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England's Not-So-Secret Garden

If you've been to London, you know it can be a pretty hectic place. It's got the arts, business, history and, as in any big city, you certainly can't blame someone for needing a quiet pocket of space every once in a while. That's why Londoners appreciate their public parks...and one of the most popular is Regents Park, inside of which is one of the gems of the city's park system: Queen Mary's Garden. The Savvy Traveler's John Rabe takes us on a tour.

England's Not-So-Secret Garden
by John Rabe

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garden A French historian went to Regent's Park in 1864 and wrote: "It is a solitary place with no noise of traffic; London is forgotten and you are quite alone." And as my friend Tom explained to me, that's how Londoners like it.

Tom: "When Billy moved into his flat, he asked one of his neighbors if he should have a drinks party to get to know people. "

Billy is Tom's American friend.

Tom: "And he said, no, you keep yourself to yourself. You don't make friends with your neighbors. And that's sort of the rule in England. You keep yourself to yourself."

Set inside a ring in the southern half of Regent's Park, Queen Mary's garden is the perfect place to keep yourself to yourself. First, it's still almost as quiet as it was in 1864...

fountain and ducks [Duck sounds]

....remarkably so, given the giant city surrounding it. Maybe it's more accurate to say how few human noises you hear: the ducks in the fountain, scrambling after peanuts, are not quiet...


....and the songbirds are downright noisy.

Second, it's impossibly beautiful. The lawn is like a putting green; the line of the hedge is so straight and square, it looks like it was made in a machine shop; and each of the thousands of flowers seems to be the quintessential example of its type. Queen Mary's garden, known for its roses, is considered one of the prettiest and best-tended gardens in the city -- in fact, in all of England.

John: "It's like, if you walk into a restaurant, you want the best table. This is the best table in the restaurant."

John is resting in front of the fountain. He's house- and dog-sitting for a friend who lives nearby, happy to take advantage of his temporary situation to bench-sit in this Eden deep inside London.

Regent's Park, which includes the London Zoo, is about 500 acres -- half the size of Central Park. It opened in 1838 on the spot where Henry the Eighth went hunting, when he wasn't hunting for another wife. Regents is actually a baby in British terms. For instance, our friend John went to Cambridge, which dates to the 13th Century.

John: "You ask the head gardener of Kings, 'How do you make a lawn?'. Well you plant some grass and you mow it for 200 years."

wagon Regents Park is only 162 years old. Gordon the gardener has been taking care of it for about a third of that time.

Gordon: "Well it gets cut once a fortnight, and then you feed it before you cut, it of course."

Gordon the gardener is a lanky man lying on his side taking a cigarette break on his precious lawn. He's retired now, but he still helps out.

Rabe: "I can see a number of flowers here. How many types of plants are there?"

Gordon: "Ooh, it's thousands, thousands, quite a lot, I'd say."

Rabe: "Do you have any personal favorites?"

Gordon: "Well I like the camellias and the the fuscias and the hydrangeas and all that sort of thing."

Rabe: "Why?"

Gordon: "Oh, I don't know..."

Regent's Park If Cupid appeared at the end of the 20th century and came to Queen Mary's garden, he might switch his bow and arrows for a rake and a rose pruner. Just after I met Gordon, I ran into the epitome of the little old couple...a man and a woman probably in their seventies or early eighties. The woman leaned toward me, conspiratorially.

Woman: "This our back garden. We live nearby. And it's very lovely. It's beautiful, as you can see."

These two people, walking down the lane with their fingers intertwined, would have turned the Marquis de Sade into a hopeless romantic.

Rabe: "And I notice that you're holding hands. What does that symbolize?"

Man: "It means that we've been married for a long time but still like to be together."

Rabe: "Is the garden the secret of that?"

Man: "Yes, of course."

Finding love in all the right places in London, I'm John Rabe for The Savvy Traveler.


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