silkworms will only eat mulberry leaves.
But. Disaster. James ordered the wrong ones; black rather than white or it’s possible that Londons’ cold damp climate didn’t suit. In any case silk production didn’t flourish.
The site of this plantation stands on the site of the garden and today you can find 45 different types of mulberry trees.
To tell the story of the Garden, we first need a bit of background on the palace itself. It started as Buckingham House, a large home that was present from the early 1600s but gets its name from 1698 when it was let to John Sheffield, the Duke of Buckingham.
Image from Wikimedia Creative Commons – Buckingham House c.1702
The Duke promptly demolished his new home, building a bigger, modern one which stayed in their family until 1762.
It then passed into Royal hands when King George III bought it for his family and yet again it was remodelled. Then his son – King George IV – comes to the throne in 1820 and has huge plans for a new palace.
George IV hires John Nash to create a huge U-shaped block with a triumphal arch at the front. They blew the budget and conveniently George IV then dies, leaving poor old Nash to answer to parliament for the spiralling costs. He was fired and new architect Edward Blore was hired to finish the job.
Image from Wikimedia Creative Commons
It was only with Queen Victoria that Buckingham Palace was finally used by a Royal as a family home and palace. In 1845 she too caught the renovation bug and Edward Blore was employed to build a new wing along the front, the iconic Portland Stone facade that we see today.
It’s quite different from the warmer Bath stone that you can see from the gardens.
It’s also worth noting that the arch was moved but did survive. It went to Hyde Park Corner and give us today’s ‘Marble Arch’.
But what about the gardens?
The design of the private, enclosed garden is the work of King George IV. He appointed William Townsend Aiton to landscape the grounds into a more natural feel than arranged, manicured gardens you might see in Versailles.
With over 1,000 trees and 325 wild-plant species, here are some of the highlights of the Garden at Buckingham Palace.
I have to admit I had to double check I was allowed to walk on it. But I needn’t have worried, the lawn is the main site for official events and hosts 24,000 guests during the annual Summer Garden Parties.
During the 18th century the garden was home to an exotic menagerie including an elephant and zebra.
It’s also used to land the Royal helicopter, naturally!
Decorated with Coade stone urns and sculpture, there’s also a 3-part frieze along the West front of Buckingham Palace.
Carved by Richard Westmacott the frieze shows King Alfred (according to Architectural Historian Pevsner).
In the middle is a depiction of Fame displaying Britain’s triumphs, also made of Coade Stone.
To the far left hand side, you’ll spy part of the building has tinted windows. These provide privacy for the palace’s very own indoor swimming pool.
The central feature of the garden, the lake is artificial and lined with clay. In Queen Victoria’s time it had a fountain in the middle and would frequently freeze over to allow for Royal skates on the ice.
In the middle of the lake is an Island, made into a wildlife sanctuary and home to over 60 types of wild birds. Prince Albert built two bridges to lead into the Island so he could feed and admire them.
The current Royal family have tried to keep up this green attitude with 99% of green waste recycled on site and the use of pesticides kept to a minimum (eventually planning to be phased out completely).
The Herbaceous Border
The burst of colour runs for 156 metres, packed with a diverse mix of flowers.
Each Monday the Head Gardener, working with the Royal florist, creates a small posy of fresh flowers from here to be popped into a vase on the Queen’s writing table.
Only parts of the gardens are available to freely stroll past and some parts are only accessible on one of the guided tours which sadly I didn’t get a chance to join.
However, the tour would take in sights like the 18th Century Summer House. Here’s a picture inside from my Blue Badge Guide colleague David Kelleher
You can also see the Waterloo Vase, an epic – 4.5m high – urn made of carrera marble. Originally Napoleon Bonaparte had his eyes on it having spotted the huge chunk of stone in Tuscany. However, the vase was instead presented to the Prince Regent (later King George IV) by the Duke of Tuscany after Napoleon was defeated a the Battle of Waterloo. It was then given to the National Gallery who promptly returned it to the Palace in 1906, presumably because it was far to big to put anywhere!
Have you been lucky enough to peer beyond the walls of Buckingham Palace and wander through the garden? Maybe you’ve even been to a garden party? Let me know in the comments!
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I’ve visited the gardens before, but as part of a visit to the state rooms in the palace a couple of years ago. It looks like these visits are not operational any more. When I checked their webpage, only organised tours at the weekend are available, although tickets to the gardens only seem to be available quite easily.
I am due to go in August after a tour with yourself. So looking forward to seeing John Nash’s palace close up. Oh and the gardens of course!
Yes I’ve been to one of the garden parties. At the time I was organising Duke of Edinburgh expeditions and courses in St Albans and Harpenden. Wasn’t introduced to any royals but saw them at fairly close quarters! Enjoyed the teas and a walk round the garden including the flamingos. On the way through to the garden I took the liberty of trying out one of the sofas.
I have been to a garden party enjoyed wandering round the garden and seeing the flamingos. Saw the Royals at fairly close quarters! The dainty afternoon tea was a treat, well worth dressing up for!
I took my mother to a Garden Party in 2010. For her it was second time around as she had first gone, as a child, in the 1930s. At that time, she was studying at Italia Conti alongside Freddie Bartholomew and they were taken to one of the Children’s Garden Parties. As for the tale of the Mulberry Garden as it was originally known, Bruce Graeme tells the story in his book A Century of Buckingham Palace 1837-1937. It became somewhat notorious under Charles II though Pepys thought it ‘a very silly place, worse than Spring-Gardens.’