Pretension or Paradise? Sarah Tuckergets hooked on the exquisite nonsense that is Petersham Nurseries…
The first day of the Chelsea Flower Show is a good day to visit Petersham Nurseries. There’s one in Covent Garden, with its polished courtyard and clean lines, but the best and brilliantly smudged original is in a small side street off Petersham Road, in Richmond.
The Nurseries started, simply, as that. A nursery of flowers, made up of greenhouses – three of them – and as the entrance skirted St Peters Church and homes owned by selected rich and famous, buying the odd lavender or verbena in passing didn’t seem disruptive. Then arrived Skye Gyngell, and the café and restaurant – itself gaining a Michelin star – and the Petersham players, a phenomenal and mesmeric troupe of actors, who took over the neighbouring Petersham House, and at Halloween and Christmas led paying guests round various sets, in turn comedic, tragic, terrifying and poignant. Consequently, it’s hit the social stratosphere.
The Nurseries is unique. Its energy, style and use of space and light is seductive. When you go through the gates you will immediately vie for a house in the Cote d’Azur and want to replicate it, putting everything you see into its courtyard. Furniture, features, ornaments – much of it that wouldn’t look out of place in a rag and bone yard – is placed in such a way, it looks (and often costs) thousands more than it should. I admit, I have bought a fountain there. It probably originated from somewhere in Southern France, was brought back to Petersham, and I’ve now taken it back to Southern France, to my home there. This place does this to you. People buy rusted gardens chairs for £365. If you think they are mad, go, and you will soon get hooked.
As a result, it’s always busy; as I have always thought most of the people who live in Richmond do not work (or do not need to), this place is always buzzing. Moreover, it’s a matriarchal place. Tables and chairs (all for sale) are populated by ladies who lunch, usually talking food or divorces – often both – over gluten-free orange and almond cake. Otherwise there are Match.com first dates trying not to get the camomile flowers in their tea stuck between their teeth; new mums with young babies, too, looking incredibly tired, and older mums having just dropped kids off at school ready to discuss their first novel, or first love – or novel about their first love – to any other mum who will listen, or at least pretend to.
It is, too, a social observer’s paradise. Richard E Grant visits, as do Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones when they’re over. Not for the flowers, I presume, but for the pleasure of eating and drinking in what should be the height of pretension but wins you over with its exquisite style and beauty. I have never been to a place like it in all my travels around the globe – and it’s nice to know Douglas and Zeta Jones recognise this, too.
I remember meeting Sir Terence Conran once and asking him what makes good interior design. He replied it is the understanding and use of the seduction of space. Petersham Nurseries understands exteriordesign better than anywhere I have ever eaten. And someone very clever has designed the greenhouse set-up here; the first of which houses most of the knick-knacks to buy. A stone urn for £75. A chandelier for £4,000. A slightly rusted round mirror for £2500. Quite reasonable, really, until you realise you can get one without the rusted effect in Homebase for a fiver. An ex of mine, who I thought was relatively sane, on his first visit bought four eight-foot stone pillars. FourRoman-looking stone pillars. Eight feet high. For £500 a pole. He put them in his sitting room by the flat screen TV.
Visitors are naturally guided through, snaking around mirrors and low-hanging jasmine latticed over the ceiling. This leads into the main restaurant with its sawdust floor, long and round tables and mismatching chairs. It is, to coin a phrase, a fairyland with food. Gyngell may be long departed but the food is still good (predictably pricey, but good), and the ambiance is unique. There is a canopied area with vines hanging above more tables and chairs. A fountain trickles gently here. It’s as lovely a spot to eat in the depth of winter as it is in the heat of the summer months. The statues, some quite badly damaged, stand still as though watching the guests like some Monet painting.
The second greenhouse, the Teahouse, serves light lunches of utterly delicious quiche (I should qualify this by saying it’s the only place I eat quiche) and salads principally based around feta or halloumi in them – this is Richmond after all, where there are probably more vegans and yoga instructors per square mile than anywhere else on the planet.
Finally, in the third greenhouse, as well as a large open space with more tables and seating, there is an area dedicated to potting, planting, creating bouquets, gardening tools, gardening advice and whatnot, reminding you that it is, after all, a garden centre and nursery.
Nursery, café, antique shop, social hot spot, sanctuary; Petersham Nurseries can be all things to all. Come for a cup of tea and a slice of cake – and leave with a £4000 rusty mirror. It will seem like the most sensible thing you’ve ever done.
For more information about Petersham Nurseries, visit www.petershamnurseries.com.