Floating on the Thames just downstream from Tower Bridge are the most extraordinary gardens.
The barge gardens at Downings Road moorings were devised by architect and moorings owner Nick Lacey, who’s spent a large part of his adult life battling with the authorities to create a floating island of connected historic boats and a remarkable garden that spreads across a series of seven 23m modified Thames lighters.
The gardens are planted in huge, metal trays about 40cm deep, and each has a discernible character, with planting typically running either side of central sleeper paths, with shrubs the dominant forms, among them 2m-tall hebes and cordylines.
Elaine Hughes, resident and recent custodian of the gardens, created the seventh, and latest, garden. “Each contains 50% topsoil and 50% manure, so it’s quite rich,” she says. Shrubs tend to grow too fast and get congested, so she went for swathes of Euphorbias and lots of ferns in a style she calls “broadly woodland”, complemented by apple trees and low box.
It’s only when the wake from a passing boat hits the barge that you remember all this is floating on a river in one of the most dynamic cities in the world.
- During droughts, water is pumped straight from the Thames, yet the salty, tidal water has no obvious detrimental effects.
- The drainage on the barges is almost too good, so they need a daily soaking in summer. The dry soil means that trees, including these false acacias, do not reach their full potential.
- Typical seaside and roof-garden planting is well adapted to the desiccating winds on the open Thames, and includes waxy, silver-leaved and evergreen plants such as Stipa tenuissima and lavender.
- The lack of usual garden predators has led to a plague of snails. Walking on the paths at night can be a crunchy experience but a mass snail genocide by torch-wielding residents has sent many to a watery grave.
- The gardens attract plenty of waterfowl. However, despite the introduction of stacks of rotting logs to attract bugs, this remains something of an unbalanced ecosystem, because of its isolated island nature.
I’ve known the floating gardens for over a decade. I had friends who used to moor their converted Dutch barge on the outer reaches of the mooring furthest from land and seemingly mid-Thames. I would regularly traverse the maze of precarious walkways across the embryonic garden barges to their boat – it was not for the faint-hearted or those nervous of pitching and rolling walkways .
I remember spending a magical Millennium Eve in the gardens toasting in the new year watching the fireworks towards Tower Bridge
It’s a very special place in the heart of the City.