Queen Mary's Gardens

Queen Mary’s Gardens (or QMG as it is known to the gardeners) is a carefully managed green oasis where you can escape from the city.

If you enter Queen Mary’s Gardens through the iconic Jubilee Gates at the top of York Bridge, the layout of the park appears timeless. It’s hard to imagine that Queen Mary’s Gardens could ever have been different.

Begonia Garden, Queen Mary’s Garden

Photograph by Peter Darley

Ahead of you the broad alley lined with benches leads to the Triton fountain, and, in the distance, are the Corot-like poplars. To the right is the path that borders the lake and leads to the original, and world famous, circular rose bed. Another path leads you to the popular Regent’s Café, past the Nannies Lawn with its deck chairs in the summer, and to the Open Air Theatre. 

Timeline of the Gardens

1086 - 1538

A medieval manor

Part of the manor of Tyburn acquired by Barking abbey, it was appropriated by Henry VII under the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

1086 - 1538

1538 - 1649

A royal deer park

Deer

The land was used for hunting by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Henry is said to have enjoyed the invigorating ride from Whitehall Palace.

1538 - 1649

1649 - 1660

Source of timber for warships

Oliver Cromwell kept 3,000 trees for ships for his navy. 

1649 - 1660

1660 - 1811

Farms producing dairy products and hay for horses

Cows

As hunting went out of fashion the land was leased to tenant farmers.

1660 - 1811

1811 - 1824

Intended site of a royal palace and housing

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1811 - 1824

1824 - 1838

Jenkins horticultural nursery

Involved in planting ornamental trees in the park

1824 - 1838

1839 - 1932

The Royal Botanic Society

The Royal Botanic Society

A fashionable membership only horticultural society

1839 - 1932

1932 - present

A world famous garden

Open all year and free to visit, with an open air theatre and a horticultural college

1932 - present

Did you know?

Queen Mary’s Rose Garden is where Pongo and Perdita meet for the first time in Disney’s 101 Dalmatians.

A visit to the rose garden in September 1940

Charles Ritchie

This extract from Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie’s diary ‘The Siren Years’ describes a visit to the rose garden with his lover the writer Elizabeth Bowen:

This afternoon Elizabeth and I went to visit the roses in Regent’s Park. For days we had been talking of those roses, but I could never get away from the office before nightfall, and it seemed as if we should never go together to see them.

Then one perfect September afternoon she telephoned to say that if we did not go today it would be too late – they were almost over. So I put away the Foreign Office boxes in the safe, and took a taxi to Regent’s Park.

As we walked together I seemed to see the flowers through the lens of her sensibility. The whole scene, the misty river, the Regency villas…a black swan floating downstream in the evening light – the dark purplish red roses whose petals already lay scattered.

Although the black swans are gone, the landscape is instantly recognisable.

Delphinium Border by Edward Kellow

Key features of the gardens

Approximately 12,000 roses planted in 85 single variety beds. Ordinarily the roses in three beds are replaced with a new variety each year.

Garden highlights

Things to make you smile

  • The plant sculpture of an elephant
  • The climbing roses on a frame by the toilets (proving that someone in the gardening team had a mischievous sense of humour)

The Circular Rose Bed

Queen Mary’s Rose Garden is a world-famous destination garden. In May and June, it is a sight to behold. The rose garden is included in lists of the ‘top ten rose gardens’, and rightly so. First planted in 1932, the original circular rose garden by Chester Gate is an iconic spot that attracts locals, tourists and photographers, including those trying to organise the newlyweds and their straggling parties.

Circular Rose Garden by Millie Kieve

The Rose Pergola

A particular feature of the circular rose garden is the pergola with its climbing roses trained to grow along ropes. It’s consciously theatrical, rather like a set for Noel Coward’s ‘Hay Fever’. There are benches beneath the pergola where you can sit and appreciatethe scented clusters of white and pink roses.

The Begonia Garden

The begonia garden is a complex work of art. One of the few areas in park that is closed to the public, the begonia garden is the garden that time forgot. Twice a year it is re-planted with 9,000 begonias. The colours may change but the overall effect does not.Replanting the begonia garden is an enormous task in the gardeners’ calendar, so it isno wonder that the garden is closed off with chains. We may look and be amazed, but never set foot inside it.

