Plan to turn Tower of London's royal moat into flower meadow

Plan to turn Tower of London's royal moat into flower meadow

February 11, 2022

Flower power at the Tower of London! Astonishing plan to turn the royal moat in the heart of the City into a permanent meadow of 20MILLION flowers that change colour throughout the summer to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee

  • Royal moat is to become permanent, giant, undulating flower meadow right in the heart of the City of London
  • Varieties have been carefully chosen to change colour throughout the summer and they will not be a one-off
  • Some of us will be able to immerse ourselves in them as part of lasting tribute to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee 

The last time they planted flowers here, the display became — overnight — one of the most wildly popular visitor attractions of modern times. Except that the flowers on that occasion were 888,246 ceramic poppies.

And the whole installation was uprooted and sold off soon after the end of events to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I in 2014.

Now, the great moat of the Tower of London is due to burst into floral colour once again. This time, the flowers will be real — and there will be 20 million of them.

What’s more, the varieties have been carefully chosen to change colour throughout the summer and they will not be a one-off. 

They will return year after year. Better still, some of us will be able to immerse ourselves in them as part of a brilliant, lasting tribute to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.

For the entire royal moat is to become a permanent, giant, undulating flower meadow right in the heart of the City of London.

And even now, as I watch the muddy preparations in the chilly dead of winter, I can see that this is going to be hugely popular with the millions who flock to one of our greatest national landmarks every year.

The last time they planted flowers here, the display became — overnight — one of the most wildly popular visitor attractions of modern times. Except that the flowers on that occasion were 888,246 ceramic poppies. Now, the great moat of the Tower of London is due to burst into floral colour once again. This time, the flowers will be real — and there will be 20 million of them

The whole installation of ceramic poppies (pictured) was uprooted and sold off soon after the end of events to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I in 2014

The idea is actually a simple one: here we have one of central London’s most famous and spectacular open spaces, yet it is largely unused.

Up until 1845, the Tower moat was a putrid open sewer and rubbish dump which occasionally overflowed into the equally pungent waters of the River Thames.

Finally, the Duke of Wellington, who was the Constable of the Tower, decided to drain it. Since then it has been a vast open space, covered by 14,000 square metres of grass. 

That’s equivalent to 70 tennis courts (think of it as double the size of the entire Wimbledon tennis championships).

In Victorian times, it was used for grazing cattle. In war, it might be used as a parade ground, rifle range or allotments. Otherwise, the moat has served no modern purpose beyond the ornamental.

Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), the charity which runs the Tower and other famous former royal residences including Hampton Court, has put on a number of successful temporary attractions in there. 

There has been a popular winter ice rink in recent years and, of course, that immensely spectacular ceramic poppy display in 2014. 

Huge crowds returned again in 2018 for the centenary of the end of the Great War to witness a sea of 10,000 flames, which were lit every night for a week. 

Even now, as I watch the muddy preparations in the chilly dead of winter, I can see that this is going to be hugely popular with the millions who flock to one of our greatest national landmarks every year, writes ROBERT HARDMAN

The idea is actually a simple one: here we have one of central London’s most famous and spectacular open spaces, yet it is largely unused

Up until 1845, the Tower moat was a putrid open sewer and rubbish dump which occasionally overflowed into the equally pungent waters of the River Thames

Now, however, Historic Royal Palaces have decided to go one further and fill the moat — for good — with millions of flowers. These will burst into life at roughly the same time and last from late spring to late summer, fade come autumn and return the following spring

Back in 1977, to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, there was also a temporary ‘E II R’ flowerbed laid out in the moat.

But after all of these, it would revert back to grass. Now, however, HRP have decided to go one further and fill the moat — for good — with millions of flowers. 

These will burst into life at roughly the same time and last from late spring to late summer, fade come autumn and return the following spring.

They have been carefully planned by a team of urban horticulture experts at Sheffield University to ensure that 29 different species bloom in different colours at different times all through the season. 

At the same time, ticket-holders will be able to walk through a landscape which will be very different from the one we are used to.

‘We’re aiming to plant by the end of March and then boom! It all comes into flower in time for the Jubilee weekend in June,’ explains Tom O’Leary, HRP’s director of public engagement, as he shows me round the site.

‘But unlike most displays, this one will keep changing over the summer months. It’s pushing the boundaries.’ So the moat should start as a sea of whites and pinks in early June, when the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations begin.

But if you come back again in July, you will find that it has morphed into deep blues and purples as a different pallete of flowers hit their stride.

The flower installations have been carefully planned by a team of urban horticulture experts at Sheffield University to ensure that 29 different species bloom in different colours at different times all through the season

At the same time, ticket-holders will be able to walk through a landscape which will be very different from the one we are used to

HRP are planning to plant the flowers by the end of March, so that they bloom in time for the Jubilee weekend in June. Pictured: Gardener Mark Gregory at the site 

Similarly, late summer will see waves of gold, yellow and orange. The whole project is called Superbloom, after the American desert phenomenon when dormant wildflowers suddenly explode into life at the same time with dazzling results, usually after a downpour.

