The Gardens of the Inner Middle Temple

Posted: May 18th, 2023

The delightful Inner Temple Garden deserves to be better known.  It is a tranquil 3-acre haven, brimming with horticultural interest, between the Embankment and Fleet Street.

‘I used to look through the hedges and think that it was an Embassy’s garden,’ says Sean Harkin, the Head Gardener.

Early summer

Early summer

But it’s barristers not diplomats that are to be seen pacing around the gardens, mulling over the complexities of their cases – it is located in one of London’s four Inns of Court for practising barristers.

Voluptuous planting in the Inner Temple Garden

Voluptuous planting in the Inner Temple garden

The gardens are open to the public on weekdays 12.30 -3pm. But don’t despair if you can’t visit in the week as on Saturday 27th May the gardens are open 12pm-4pm and there will be plants for sale in aid of the excellent charity Thrive (see earlier blog post ).  Access is via the main gate opposite the Treasury Office on Crown Office Row.

Entering the garden, one is immediately struck by the contemporary relaxed planting style –  in the spring drifts of narcissus, daffodils, miniature irises and later smyrnium perfoliatum  stretch out all over the lawns. These are balanced by a carefully orchestrated display of tulips in different shades of purple in the High Border.

In the 5 years that Sean has been Head Gardener he has introduced several changes. ‘There wasn’t enough spring interest.  I have used several different bulbs such as winter aconites and lots of delicate narcissus to create a display of interest from February until mid-May.’

On the day I visited I noted a clever combination of narcissus Thalia peeking out above hosta leaves acting as ‘a cushion around them’.

Sean has also dispensed with the traditional bedding scheme he inherited in the Long Border.  ‘I felt there was scope for more interesting plants that were easier to look after, creating a less formal look. The grandeur of the surrounding buildings needed to be softened by more naturalistic planting.’  The beds are not  deep but by incorporating plants that billow and spill out over the edges the illusion of depth is achieved.

Sophie, the Deputy Head Gardener with volunteer Tony

Sophie, the Deputy Head Gardener with volunteer Tony

Right on trend, Sean has created extensive meadow areas planted with thousands of spring bulbs. Over the summer the grass is left to grow long to create habit and a soft look to the garden. New areas of formal lawn are being developed into wildflower meadow using meadow clippings from  Great Dixter.  In conjunction with Pollinating London Together, (established in 2020 by the Worshipful Companies of Wax Chandlers and Gardeners) the gardens are in a biodiversity corridor that stretches from Tower Bridge to the Temple, providing pollinators with connected green spaces.

The site is extremely sheltered, frosts are rare, but the wind coming off from the Thames can be very drying.  However, this doesn’t stop majestic architectural plants such as echiums and Ferula communis reaching for the sky.  ‘The wow factor,.’ says Sean. As the summer progresses, dahlias, jungly foliage, salvias and ornamental grasses, tree dahlias, tetrapanax all inject a touch of exoticism in this very historic garden.  Many fine specimen trees grace the gardens.

The 'wow' factor

The ‘wow’ factor

Another area that Sean has altered is the area around the pond.  ‘It used to look as if it had just landed. I have tried to integrate it by surrounding it with clipped cloud yew shapes and changed the rim to Portland stone linking it with the entrance steps.’

Sean has had an interesting career to date: RHS Wisley, the National Trust’s first Gardener in Residence for the city of  Manchester, followed by five years as Head Gardener at Kensington Palace. He has been lucky enough to be the recipient of several grants, including one from Great Dixter, which have enabled him to travel all over the world and see plants in the wild.

He clearly loves his job and speaks with great passion and knowledge.

There has been a garden at the Inner Temple since the 12th century.  At one time it was an orchard.  In the 17th century the garden led down to a wharf on the river from which lawyers could catch a morning barge to Westminster Hall. Alas this direct link with the Thames was swept away when the Victoria Embankment was built 1865-1870.   At that time Robert Marnock, creator of Regent’s Park and Sheffield’s Botanical Gardens, re-designed the gardens.  His plan is still largely extant including his avenue of plane trees on the southern edge.

A handsome avenue of plane trees planted by Robert Marnock in the 1870s

A handsome avenue of plane trees planted by Robert Marnock in the 1870s

In the mid 19th-century an annual Chrysanthemum show was staged, visited by thousands of people. This in turn led to the garden hosting the Royal Horticultural Society’s Great Spring Show between 1888-1911.