Famous actors may tread the boards below, but Barbican Conservatory is the real star of the show.
Let’s face it, the Barbican Estate is not a pretty place. Unless you’re a big fan of Brutalist architecture (or a Guildhall student), this concrete grey, weirdly shaped estate is difficult to love at first sight. However, there is one spot that is both beautiful and beloved by many: the verdant Barbican Conservatory, a glass-bound rainforest in the heart of the City. (It’s also one of many brilliant free things to do in London.) This verdant paradise began opening seven days a week from last summer for the first time ever, and will be welcoming guests again from May 24 – so there’s no excuse not to visit!
Barbican Conservatory is the second biggest conservatory in London, after Kew Gardens‘ Princess of Wales Conservatory. Originally designed to hide the building’s massive flytower, someone decided to stick a couple of pot plants in there. Things have got a little out of hand since then, as the collection houses over two thousand species of plants. They’re a pretty-looking lot, too.
They look even prettier with a colourful light show. The Barbican Conservatory only does this for corporate events and weddings, so you’ll have to know the right people to see it this way.
Everything from palm trees to banana plants can be found within these glass walls. Budding horticulturists can take a guided tour of the conservatory, to learn more about the different species. Meanwhile, colourful koi carp fill the fishponds, which makes a stroll over the wooden bridges a peaceful jaunt for the more casual explorer.
Less peaceful are the terrapins, who were relocated to Barbican Conservatory after terrorising wildlife on Hampstead Heath. They may look sweet, but they’ve got a mean streak a mile long, which is how they came to be known as ‘the terrorpins’.
Up in the rafters of the conservatory sits a cactus house, filled with equally spiky customers. Everything from cute little cacti to sprawling monsters resides here, and it’s great inspiration for your next desk plant. Outside, the Barbican Conservatory keeps bees, though the beehives are unsurprisingly off-limits to visitors.
However, the Conservatory’s return from lockdown will see a few changes made to operating procedures. Guests will be allowed to visit in groups of up to six, from a maximum of two households, and will be asked to steadily move through the space (the old days of stopping and sketching the plants/posing for photoshoots are on hold for the time being). Admission will still be free, but you’ll need to book online in advance and pick a timed entry slot, so that they can better control the flow of visitors through the Conservatory. Bookings are released one week in advance, and you can make yours on their website.
A couple of pre-pandemic developments made this place even greater, and are presumably on hold until the virus is under control. In 2019, Saturday opening hours (the Conservatory was previously only open on Sundays and bank holidays) and a pop-up bar turned this luscious spot into an all-weekend affair, meaning you could get a steady buzz going as you meandered through the greenery, whilst Sundays at Barbican Conservatory saw the arrival of afternoon tea. We’ll wait with baited breath to see if they both return after the lockdown completely ends. Just another reason why, despite being temperate by nature, the Barbican Conservatory is a London hotspot…
Location: Level 3, Barbican Centre, Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS. Nearest station is Barbican. See it on Google Maps.
Opening hours: opens May 24. Opening hours will be 11am-7pm, Monday to Friday, and 10am-7pm, Saturday and Sunday.
Entry: free, free, gloriously free (but you’ll need to reserve a timed entry slot online)!
More information: head to the Barbican Centre’s website.
Also published on Medium.