The Delphinium Border

Just around the corner from the begonia garden, the Delphinium border has full National Collection status. Delphiniums can be temperamental. When they are gracious enough to flower, with their majestic spires in an ever increasing range of colours, delphiniums are the queens of the herbaceous border. Garden lore has it that if you cut down delphinium stalks when the blooms have faded, you’ll get a second flowering. This doesn’t always happen.

After a few lean years, a lot of effort by the Royal Parks has recently gone into restoring the delphinium border. The best time to visit the delphinium border is June. You can also see delphiniums in the St John’s Lodge Garden.

The Triton Borders, including The Jungle Border

The roses are remarkable, and the begonias may beggar belief, but for those who like flamboyant bedding in the Victorian style, the Triton or Jungle Border is the jewel in the Queen Mary’s Gardens crown.

What strikes the visitor is the sheer length of Jungle Border, and the complexity of the planting. Each year the gardeners try to improve on the previous year’s design. The border gets its name from the huge palms and ferns which miraculously reappear each year to provide a backdrop for the chorus line of bedding plants.

Replanting the Triton Border in the autumn and in the spring is a major undertaking. Sometimes while the seasonal makeover is in progress you may see buckets buried in the ground. These buckets are not to catch slugs or plant predators, but act as place holders for plants which have not yet been delivered.

While today there are few vestiges of the Royal Botanic Society in Queen Mary’s Gardens, the jungle border provides a link to William Robinson, the influential gardener who worked at the Royal Botanic Society.

On his return from the Great Exhibition in Paris, Robinson wrote a book Gleanings from French Gardens (1868) criticizing the formality of French gardens, but praising the naturalness of the ‘sub-tropical’ bedding.

This led him to write on using hardy plants in natural arrangements, and then to write a successful book on The Wild Garden (1870). Robinson must surely look down on the gardeners as they bring out the palms each year, and be glad that the tradition of sub-tropical bedding continues.

If you walk up the path from the Jubilee Gates towards the Triton fountain, just before you reach the fountain you pass between two mixed borders.

These borders were completely replanted about 5 years ago and are maturing nicely.  Well clipped beech hedges frame the borders on either side of the path, acting as a gateway to the fountain itself.

The new hedge helps to create a sense of intimacy which was an essential characteristic of Maynard’s original garden layout for the RBS. The hedge also provides a formal green backdrop that enhances the planting scheme and offers some protection from the wind.

No protection alas from visitors who persist in stepping on the beds to admire the flowers close up. Garden etiquette is not as widely understood as it could be!

The Sausage Border

No prizes for guessing how this border gets its name. Turn right at the Triton fountain and you will come to an herbaceous border shaped like a sausage. The sausage border sizzles with a sophisticated mix of herbaceous plants that provide interest throughoutthe spring and summer. The border is well designed and well maintained. Look out for the slightly reptilian looking ornamental rhubarb spikes in spring, and the deep crimson peonies.

The Mediterranean Garden

The Mediterranean garden is a miracle. Walk south around the sausage border and take the path on the left that rises slightly.

The last thing you should expect to find in Queen Mary’s Gardens is a Mediterranean garden with an acacia tree, palm trees and a good collection of drought friendly plants that love sandy soil. The soil in Queen Mary’s Gardens is notorious for being heavy clay which, after a downpour, can turn into mud.

Mediterranean Garden by Edward Kellow

Recently, however, a lot of effort has gone into improving the soil and introducing new plantings. Early in thespring of 2020 the silver leaved plants and purple headed allium looked magical at dusk.

History of the Gardens

What, how and who shaped Queen Mary’s Gardens?

The area that we call Queen Mary’s Gardens was not always like thisThe gardens are the legacy of a surprisingly diverse group of people, including the Abbess of Barking, Henry VIII, Oliver Cromwell, The Prince Regent and John Nash, the Royal Botanic Society, three of the most influential figures in the history of English garden design, Queen Mary, Sigismund Goetze an artist, local resident and benefactor, and of course the Royal Parks and the Crown Estate.