That is a natural occurrence in the wilderness. Here in the inner city, it is all pre-arranged, with the emphasis on encouraging more insects and pollinators to come into the capital.

It follows on from the Prince of Wales’s ‘Coronation Meadows’ scheme, established during the last jubilee in 2012, to create 60 new meadows in 60 counties and celebrated in Hugo Rittson Thomas’s magnificent new book, Wildflowers For The Queen. 

For now, the Tower is just a vast expanse of dark brown as a conveyor belt tips daily lorryloads of subsoil over the ramparts and into the moat, where a fleet of dumper trucks spread it around.

Because this is an archaeologically sensitive site of critical importance, there is no possibility of ploughing up the moat floor (the last time archaeologists dug here, they found the bones of some of the lions and apes which lived in the royal menagerie here). 

Once all this sub-soil has been spread out over the next few weeks, then truckloads of quality top-spoil will follow — nearly 11,000 tons in total. Only then will the professional teams start planting the 20 million seeds.

The menu includes cornflowers, sunflowers, gypsophila or ‘baby’s breath’, fairy toadflax, pink cosmos and, of course, poppies (real ones this time). Smaller batches will also be planted at other HRP palaces, including Hampton Court and Kensington Palace.

As ever, the public will be able to view the moat from above for free. 

However, Phil Wraight and his team of landscapers are currently laying down the pathways for those with tickets to stroll through the meadow at their own pace (the average visitor is expected to spend 45 minutes in the moat).

The lie of the land will vary, with mounds and hillocks up to 6ft high giving shape and character to the landscape, especially when the wind starts gently pushing 20 million plants this way and that.

On the eastern flank of the Tower, there will also be a series of wickerwork ‘nests’ with willow trellises in the midst of all the plant-life, along with hanging insect sculptures.

It’s all designed to make the display more exciting for children. Schools have been invited to get involved, and more than 1,500 from all over the country have already signed up.

Street-food stalls and bars will also overlook the moat on the south side, next to the Thames, with the moat open until 9.30pm each evening to capture the after-work crowd.

As well as ensuring the Tower does its bit for biodiversity (and all the machinery used in the project is running on bio-fuel), there are sound, practical reasons behind this, too. 

The whole project is called Superbloom, after the American desert phenomenon when dormant wildflowers suddenly explode into life at the same time with dazzling results, usually after a downpour

On the eastern flank of the Tower, there will also be a series of wickerwork ‘nests’ with willow trellises in the midst of all the plant-life, along with hanging insect sculptures

Once all this sub-soil has been spread out over the next few weeks, then truckloads of quality top-spoil will follow — nearly 11,000 tons in total. Only then will the professional teams start planting the 20 million seeds

For it is also about raising the profile of a famous landmark which has seen visitor numbers collapse over the past two years.

The Tower receives no regular public subsidy and Historic Royal Palaces relies on ticket sales and memberships to stay afloat. Numbers were down by 90 per cent in 2020 and are still only a third of pre-Covid times.

There was money from the Government’s Cultural Recovery Fund during lockdown, but that was a loan which must be repaid in full.

They are a pretty resourceful bunch, however. When the ceramic poppies were installed in 2014, the project cost many millions. 

The artist, Paul Cummins, applied for a grant from the Government’s £65 million special pot for commemorating World War I. The arts establishment refused to give him a bean.

So Cummins risked bankruptcy by taking out a multi-million-pound loan to make his poppies, while the Tower shouldered the installation costs. 

Yet every poppy was snapped up for £25 and the Government was shamed into buying a portion of the display. The project not only covered its costs but raised £9.5 million for Forces charities.

The arts establishment never quite forgave Cummins for creating the most innovative artwork of our times — and without a penny of state subsidy. 

So, while he received an MBE and two honorary degrees, the luvvies refused even to consider him for the Turner Prize.

However, the poppies resulted in a huge upswing of interest in the Tower of London. 

It not only won the Museum of the Year award for 2014, but the results were better than anyone had expected — ticket sales soared by a thumping 120 per cent the following year.

Tom O’Leary and his team hope Superbloom will help do something similar as the Tower starts luring back the post-pandemic crowds, with up to half a million visitors forecast to visit the fields of flowers.

As before, the new project won’t get public funding so the Tower is looking to its supporters in the City of London and its own reserves for the millions it will cost to get this up and running. Tickets are already on sale, however.

Someone had better warn the residents, though. The hordes of new birds, butterflies and bees which will soon be moving in mean the ravens will not be the only winged inhabitants at the Tower of London from now on.

For further details, hrp.org.uk

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