A 3D modelled picture of Kensington Roof Gardens, taken on 11 April 2020, when the Derry & Toms building was covered in scaffolding. An added yellow-red border shows the extent of what is still Europe’s largest roof garden. Picture from Google Earth. Click to enlarge.

Refurbished Kensington Roof Gardens to become private club again

After having been closed since January 2018, refurbishment has begun of the Kensington Roof Gardens, atop the former Derry & Toms department store on Kensington High Street (today housed by M&S and others). But access for the general public will be very limited, as its three gardens and various buildings once again will become a private members’ club, just as Richard Branson ran it from 1981 to 2001.

The gardens closed on 2 January 2018. when the lease Richard Branson’s Virgin had held for 37 years wasn’t renewed. Officially, Virgin chose not to renew, “in the face of unpredictable market conditions and a challenge to remain profitable”, but persistent rumours claimed that it was the freeholder (British Virgin Island registered Cartina Kensington Ltd, which via Lichtenstein-based Sirosa Anstalt is ultimately owned by the UK residing German property tycoon Henning Conle and his family) who refused to renew the lease although Branson was willing to even pay more in rent.

In July 2020, Sirosa sold a 15-year lease of the site, for an undisclosed sum, to Stephen Fitzpatrick’s company Imagination Industries Incubator, a daughter company to his holding company Imagination Industries, in which OVO Energy is the largest daughter company.

Bought by OVO Energy’s owner

Stephen Fitzpatrick is the founder and owner of both OVO Energy (which has grown to become the third largest consumer retail energy company in the UK) and electric aircraft startup Vertical Aerospace, which hopes to have its revolutionary VX4 eVTOL air taxi certified by 2025. So, the new owner of the roof gardens could be called the Richard Branson of the 21st century…

The site will be managed by Kensington RG Ltd, a daughter company to Imagination Industries that was created when the lease was bought. That company will run the member’s club and submitted a planning application to the council’s planning department in early January. The application, which was approved in May, is for a thorough restoration of the site, with the aim to restore some of it to its 1938 original. However, the second floor on the main building, added in 2000, will remain.

The site is covered by three conservation listings: its trees have been protected by the council through TPO 26/75 since 1976, the roof garden buildings received protection from Historic England in 1981, when the whole Derry & Toms was  Grade II* listed, and in 1998 the actual gardens received an additional Grade II listing from Historic England in its Historic Parks and Gardens register.

In the planning application, Kensington RG Ltd states that making it a member’s club (as it was from 1981 to 2001), “will provide the business with a robust revenue stream, thereby allowing it to function with significantly lower footfall than in recent years, drawing its membership from both the local and wider area.” That statement obviously refers to Virgin’s Babylon restaurant, that replaced the member’s club in 2001 and became a popular venue for wedding parties and corporate parties, which sometimes could become rather noisy and disturbing for residents living on nearby Kensington Square.

Local concern

A number of these residents objected to the new plans, but the RBKC planning department felt that the developer’s plan should be a clear improvement from the neighbours’ point of view, compared to situation during the 17 years that Babylon restaurant was operating, and during the three years (1978-1981) that the site was operated as a night club.

In a special management plan, accompanying the application, Kensington RG bends over backwards to assure nervous neighbours that they have nothing to fear. They state that the aim of the club is to create “a community of interesting, inspiring, and intelligent individuals. Our goal is to provide them with a beautiful clubhouse within which they can work, collaborate, socialise, relax and exchange ideas. 

The space will have a cultural approach and aims to be the antithesis of an ostentatious Mayfair private members’ club.” There will be “weekly events, seminars, talks and panel discussions, lead by our Head of Culture. We aim to gather the world’s greatest speakers and thinkers around the table at KRG, affording our members access to some of the most exciting minds of our time.” A special chapter in the management plan is devoted to noise control and another states that members arriving in their own cars will be advised not to park in the area, that members and their guests at closing time will leave at staggered times and be ushered up to Kensington High Street, as no taxis will be allowed to pick them up on Derry Street.

Public days planned

Although the site will normally only be available for the members, the new owners have in the application stated that they are positive to limited public access to the gardens at certain dates, perhaps in conjunction with London’s annual Open House Festival.

There is currently no date said for when the club will begin to operate, but it will probably not happen before late spring or the summer of 2023, as the refurbishment plans are quite extensive.

If you want to read more about the history of the fascinating Kensington Roof Gardens (once the largest roof garden in the world and still the largest in Europe), read our article from February 2018, which tells about its conception in the early 1930s, the scary war years, the Biba years (1973-1975), and the unconfirmed tale about why and how Richard Branson acquired the site. The article also includes a wonderful drone video of the gardens, taken in 2013.

A few bushes at the top of the Derry & Toms building is the only thing visible from the street of Europe’s largest roof garden. Google Street View picture, taken in June 2022. Click to enlarge.

First published 02/08/2022