Things could have been very different. A comparison of the different proposals and the actual uses of the land bounded by the Inner Circle suggests that, although there have been losses – the Decimus Burton Glass House in particular – on the whole we are lucky to be able to enjoy Queen Mary’s Gardens as they are now.

Pink Roses, Queen Mary’s Garden

Photograph by Edward Kellow

What Might Have Been

  • A palace for the Prince Regent, perhaps along the lines of Chiswick House. One of the reasons why this didn’t happen is that the Prince Regent became more interested in works at Buckingham Palace.
  • A double circus of terraced houses, one row facing out and one row facing into what we know as Queen Mary’s Garden.

Had either of these proposals been implemented, we should not have Queen Mary’s Garden in its current form, and perhaps not even have public garden at all.

What Actually Happened

Between 1824 and 1838 the land was leased to Jenkins nursery. According to Historic England Jenkins helped with plantings in Regent’s Park, and his nursery is mentioned several times in The Gardeners’ Magazine. In 1831 Jenkins had the third best collection of chrysanthemums yet seen, and a fine collection of pine plants. The writer lamented that Jenkins’ common horseshoe pelargoniums were flowering owing to the mildness of the season. Does this sound familiar? The Royal Parks gardeners have to cope with changing weather all the time.

In 1838 the land was leased to the Royal Botanic Society (RBS). They employed some of the leading architects and gardening designers of the day to create a botanical garden that not only attracted Victorian and Edwardian gardeners in search of the latest and best plants, but was also the place to go for popular entertainment or ‘fetes’ on a grand scale.

Who Shaped the Gardens?

Gardening Royalty: How a Scotsman and an Irishman created the English Garden style
A number of very influential gardener designers worked at the Royal Botanical Society. They were influential not just because they worked in some of the most important botanical gardens and private estates in England, but also because they wrote books and articles for the leading gardening publications of the time. Their influence shaped the look of 19th century public and private gardens in the UK and Europe.

Influencer no 1: Robert Marnock 1800-1889
Born in Aberdeenshire, Robert Marnock, who had previously designed and managed the pioneering Sheffield BotanicalGardens , was employed to layout the gardens. Some sources say Marnock won a competition to design the gardens, others that he was recommend to the RBS by another important gardening design influencer, author and fellow Scot, J C Loudon. Perhaps both accounts are correct. Although there have been changes to Marnock’s design for the RBS, some key features survive in QMG today. The mound by the lake, which was created when the lake was dredged, is part of his legacy. If you climb the mound on a spring day you will see a purple flowered lupin tree (Paulownia tomentosa). This may be the original lupin tree planted by the RBS. According to garden.com this lupin tree has the distinction of being one of the first planted in the UK.

Initially criticised by J C Loudon, Marnock’s design for the RBS was very successful. This is what Weale’s Guide to London had to say in 1851, some ten years after the garden was established.

As a whole, the avowedly ornamental parts are probably superior to anything of the kind in the neighbourhood of the metropolis. Much has been attempted, especially in the variation of the surface of the ground, and almost all that has been proposed is fully and well achieved. We would particularly point out the clever manner in which the boundary fence is got rid of on the northern and north-western sides, as seen from the middle of the garden; the beautiful changes in the surface of the ground, and the grouping of the masses of plants, in the same quarter; the artistic manner in which the rockery is formed, out of such bad materials, and the picturesque disposal of the plants upon it; and the treatment of the large mound, from which so many and such excellent views of the garden and country are obtained.”

Rose Pergola
Rose pergola by Edward Kellow

Robert Marnock was curator of the RBS from 1840-1862. One of the hallmarks of Marnock’s approach to garden design was ‘of a broad sweep of high-quality lawn and the position of trees in relation to it.’ He also specialised in ‘drifts of path side planting’ there were easier to maintain than individual plants in grassland. These design features call to mind the view of QMG from the Jubilee Gates, a broad sweep of lawn border by trees and, near the Triton fountain, flower beds planted along the paths. Marnock had an international career as a landscape designer after he left the RBS around1862/63. His last big commission was to provide the trees and shrubs for Alexandra Park in Hastings. He lived in Marylebone and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.

