The Observatory Garden

By the 1940's, the Observatory's main site at Greenwich occupied an area of 2.46 acres. This section deals only with the part that has been reabsorbed into the Park where it is currently referred to as the Observatory Garden. Other parts of the Observatory grounds are covered in the following sections:

The Courtyard
The Astronomers’ Garden
The Meridian Garden
The Garden to the west of Flamsteed House
The Magnetic and South Grounds
The Christie Enclosure (now part of the Royal Park)

 

Names by which the garden has been known

Originally known as the Lower Garden, this part of the Observatory grounds was reintegrated into the Park and formally opened to the public by the Queen during her visit to open Flamsteed House in 1960. At this point, it was renamed the Queen’s Garden. It has been known variously as the Kitchen Garden, the Royal Observatory Garden, and the Astronomers’ Garden.

 

Enclosure of the garden

The Lower Garden was enclosed in four stages: two small enclosures in 1675/6 and 1749 and two much larger ones – one in 1814, the other in 1837.

 

The Lower Garden in Flamsteed's time

The oldest part, which dates back to Flamsteed’s time is in the north-west corner and bounded by the retaining wall of the Upper Garden to the north, and the west wall of Flamsteed’s Garden House (the later stables) to the east. Today this section is neither enclosed within the garden, nor within the curtilage of the Observatory. It forms instead a buffer zone between them and a path in the park.

In Flamsteed’s time the only means of accessing this part of his garden was via the park. The plot was marginally deepened in 1749, when the grounds were extended to enable Bradley to build his new Observatory (now part of the Meridian Building). This enabled the garden to be accessed from within the Observatory Grounds via an opening next to the newly built stables.

 

A new Kitchen Garden for the Astronomer Royal John Pond

The plot was considerably extended in 1814 when about half the present garden was enclosed for use as a Kitchen Garden. It was extended southwards to its present size in 1837 at the time the South Ground was enclosed for the building of the Magnetic Observatory.

The garden sits in a south-west facing semicircular hollow and until the final enclosure of 1837 was overlooked from the public areas of the Park along Blackheath Avenue. The slopes at the southern end incorporate an old gravel pit at the top of which, there was a large oak tree known as the great oak, which was surrounded by a circular wooden bench. Artists recorded the view from here across to Flamsteed House and the Meridian Building over a period of many decades.

 

Pond's well and Magnetic Observatory

In 1815, a well was dug close to the then southern boundary. Said to be 120 feet deep, the water proved bad and the well was covered in and a summerhouse built over the site after the garden was extended in 1837. The summerhouse was orientated to look back towards Flamsteed House, and in front of it, there was a small pond, which was probably created at the same time. At the extreme south end of the 1837 extension, Airy erected a second summerhouse. This survived until the 1890s when it was removed to allow the west wing of the South Building to be constructed, the summerhouse having occupyied a spot near the wing’s north-western corner.

Meanwhile, in 1817, John Pond had built his Magnetic Observatory near the well on the steep slope of the hill. The foundations gave way, causing the building to become dangerous. It was demolished in 1824.

The present lawn has its origins in a smaller lawn created in the early years of the 20th century. It was properly levelled in 1910/11 when the retaining wall at its southern end was built.

 

Access to the gardens

A subterranean passageway created by Airy sometime around 1850 connected the basement area of Flamsteed House (from the vicinity of the present lift) to the Lower Garden.

Access to the lower garden was always rather tricky. By 1835/6, there were two sets of steps running down to it – one that ran from the Upper Garden (which may have dated back to the time of Pond) and ran down the side of the retaining wall on its western side). The other was created by Airy in 1835/6 that descended from the Middle Garden. Airy also created or perhaps merely refurbished an entry point into the garden from the Drying Ground. This remained until 1960.

By 1863, the steps from the Upper Garden had gone, being replaced by a subterranean passage that connected from the basement area of Flamsteed House, and a new set of steps that came down on the west side of the Garden Room. These both became redundant in 1894/5, when the part of the garden they both lead to was planted over with shrubs as part of a landscaping scheme orchestrated as part of a general improvement of the Park in this vicinity. As a result, the only way that the garden could then be approached was via the middle garden/drying ground. The steps from the Upper Garden appear to have remained until removed by Dyson in around 1910/11. The present entry point into the gardens from the Park came into use in 1960.

 

The network fo pathways

The pathways along the eastern slopes date back to the time of Airy. From time to time, they have required rebuilding, as they are prone to slippage and erosion. On one such occasion, the damaged terracotta from the bombing of the Altazimuth Pavilion in WW2 was used as edging support. They were visible until the paths were reconstructed during a major refurbishment of the gardens in 2008/9.

 

The exotic fruit trees

The retaining wall between the middle and lower gardens is south facing and of sufficient height to support the growth of exotic fruit trees. In the 1940s, there were three varieties of peach growing there: Rivers Early York, Noblesse and Royal George, along with the nectarine Elruge. During WW2 when much of the Park was turned over to allotments the garden continued to be cultivated, the produce being sent to the Astronomer Royal’s evacuation residence in Abinger. Although the trees have long since gone, the lead name tags are still fastened to the wall.

 

A problem with security

In 1960, there was no fence separating the south ground where the Altazimuth and South Buildings were located from the garden. Security issues forced the garden’s closure in the 1970s, pending the erection of a suitable fence. They reopened in 1978.