When attending the annual summer opening of Buckingham Palace, you do get to exit along the side of the garden. But for this year, there is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to freely explore the garden for the first time. And to enjoy a picnic on the lawn overlooking the Palace from July to September 2021.
As I noted in my long-read about Buckingham Palace, the palace garden is the largest private garden in London. It covers almost 40 acres (16 ha) and includes a helicopter landing area and a tennis court. Despite its urban location, the garden is home to a remarkable array of flora and fauna, including rare native plants seldom seen in London. The garden is a rich biodiverse habitat with more than 1,000 trees, the National Collection of Mulberry Trees, and 320 different wildflowers and grasses.
While it is The Queen’s private London garden, for over 200 years, the garden has been used by the Royal Family for official entertaining and celebratory events.
What You Can See
I say you can freely explore; it’s not the whole of the garden that’s open to the public. But it’s clear where you can and can’t go (it’s the area nearest the Palace). There are winding paths, and you are actually allowed to wander across the grass.
There are some QR codes for a few self-guided tour highlights of this central London walled garden, but I do recommend speaking to staff as they all seem to be very knowledgeable this year. And you can stay for as long as you like.
There’s the Horse Chestnut Avenue, the plane trees planted by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and the famous 3.5-acre lake with its island that is home to the Buckingham Palace bees.
The garden boasts 325 wild-plant species, 30 species of breeding birds, and over 1,000 trees, including 98 plane trees and 85 different species of oak.
The garden’s central feature is the lake, created in the 19th century and originally fed from the overflow from the Serpentine in Hyde Park. Today it is a self-regulating eco-system fed from the Buckingham Palace borehole. You can hear but not see a waterfall that reoxygenates the water for the fish.
A ‘long-grass policy’ over 5 acres of the garden has encouraged the natural lakeside environment to flourish, and the area is now a favorite nesting site for a variety of water birds. The garden provides a habitat for native birds rarely seen in London, including the common sandpiper, sedge warbler, and lesser whitethroat.
Other areas of the garden include the 156-meter Herbaceous Border, wildflower meadow, and Rose Garden. Structures in the garden include a wisteria-clad summer house, the enormous Waterloo Vase made for George IV in Italy, and the Palace tennis court where King George VI and Fred Perry played in the 1930s.
James I (he was King of Scotland as James VI and King of England and Ireland as James I) had been envious of France’s prowess as a producer of the luxurious silk that dominated 17th-century fashion. Keen to encourage silk production in London, the mulberry trees were for the silkworms to feed upon.
In 1608 James I sold off some of the Crown freehold but retained part of the site on which he established a 4-acre (1.6 ha) mulberry garden for the production of silk in England under royal patronage. (This is at the northwest corner of today’s Palace.)
Sadly, his plan didn’t work as he planted the wrong type of mulberry tree so the silkworms could only produce a coarse thread. The garden is now home to 45 different types of mulberry trees, and since 2000 it has held the National Collection of Mulberries.
From 1633 to 1640, the land was owned by George, Lord Goring (1608–57). He built Goring House and developed much of today’s garden, then known as Goring Great Garden. (Goring House was later demolished for Buckingham House, which became Buckingham Palace.)
Lord Goring did not, however, obtain the freehold interest in the mulberry garden. Unbeknown to Goring, in 1640, the document “failed to pass the Great Seal before King Charles I fled London, which it needed to do for legal execution.” It was this critical omission that helped the British royal family regain the freehold under King George III.
Buckingham House with its surrounding land came into royal ownership in 1761, when it was bought by George III as a private residence. During the reign of George III and his consort, Queen Charlotte, the garden was home to a collection of exotic animals, including an elephant and one of the first zebras seen in England.
The current landscape of the historic garden dates back to the 1820s when George IV turned Buckingham House into a palace. The new royal residence needed a suitably private garden, and George IV appointed William Townsend Aiton, who was in charge of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, to oversee the remodeling of the grounds.
By this date, the taste for very formal gardens had been replaced by a desire for more naturalistic landscaping, inspired by the work of Capability Brown and Humphry Repton. Aiton’s main alterations were the creation of the lake and the construction of the Mound, an artificial high bank on the south side to screen the Palace from the Royal Mews.
Like the Palace itself, the garden has undergone changes over the years. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (The Queen Mother) chose to clear many of the dense Victorian shrubberies and introduced a wide selection of decorative flowering trees and scented shrubs.
