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London's best-kept secret: the Lindley Library?

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Alys Fowler Alys Fowler | 08:47 UK time, Sunday, 19 December 2010

Print from the Lindley Library

A print from the RHS Lindley Library collection

I’m in the quiet hush of the inner sanctum. Just the rustle of papers and turning of pages. The RHS Lindley Library at Vincent Square in London is the largest horticultural library in the world though in truth it’s spread about a bit as there are reading rooms at all of themain RHS gardens.

I’ve been visiting this library for half my life now. I first ventured into the Lindley library via the Orchid Society of Great Britain; I went to a lecture by Brent Elliott (the head Librarian) about the history of greenhouses. And yes it was preposterously precocious to be doing such a thing, but the orchid society was rather jolly and more importantly accepted me. That I was an oddly dressed teenager didn’t faze them one bit; I liked orchids, so did they.

They also held rather jolly Christmas parties with sandwiches with their crusts cut off and wine in plastic cups that nobody seemed to mind much if I drank. I took my best friend with me and we chatted about Dendrobiums and other orchid things. But I quickly came to realise it was the library, not the orchids, that I hankered after. 

You can request to see some of the oldest tomes in gardening, to run a white-gloved finger over ancient words about pruning or propagating or dip into Loudon’s Gardener’s Magazine or copies of The Garden as edited by William Robinson and when you are stuck as to the whys or wheres there are on hand librarians who seem to be able to answer any question: the history of the printing press, no problem; why it’s in Greek and not Latin, a translation, of course; a piece of paper to write the answer down and a sharp pencil to write it with (that’s the other great secret - they have a really good pencil sharpener, you get a long point, very satisfying).

Print from the RHS Lindley Library

a print from the RHS Lindley Library collection

Downstairs is quiet and studious; everyone is buried in a book. The only window is a skylight that, at this time of year, frames the seedpods of the London planes that surround the square. Upstairs is open to all (you have to register as a reader to go into the bowels) and there’s my favourite indulgence: a great swath of gardening magazines from around the world.  It’s my treat before leaving to imagine what I might be doing in the garden if I lived in Australia, Japan or was seriously into growing box and signed up for The European Boxwood and Topiary Society journal.

Am I giving away the best kept secret in London, perhaps? But libraries need people. I am always slightly alarmed when I find that I am still the youngest person in the room. I’ve clocked up 16 years worth of visiting and that’s partly why it feels like home, but I’d quite like to find my 16 year old self there soon.

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