Influencer No 2: William Robinson 1838-1935 (See newsletter 67) 
Born in Ireland, William Robinson, was one of the most influential garden designers and writers in the 19th century. He worked at the RBS from 1861-1866 and later collaborated with Gertrude Jekyll, providing her with plants for Munstead Wood. Thanks to his boss, Robert Marnock, Robinson got a job reporting on the second Great Exhibition in Paris in 1867.This led to a prolific career as a gardening journalist and author. Robinson was so successful that he was able to buy Gravetye Manor in Sussex. There hecreated a garden which is considered one of the most important historic gardens in England.

Starting as an under-gardener, Robinson became foreman of the herbaceous department. He created a wild garden. Unlike his mentor Marnock, he developed an informal style of planting, mixing perennials and annuals, similar to that of Gertude Jekyll. This makes Robinson seem very modern. Robinson’s best known book, The English Flower Garden is still in print.I wonder what Robert Marnock thought of his protégé’s naturalistic approach to flower beds?

What We Have Lost: the Decimus Burton Glasshouse or Winter Garden

The most impressive structure in the RBS was a state of the art glasshouse which could hold 2,000 people. Designed by Robert Marnock and Decimus Burton, the glasshouse was manufactured by Irish iron founder and glasshouse manufacturer Richard Turner, who also built the Palm House at Kew. The two structures were built within a year of each other. Opened in 1845, the RBS glasshouse was situated at the northern end of QMG, roughly where the topiary is now. Reportedly there were complaints when the glasshouse was demolished in 1932, and Queen Mary was concerned enough to intervene. This is why the rose garden was named after her.

In spring 2020 the Royal Parks, while planting some new topiary, uncovered part of the brick foundations of the glass house. They also discovered that the ground around the base of the glass house was layered with oyster shells. Were the shells discarded by revellers at RBS fetes, or were they used to fertilise or break up the very heavy clay soil? Perhaps both?

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The Focus of RBS: Horticulture or Entertainment?

Probably both were important to the prosperity of the gardens. Attended by royalty, and written up in the London Illustrated News, the RBS horticultural shows and musical fetes would have been an important source of income in addition to membership fees. The RBS, however, was not the only botanic society in London. One of its rivals, The Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens in Southwark, also organised horticultural shows, and entertainments with music. 

According to The Gardens Trust, “In the early nineteenth century, before the establishment of public parks, subscription botanic gardens, seen in many provincial towns in England, provided a recreational resource for the upcoming middle classes.The RBS was part of this 19th century social and cultural phenomenon. Initially the garden was driven by an explosion of interest in all things horticultural, and later it was sustained by subscriptions from the growing and aspirational middle classes. Judging by the many pictures of RBS fetes in the Illustrated London News, the middle classes wanted not only a place to see the latest in garden fashions, but also somewhere where they themselves could be seen. It follows that horticulture and entertainment were both key to the ongoing success of the RBS.

Garden Fashions: what to wear in the garden

we need hardly add, that during the summer, or in the height of the London season,’ its (the RBS) pleasant pathways and rustic walks form very agreeable promenades and lounges for the “upper ten thousand. Weale’s London, 1851

Based on 19th century sketches of fetes and prizegivings, RBS patrons dressed to impress. In 1870 an elegantly attired Mary of Teck (Queen Mary’s mother) was at the RBS to give out prizes in front of a large seated audience. Evening fetes with music seem to have been very popular. Images in the Illustrated London News show elegant couples promenading in the gardens, and by the lakeside. They are not dressed for gardening as we know it. Unless of course top hats and tea gowns were part of some Victorian gardening code.

Yellow Roses
Yellow Roses by Mark Elliott

Top tip for visiting the rose garden

To see the rose garden at its best, from around mid-May, either come early in the morning when the birds are singing, ortake an evening stroll when the sun is setting in the west and shining through reeds that border the lake.

Smile 🙂 You've found the elephant!