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We join the 30th birthday celebrations at The Roof Gardens, and remind ourselves just what great spaces the iconic west London venue has to offer
Remember 1981 – the tanked
economy, the Tory prime minister, the Royal Wedding? Hmm… well, here’s another constant: The Roof Gardens, which
has just celebrated its 30th anniversary as a Virgin property.
The Kensington venue has hosted some amazing parties over the decades, from the after-party for the premiere of the James Bond film Octopussy in 1983 to Take That’s post-Circus tour knees-up in July 2009, but the stops were pulled out for the 30th bash, hosted by Jimmy Carr, with possibly the most spectacular fireworks display this part of town has seen in years. Even the usually jaded A-list guests, including Alexandra Burke and Princess Beatrice (not to mention Square Meal’s Venues & Events team) were impressed.
The Roof Gardens, of course, has been A-list since it opened its doors. Prince Harry once tried to chat up the
Mail on Sunday’s royal reporter Katie Nicholl there over a vodka and cranberry, and Pippa Middleton was spotted there a few days before the royal wedding celebrating the engagement of Holly Branson and shipbroker Fred Andrews.
Perched on top of the former Derry and Toms department store, just a couple of minutes’ walk from High Street Kensington tube, it’s been a hidden oasis in west London since 1938.
The roof gardens are the largest in Britain – some 1.5 acres in all, running round three sides of the building – and they received a Grade II listing from English Heritage in 1978. They have quite a cultural pedigree, too: featuring in science fiction author Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius series, and spending the 1970s as the headquarters of cult fashion label Biba.
Their ‘modern era’ dates back to 1981, when entrepreneur Richard Branson bought them. (The 60-year-old billionaire’s reaction to the 30th birthday celebrations was typically bullish: ‘Here’s to the next 30!’) The gardens are now part of Virgin Limited Edition, the luxury group which includes Necker, Branson’s private hideaway in the British Virgin Islands, the Ulusaba Private Game reserve in South Africa and The Lodge in Verbier.
What makes the venue so attractive to event organisers is obvious: it’s unique, it’s exclusive, and it’s got serious celeb cachet. With a capacity of 500 for exclusive use, it’s a decent size too, and it’s licensed for weddings.
Even getting up among the treetops is an experience. The gardens cannot be seen from ground level, and the sign on the street entrance simply reads ‘99 Kensington High Street’. But those in the know will be whisked upstairs by the venue’s two lifts, and walk out into either the sixth-floor nightclub or seventh-floor restaurant.
Each area has its own distinct character; the nightclub, for example, is an intriguing mix of block-colour minimalism and splashy graphic prints, with one whole wall made of glass squares. There are great views of the English woodland garden – complete with wildlife – and the abundance of natural light means that this isn’t purely a night-time venue.
The on-site events team can arrange extra AV equipment to supplement the existing plasma screens, and food comes courtesy of an in-house caterer. There are set meals from £55 a head, or buffets with dishes such as Queenie scallops in the shell or mini lavender crème brûlée.
Once the work is over, staff can serve your delegates the venue’s signature cocktail, the Pink Flamingo (Absolut Kurrant, Chambord, lychee juice, cranberry juice and fresh raspberries) and in the summer months from May to September there’s the option of a barbecue. This is included in the daily delegate rate and features hearty choices such as lamb burgers or lemon chicken, and a healthier selection of cold salads and dips.
The high walls of the sixth-floor gardens create an intimate feel, but if it’s views you’re after, head up to the Babylon restaurant on the seventh floor, where a whole swathe of London is spread out in front you – the intricate dome of the Royal Albert Hall just down the road, the towering skyscrapers of the City of London and Canary Wharf to the east and, to your west, an unexpected glimpse of green fields in the far distance.
One last thing: given the number of celebrities who love the venue, is there a dedicated VIP entrance? ‘No,’ says James McNicholas, of the venue’s PR firm, Eden Can Can. ‘But to be honest, it’s not needed. People expect them to be here. No one bothers them, and that’s why they come.’
The venue’s club is all about impact. Past the wooden dancefloor, the white ceilings and pillars of the seating areas are livened up by swathes of white beaded curtains, futuristic silver wallpaper and squishy undulating sofas. One side of the club house is made of gabled glass, flooding the area with natural light. The space can be partitioned into three, or used as a single room for 150 delegates, and the venue’s team is adept at turning it quickly from a hardworking daytime space to a glamorous evening destination.
THE MOO ROOM
The club’s VIP room is known as ‘Moo’, and a quick glance at its cowhide stools will show you why. At night, this is where the celebrities and royals hang out, but during the day its video screen means it can be used for product launches and conferences. It holds 30 for a cocktail reception.
The venue’s restaurant opened in 2001 and, fresh from a refit in November 2008, it is now a mix of cool, minimalist spring greens, wooden floors and the odd splash of bold print. The 100-cover main room is arranged in an elongated rectangle, allowing as many diners as possible to drink in the stunning views; there are also half a dozen tables outside. You can hire sections for up to 28 people, or the whole restaurant for 120.
Head chef Ian Howard’s food is fresh, seasonal and modern European – think confit pork belly with spring truffle vinaigrette, or chocolate and saffron cream millefeuille – and the wine list covers vintages from both the old and new worlds.
Although a section of the main restaurant can be curtained off, for true privacy you need to book the private dining room. Equipped with its own balcony for alfresco reception drinks, the room can accommodate up to 12 diners or 28 standing guests. It is light and airy, thanks to its curved glass wall, and the shape is reflected in the oval table. The blush chairs and mink and white wallpaper, speckled with mirrors, add to the refined effect.
THE TUDOR GARDEN
A covered walkway connects the Tudor Garden and its neighbour, the Spanish Garden. Here, mismatched brick walls covered in greenery separate the space into three areas, which together hold 150 for dinner or 200 standing. Its evergreen shrubs and mix of fragrant lilies, roses and wisteria give it a more traditional feel; there’s also a Tanqueray Gin bar in the summer.
Another walkway connects it to the back of the building, and the English woodland garden. This more low-key grassy space, studded with squishy chill-out chairs in the summer, is home to a gaggle of resident ducks, geese and those four famous flamingoes – Bill and Ben, and Splosh and Pecks.
Based on the Alhambra in Spain, this area
has a Moorish feel thanks to warm terracotta walls, palm trees, fountains and two central long pools. The area can hold 150 for a
cocktail reception, and its nicest space must
be the covered area at the end, with room
for a dozen people to whisper together in the shade. Hot young architect Agnieszka Glowacka has described it as the ‘most inspirational space in London. Flamingoes, palm trees, fountains – on a summer’s night it’s like going on holiday,’ she says.
For more information on events and functions at The Roof Gardens, call 020 7937 7994
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events, summer 2011