A number of commemorative specimens planted by members of the Royal Family are identified by plaques recording the occasion, including birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and jubilees. The plantings are constantly added to by today’s gardeners to introduce new areas of interest and enhance the historic landscaping.
You enter via the Royal Mews on Buckingham Palace Road and reach the garden close to the usual location of the garden gift shop.
There isn’t a recommended route offered, but I would suggest turning right, towards the Palace. This way, you can walk along in front of the grand building and then see the 156-meter Herbaceous Border. The planting is tiered so you can clearly see each level, and the towering trees provide privacy around the edge of the garden.
Even just walking past the Palace is a treat as there are usually temporary structures on the terraces for the summer opening. It gives more opportunity to admire the building and the details.
There is some seating provided in front of the Palace and some extra seating around large trees.
The Herbaceous Border is simply glorious.
Not far from the main Palace building, there’s a summer house, and you can go right up to it to look inside. I imagine it’s a lovely spot to dine outside in the evening or for summer drinks.
Being allowed to walk on the lawn felt very naughty as we are used to “keep off the grass” signs here. But it does mean you can get closer to the lake, which is a real treat.
You might expect there to be an abundance of statues and sculptures, but the Palace garden lets the planting be the work of art. Apart from the oversized Waterloo Vase, the only garden ornament I saw was this sundial.
Garden Highlights Tour
Features in the southwest of the garden, including the Rose Garden, summer house, and wildflower meadow, can be viewed through one of the 30-minute guided tours that run each day.
You must pre-book this tour at the same time as booking your garden ticket. If you can get a ticket (I heard most tours are selling out), you will get to more private areas of the garden.
There is no photography allowed on the tour, but I saw the rose garden and summerhouse (see below). The Waterloo Vase is in the same area – it’s an extraordinarily large urn that weighs 19 tonnes and is the height of a double-decker bus. It was outside the National Gallery but has been in its current position since 1906.
I saw some of the nine gardeners at work and heard more about the mulberry trees. (The mulberry trees are not all planted in the same area as they have different soil requirements.)
We spotted the tennis courts that were added by George VI, but they were hard to see as shrubbery was added for privacy in the early 2000s. And don’t be surprised by the unmanicured areas as they have been left to grow to encourage biodiversity.
From the west front of the Palace, the windows of the State Rooms on the first floor offer enticing views of the gardens and the main lawn. And this year, for the first time, you can wander onto the lawn, lay out your blanket, and have a picnic. This is where the famous Garden Parties take place, so being allowed onto the lawn is considered a real honor. It’s also where the Queen’s helicopter lands for her, but you won’t be getting that transport today.
You are welcome to bring your own refreshments, and there is a cafe for takeaways (sandwiches, salads, and cakes).
The Garden at Buckingham Palace is open from Friday 9 July to Sunday 19 September 2021. Tickets are priced at £16.50 for adults. Garden Highlights Guided Tours should be booked with the main ticket and are priced at £6.50 for adults. Tours run 12 times a day.
The State Rooms and Garden at Buckingham Palace runs six times a day on weekends from Saturday 10 July to Sunday 19 September 2021. Tickets are priced at £60 for adults.
The exhibition Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, has welcomed visitors since 17 May 2021.
For those unable to visit the official residences of Her Majesty in person, a program of live online events is now available. Led by expert guides and streamed live from Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, A Warden’s Welcome digital talks reveal the history and stories of the Palaces through exclusive images and film footage. The talks run on selected dates. Tickets are priced at £5.00.
Entrance: Entrance is through the Royal Mews on Buckingham Palace Road. Please arrive at the time stated on your ticket.
Visit Duration: Allow two hours for your visit, but you may enjoy the Garden for as long as you wish during opening hours (Garden closes at 5 pm).
Picnic: Picnicking is allowed in the Garden, with some restrictions. You can bring your own food and drink, or purchase refreshments from the café. Alcohol consumption and barbecues are not permitted. Please read guidance on picnics before visiting.
Self-Guided Tour: You can take part in a self-guided tour by scanning the QR codes at the designated stations around the Garden. A family self-guided tour is also available.
Dress Code: There is no formal dress code required to enter the Palace Garden, but you are advised to wear comfortable shoes and dress for the weather. Sunscreen lotion for sunny days and ponchos for wet days are highly recommended, as there is limited shelter within the Garden.
No Cloakroom: There will not be a cloakroom available, so please be prepared to carry your belongings with you at all times.