Rewilding London: Kensington Palace Gardens
A rewilding tribute to the late Queen Elizabeth II
In our continuing series of Rewilding London that looks at interesting rewilding projects, revitalisation schemes and natural spaces in the urban jungle of our nation’s capital we turn to Kensington Gardens to observe their unique and newly natural approach created in what turned out to be the late Queen Elizabeth II’s final year. Perhaps symbolic - restoration in kind.
We have previously visited the rewilded areas of Hyde Park, finding it to be a strikingly unique example of greater bio-diversity and animal life than you might find anywhere in the city. Thankfully returning to the Gardens just next door to Hyde Park has revealed more spaces that encourage some important rewilding techniques and approaches, even if, as always, more can be done to reconsider our relationship to the city’s remaining natural spaces.
Situated in the heart of the city, Kensington Palace has long been something of an oddball for royal residencies, as it is for the most part even more unoccupied than the much more famous Buckingham Palace, and thus it is not a surprise to discover its natural outlook follows this oddball reputation. Walking up to the main building finds you exploring through garden spaces you would expect to be perfectly manicured. In fact, that is the memory that comes to mind when I think back to visiting the palace as a youngster in the early 2010s.
Now though the natural spaces have become rewilded, with lovely, unmown, untopped grasses allowed to fully grow and seed forming rows of biodiversity along your pathways up to the building. The grasses also have little spots of weeds, brambles and even some ragwort, a weed identified for its utility in the rewilded gardens at LettsSafari park’s Devon Sculpture Park. Ragwort is one of the best equivalent to a cabbage in terms of its popularity with caterpillars, thus making it a fantastic, natural option for anyone searching to grow their butterfly populations. The flitting bugs are present constantly through the gardens, clearly encouraged by the allowance of such weeds to find some small spaces to grow in.
While the gardens at Kensington Palace could have been discouraged by the horrible drought and heatwaves we have been seeing in London, important rewilding practices have been maintained nevertheless. Dedicated pathways through the spaces have been built up, and the separate environments carefully maintained to be natural within the important space, but kept within that sphere so that no single plant, weed or grass can completely dominate the gardens. This is a practice we have discussed many times on rewilding tours and events at Exeter’s Capability Brown Gardens.
In garden spaces that naturally will not have larger mammal and animal life, different approaches to habitat maintenance need to be adopted. Our typical suggestion is for people to behave like the herbivores of their garden spaces, and so, acting as Kensington Palace Gardens have done to keep beds and grasslands where they should be as well as keeping weed and plant growth to a balanced and consistent level. It’s not typical for a rewilded space in London to practice this, so it’s not something we get to discuss often. Thankfully the rewilders at Kensington Gardens have adopted this principle as well.
They have also adopted some of the key elements of rewilding that we regularly discuss. For example, the gardens retain trees that have collapsed, leaving them to remain on the ground. This allows them to continue sequestering carbon from the air. It can also ensure that the tree properly rots into the ground, allowing the nutrients and minerals to break down into the soil again. Further, by leaving the root networks and stumps it helps maintain the bug and small bird populations that had previously relied on the tree.
The gardens have also made use of the waterways that they have available. Fountains and small streams are taken advantage of to ensure that water plants and grasses are able to thrive in them. This helps to contribute to the gardens’ biodiversity and provide places for fish and amphibians to visit. It also ensures that bug and insect life thrive, as many of them swarm around waterways and aquatic plants, all helping to contribute to a developing eco-system.
Now Kensington Palace Gardens include bees, butterflies, dragonflies as well as the staples of an urban park like squirrels and pigeons. These typical animals are not the only ones thriving here though, if you get lucky enough you can stumble into the groups of green parakeets that now thrive in Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park.
Overall, the work now done in Kensington Gardens has built up the potential for a fascinating rewilded space in the heart of Central London. More can always be done, in particular the park areas beyond simply the gardens of Kensington Palace are ripe for expanding the rewilding efforts. As well, the water features can be expanded, creating more streams and importantly some more wetlands, all too important in a time increasingly defined by drought and heat, and that can expand the diversity of habitats in Kensington Gardens.
Nevertheless, the new rewilding efforts ought to be lauded for their approach to a Royal garden, and we can only hope they are continued in the rest of the Royal landscapes now that this palace has proven its viability. It could prove quite an interesting environmental legacy for the late Queen.