London has several roof gardens on offer to the public, but the one above the Crossrail station in Canary Wharf is the largest of them all. Far superior to the more famous Sky Gardens, this garden is one where you can actually walk among the trees, rest on benches and listen to birdsong, and take your time to enjoy your surroundings, without having to book your visit in advance or get swamped by huge crowds.
West India Docks on the River Thames were the first commercial wet docks in the country and once one of the busiest docks in the world. Once a place of thriving industry, they declined to almost nothing by the 1960s, suffering from changes in the shipping industry and technological advancement.
The 1980s saw the start of the redevelopment of the area, with old dock buildings demolished or turned into riverside flats for the wealthy. Big business and the skyscrapers moved in, and Canary Wharf was formed. After a few initial hiccups and rivalry with the City of London for commercial supremacy, the area is now a high tech centre of multinational corporations; all shiny skyscrapers, gleaming steel and people in suits carrying briefcases, rushing around and looking important.
For all of its glamour and fancy chrome restaurants, its does have a few decent parks and green spaces, one of which is the Crossrail Garden. Crossrail Place was first opened in 2015 and was the huge complex built around the improved rail infrastructure, created to open up parts of Canary Wharf. There are four levels of shops, cafes and other amenities above the underground station, the whole thing enclosed by a distinctive roof. 300m long and the largest timber project in the UK, the roof is open at points to allow natural light, air and rainwater in. These all benefit the plants which are growing in the roof garden - a free public space which is home to a wide variety of plants, including many species which first entered Britain through the original dock.
The unique appearance of the cushioned looking roof was inspired by Wardian Cases - the special protective containers designed to safely transport specimens home from exploration overseas, a sort of early terrarium. The layout of the garden is said to be inspired by a ship's larder, filled with specimens being transported back. Many plants came back for commercial use, such as bananas, coffee and sugar, but others were just specimens of pretty and unusual plants and often ended up in places such as the nearby Kew Gardens and stately homes.
As the park is directly north of Greenwich, home to the meridian which divides east and west, the garden is divided into the two geographic zones. The western half is filled with plants from the western hemisphere such as tree ferns, gum trees and strawberry trees, while the eastern half is filled with bamboos, magnolia and maples. Each is interspersed with flowering plants and shrubs.
The best thing about the garden is that it does actually feel like a garden. It has paths winding through it, benches in shady spots and little hidden areas where you can just sit on a bench and relax. The rain comes in and you can feel the breeze on your face if you are standing under an open part of roof.
In short it is the antithesis of the Sky Garden where they were forced to include a public space to get planning permission; so they threw a couple of plants in containers, make you book your time slot online and put you through airport style security before you are even allowed in there. This is the sort of garden where you just walk up there as and when you feel like it. There are a few people wandering around admiring the plants, or sitting and chatting on a bench, it feels like a normal park. There are not hundreds of people standing around with their phones out to take photos, or knocking back glasses of champagne just because it is for sale and they feel they should.
There is the odd art piece amongst the foliage, a small café and some subtle lighting which keeps the place feeling safe without being intrusive. It is obviously more sanitised than you would find out in the countryside, but other than that it feels like a real piece of nature in the heart of commercial London.
The Crossrail Garden is open every day until 9pm or sunset in the summer. It is free to visit and does not require advance booking.