Hidden away in a quiet spot on the south bank of the Thames, there is a secret rooftop garden complete with a campfire, an unlimited supply of marshmallows for toasting and, most importantly, a cocktail bar – and it is known as the Midnight Apothecary. You’ll find it at one of London’s least visible but most historically significant pieces of architecture, the Thames Tunnel, which also just happens to be home to the Brunel Museum.
But despite its industrial origins, it feels like you’re in another world the moment you ascend the staircase into an enchanting semi-wilderness that wouldn’t be out of place in the grounds of a country cottage.
It’s hard to believe that you’re actually still in Rotherhithe.
You can hear a gentle hum of conversation from around the campfire as you weave your way along the pebbled paths between beds of delightfully informal flora.
Find yourself a rustic little perch between the leaves, and take a good look at the menu. It’ll be hard to choose because each cocktail is utterly unique – the key flavours are grown in the garden or foraged locally, so the menu changes with the seasonality of the ingredients. Even the alcohol is sourced locally, including Jensen’s gin and Hiver beer, which can be found next door to one another on Stanworth Street in Bermondsey at the bottom of Maltby Street Market (but that is an adventure for another day).
Try not to get distracted by all the flowers …
… because you need to get this chap’s attention so you can place your order (when he’s finished lighting the candles, of course).
There’s plenty of time to take in your surroundings while your drink is expertly prepared.
It really is an incredible little oasis, especially when you consider that it is perched on top of one of the greatest industrial wonders of the Victorian age. But more on that later, because this next bit is going to demand your full attention.
Cocktails! This one is the Chelsea Fringe Collins – jasmine-infused Jensen’s Gin, elderflower liqueur, home-made rose petal syrup, lemon juice and soda – which was a special back in May during the Chelsea Flower Show. If you’re wondering why I’m only telling you about this now, well … that’s a good question. And I’m afraid the answer is that I just didn’t get around to it. However, there’s good news!
The Midnight Apothecary is open on Friday and Saturday evenings from May to September, but it also opens once a month in October, November and December for some special events themed around Halloween, Guy Fawkes and, naturally, Christmas. You can buy tickets for the special nights here, and you definitely should – perhaps I’ll see you there!
… enjoy the garden, because soon the light will begin to fade.
Grab a couple more cocktails. Try them all! And a Hiver honey beer as well – why not? (I cannot for the life of me remember what these ones were … just that they were delicious.)
You might also like to grab a bite to eat from the street food stall down the steps outside the museum. It changes from time to time, but for Bonfire Night you can tuck into tasty Greek morsels prepared by I Should Be Souvlaki. When we went it was gourmet toasties (which I’m pretty sure were supplied by the lovely ladies of Grill My Cheese, but it was a long time ago so I can’t be certain).
By this time, the place is really buzzing.
And those cocktails are slipping down very easily. They’re even making my jokes seem funny.
And this was before we descended the steps into the cavernous space beneath our feet. My sister makes me laugh like no-one else (and vice-versa, it would seem), so give us a couple of cocktails and a mildly inappropriate word and the tears will be pouring down our cheeks before you know it.
The naughty word of the day was … shaft. Yes, with your Midnight Apothecary ticket, you can experience the wonder of Marc Brunel’s shaft. That was a lot funnier after a few cocktails.
Ok, maybe you had to be there.
However, the Grand Entrance to the Thames Tunnel really is a wonder.
If you (unlike me) are grown up enough not to collapse in fits of giggles every time someone says the word ‘shaft’, it is really worth going down and learning a bit about the Brunel dynasty. Even with our hysterics, we actually managed to take in quite a lot about this great engineering family, and one of these days I will go back to visit the museum properly.
The shaft was actually built as a gigantic ring of bricks which was then sunk into the soft London clay under its own weight – a feat of engineering brilliance that had never been tried before. But then neither had anyone tried to build a tunnel beneath a river before. The Thames Tunnel was the first in the world, which makes it a pretty special landmark, and is the only project that Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his father Marc Brunel worked on together. Isambard was almost killed during the building of the tunnel – just imagine the things that would not exist today if he had been!
The Thames Tunnel ended up being a bit of a white elephant, as its original purpose of transporting cargo between the two banks of the Thames proved nearly impossible, and it instead opened as a pedestrian walkway 20 years after construction first began. But it quickly became the most popular tourist attraction in the world, with a subterranean fairground part of the fun. These days it serves a rather less glamorous but no less useful purpose, linking Rotherhithe and Wapping on the London Overground.
Still, if you go along to the Midnight Apothecary, you can find out the rest for yourself. And when you’ve been suitably wowed by all you’ve learned, it’s time for another cocktail.
While I can’t remember all the delicious things we drank that evening (we did, I think, get through the whole menu), you’ll be delighted to know that there’s one easy way to find out. The Midnight Apothecary is the brainchild of Lottie Muir, aka the Cocktail Gardener, who created the garden on top of the tunnel and then turned her hand to concocting magical potions from the plants and flowers she grew – and then she made a recipe book! So even if you never manage to make it to a Midnight Apothecary event, you can still enjoy her genius creations at home. And you can get in on the action even if you’re not a drinker, because Lottie has also created a line of scented candles especially for Amazon, each taking its cues from one of her cocktail recipes – including my personal favourite, the Chelsea Fringe Collins. Is there no end to this woman’s talents?
By this point, the night is definitely drawing in and the garden takes on the twinkling, moonlit aura of a fairy garden.
But there’s just enough light left in the sky to snap a selfie against the beautiful garden mural.
This super-cute floral maxi-shirt-dress is sold out now (well, this was several months ago …) but there are a lot of similar styles around at the moment because a long-sleeved dark floral maxi just seems to capture the fashion mood at the moment. I love this super-glam version by Millie Mackintosh, and this super-sexy, floaty little number that shows just the right amount of skin. There’s also this absolute bargain of a frock in the sale for less than £20 if you’re watching the pennies. And I’ve found a gorgeous gown for tall girls here and one especially for the petites too.
The campfire is still going strong, and the aroma of toasting marshmallows is mingling with the scents of the garden on the evening breeze.
But as much fun as you’ve had, there’s nothing left to try on the cocktail menu and Rotherhithe is a long way from home.
So you say goodnight to Mr Brunel …
… tiptoe down the staircase and past the museum …
… and stop for an obligatory photo op on the suspension bridge bench before you flit off into the night, fuelled by flowers, laughter and the lingering memory of an unexpectedly educational evening.