Barbican Conservatory: A Peek Inside London's Secret Garden

Photo of Ruaidhrí Carroll
London Travel Writer22 October 2018

Culture Trip explores a secret garden home to over 2,000 species of tropical plants, trees, exotic fish, and birds in the heart of London.

It’s a slice of tropical rainforest Londoners can visit without leaving Zone 1, but few people are aware that the Barbican Conservatory even exists.

As the second biggest conservatory in London after the one in Kew Gardens, the conservatory has ‘secret-garden’ status which makes it all the more enchanting, and when you catch sight of the arched wooden bridges over the ponds, you will feel like you are walking into a fairy tale.

The urban jungle that is the Barbican Conservatory | © Max Colson / Barbican Centre

Marta is one of three resident gardeners responsible for looking after the Barbican Conservatory. She explains that the west side is inhabited by ‘shade-loving’ plants, so there are not many flowering ones positioned there, while the east side, which is bathed in more sunlight during the day, has plants that flower all year round. Everything from chilli plants to banana trees is growing right here, in the heart of the city. Two big ponds are home to exotic fish, while a smaller pond contains terrapins, which are said to have been transported from Hampstead Heath because they were damaging the local wildlife there. Visitors who venture upstairs will also discover Arid House, otherwise known as the cactus room.

Covering over 23,000 square feet, the conservatory is the second largest in London | © Max Colson / Barbican Centre

Dividing the east and west sides, in the middle of the conservatory, is the large concrete fly tower of the Barbican Centre theatre. This is home to all the theatrical infrastructure used to move curtains, lights, scenery and even people around the stage. It was this imposing structure that inspired the establishment of the conservatory, originally intended to hide the aesthetically unappealing concrete tower. The Barbican’s Brutalist architecture is famously controversial – but it must count for something as it’s responsible for bringing about the existence of this fantastic conservatory.

The concrete fly tower in Barbican Conservatory | © Max Colson / Barbican Centre

Visitors are welcome to explore the Barbican Conservatory on Sundays and Bank Holidays between 12pm and 5pm – but check it’s not closed for a private event before travelling. Tickets cost £12.50.

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