Horniman Museum & Gardens

The Horniman Museum & Gardens in south east London is an interesting and popular small museum. It stands on a hill with good views over London. The Museum and its cafe are surrounded by parklands and gardens, and are very popular and well-used by local people. A visit to the the Horniman Museum & Gardens offers many varied experiences to the curious visitor.

History of the gardens and museum

John Horniman founded Horniman’s Teas in 1826 and was the biggest tea trader in the world during his lifetime. It was his son, Frederick John, who was a collector and who founded the Horniman Museum. The Conservatory of today’s Museum comes from Coombe Cliff House in Croydon, John Horniman’s home, which stayed in the family for many years.

…The Horniman Museum and Gardens were donated to the LCC in 1901 by Frederick Horniman, an avid collector who had first opened his house here as a private museum in 1888. As his collection grew he also opened the adjacent grounds, which form the basis of the present park. By 1890 Horniman’s house was so full that he had moved to nearby Surrey Mount, and when his collection outgrew Surrey House in 1897 he commissioned a new museum on its site, now the Horniman Museum. In 1901 he gave the museum and contents, and 8.5 hectares of gardens to the LCC. Surrey Mount was demolished in 1960 following WWII bomb damage. The gardens were extended in 1911, c.1930 and in the 1950s, and in 1988 the conservatory from another house owned by the Horniman family was rebuilt here…’.

London Gardens Online, April 2011
Facade of the Horniman Museum & gardens
Facade of the Horniman Museum which replaced Surrey House
Conservatory of the Horniman Museum & gardens
The Conservatory of 1894 from Coombe Cliff House, rebuilt at the Museum

The Nature Trail

The Horniman nature trail is the oldest nature trail in London, and opened in 1970. The trail follows the line of the former railway line between Nunhead and Crystal Palace, which you also find when exploring Cox’s Walk. Here at the Horniman Museum the trail is a hidden and quiet path. It is easy to miss the Nature Trail and just walk in the parklands but it is a fun path to explore – do follow it!

The Grasslands Garden

James Hitchmough designed this garden which is the first ‘formal’ garden as you enter the museum grounds. The plants in the central beds are from the North American prairies and from South Africa, while the borders around the central beds are filled with grasses. The grasses which are quite wonderful, and colourful in both summer and autumn. This Grasslands Garden is a good place to wander, to sit, and to gather ideas for your own garden.

Grasslands Gardens in the Horniman Museum & Gardens
Central beds in the Grasslands Garden in the autumn

Sunken Garden

There were no annuals by the time I visited the Sunken Garden which is situated just above the Grasslands Gardens. As a result it was somewhat bleak!

Sunken Garden in the Horniman Museum & gardens
Sunken Garden in the autumn
Curved pergola on one side of the Sunken Garden in the Horniman Museum & gardens
Curved pergola on the side of the Sunken Garden

Bandstand Terrace

There are good views over London from the Bandstand Terrace at the top of the gardens. The little Victorian Bandstand is very quaint and overlooks the Meadow Gardens. On some Sundays it is a ‘shop’ during the busy market. A contemporary Pavilion is on one side of the Terrace, and available for hire, according to the Museum’s website. And just below the Terrace is a small Sound Garden with large instruments waiting to be played.

Market day on the Bandstand Terrace
View over London from the Bandstand Terrace at the Horniman Museum & gardens
Enjoying the view!

Prehistoric Garden

The Prehistoric Garden is a small garden on top of the hill, complete with velociraptor. It is planted with plants which date from prehistoric times, including many ferns.

Prehistoric garden in the Horniman Museum & gardens
Velociraptor in the Prehistoric Garden

South Downs

This quiet section of parkland hides below the Bandstand Terrace. It was quite deserted on a day the gardens were full of people. There are many maple trees here and they are just starting to turn. Long views to the South Downs open up through the trees, and that is presumably why this garden is called ’South Downs’! It was an unexpected and charming little corner of the park. The church spire is Christ Church Chapel in Forest Hill.

Horniman Museum & gardens and the view towards the South Downs
View towards the South Downs

Butterfly House

This is an unusual sight – a butterfly house in the grounds of the museum! I didn’t go in because you have to pre-book at the moment. And nearby I found the last flowers of the summer brightening the entrance to the gardens.

Butterfly House in the Horniman Museum Gardens
Butterfly house in the Horniman Museum Gardens

Meadow Field

The largest area of the garden is the wide open grassland on the slope of the hill at the Horniman Museum.

Empty boating lake
Autumn colours at the Horniman Museum
Autumn colours at the Horniman Museum

The Horniman Museums & Gardens in South East London should be on everyone’s visiting list. One visit is just not enough to enjoy and understand all the treasures on this site, and I haven’t even taken you inside the Museum!


  1. This is brilliant and brings back many memories as a former resident. Please visit the museum and say hello to the Walrus for me. David.

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