A mere 100 feet from Kensington’s High Street stands a little-known urban oasis with trees, streams, ponds, fragrant flowers, and secluded corners offering visitors a tranquil refuge. However, you don’t need to go north, south, east, or west to get there; you just need to go up.
The Kensington Roof Gardens were built in 1938 on what was, at the time, the Derry & Toms department store building, and thus were long known as Derry & Toms Roof Gardens. Then a high-end retailer in Kensington’s fashionable shopping district, Derry & Toms sought to provide their well-heeled customers and the general public alike with a unique leisure space offering sweeping views of the London skyline. To design the gardens, the store commissioned landscape architect Ralph Hancock, who had also designed the rooftop gardens at Rockefeller Center in New York (which had provided the inspiration for the project).
The gardens encompasses 6000 square meters (1.5 acres) laid out around a central clubhouse. The design divided the area into three stylistically distinct sections: a Spanish garden modelled after Alhambra, with fountains, palm trees, and vines; a walled Tudor garden, with ornate windows, wisteria-hung arches, roses, lilacs, lavender, and hidden, intimate spots; and an English woodland garden, with shrubs, grasses, bridges, a rock lined stream, a garden pond with resident ducks and flamingos, and 100 trees of 30 different species. All of this has been growing — invisible from the street — in a one-meter-deep layer of soil on top of a commercial building for over seventy years.
Derry & Toms went out of business in 1973 and the building has changed hands a few times since then. Today, it hosts street-level retail (Marks and Spencer, H&M, and The Gap) as well as the offices of Sony Music UK. The roof gardens have been part of Sir Richard Branson’s empire of swank since 1981 and are currently maintained and operated by Virgin Limited Edition and known officially as The Roof Gardens. The central clubhouse contains a private members-only nightclub and a restaurant open to the public. The gardens are likewise open to the public (unless they have been rented out for a private event) and are free of any admission charge.
The Kensington Roof Gardens were featured in an episode of the BBC’s Miss Marple, and served as the setting for a 1964 music video for “Oh, Pretty Woman,” in which a poorly-synced Roy Orbison ogles a disembodied pair of legs.