Tea magnate Frederick Horniman was an avid collector on his travels and opened part of his house in south London as a museum in the 1880s. He was absolutely committed to providing public access to his collections of natural, historical and ethnographical artifacts. He was so adamant that this was the right thing that he knocked down his house and built the Horniman Museum and opened it to the public for free. In 1901, he gave the museum and the surrounding land to London County Council on two very important conditions: that the museum and gardens remained free and that they should be treated as a unity, and support one another.
The museum has been renovated and improved in more recent years but the cost of giving the same attention to the gardens had to wait longer. But in Spring 2012, after 16 months and a £2.3 million spend, the Horniman Gardens are reopened and are incredibly well thought through with a multitude of connections to the museum's collections. For example, the museum has a popular musical instruments collection and the garden has plants used to create instruments such as giant reeds used in clarinets. The Sound Garden is a completely new addition and encourages visitors to try outdoor musical instruments before visiting the museum's musical instrument collection inside. Played well, this area could be incredibly peaceful but the kids will enjoy making a noise too and it's outside so let them have fun.
The Sunken Garden has a reflection pool and is surrounded by plants used to create natural dyes. The plants are grouped by color and summer bedding flowers will be planted next to the pool to help guide visitors to each color grouping. There's also a Medicinal Garden with great plant labels that not only explain about the plant and it's medicinal properties but have a simple body diagram to show where in the body it can help. And The Food Garden looks like the most beautiful allotment ever.
The 100 year old Bandstand has been restored and a completely new Garden Pavilion is a fantastic addition and the space is being used by the learning team and for performances with many more future events planned. The outdoor terrace with the view of the lush landscape (the city-scape is there too in the distance but squint for a moment) reminded me of a place in South Africa where I had breakfast with elephants.
The animals will come back gradually so don't expect a full petting zoo in 2012 as the animal's comfort is paramount. The Animal Walk will have alpacas, goats, sheep, chickens, rabbits and ferrets so you'll have to return later in 2012 or in 2013 to meet them. There has been an animal enclosure at the Horniman for forty years and it provides an excellent connection to the museum's natural history collection.
Escape the City
Before the London Overground connected Forest Hill (the museum's nearest station) with the rest of London so well I used to think the Horniman Museum was a long way away but now it's so easy to get to, even from east London, and the gardens are such a peaceful space I can't recommend it more highly.
Frederick Horniman gave the museum and gardens "to the people in perpetuity" for their "recreation, instruction and enjoyment" and I suspect he would be thrilled to see them used and loved by visitors from across the world. You can see a lot more photos of the gardens on the Horniman Museum website.
A recommended book that that includes an entry on the Horniman Museum Gardens is The London Garden Book A-Z.