Published: June 27th 2012June 20th 2012
Foxglove and Rhododendron
The last of the Rhododendron flowers harmonise beautifully with the first of the Foxgloves.
We’ve been keeping a weather eye on the Met Office’s forecasts lately. Rain, you see, has become a regular feature of daily life here in England in recent months. Lots and lots of the wet stuff. The best day last week – let me rephrase that: the only day without rain last week - was forecast to be Wednesday. So Wednesday it would be. You must have good weather for an outing to the Royal Botanic Gardens
I come from a family of gardeners. My old dad won the “Best Garden in Wembley Competition” so many times he was asked to stop entering to give someone else a chance! We only have a small, low-maintenance garden these days, so my wife gave me an all-expenses-paid trip to Kew for a birthday present. I wouldn’t have to do any of the gardening there, you understand - just look, make mental notes, take photos, enjoy…
Of course, I’d been to Kew before – but donkeys
ago. It’s on the River Thames, near Richmond, by the way. Kew Gardens Station is easily accessible from the capital by London Underground District Line and London Overground services.
I recall that, in my childhood,
I put a sixpence into a turnstile to get in. Yes, sixpence - 6d. That’s 2½p in today’s coinage - or at least it would be if we still had a ½p coin! My brother David, who’s even more ancient than me, remembers when it cost 2d, which equates to the fluff in the bottom of your pocket today.
When I tell you that it now costs £14 each for pensioners and a bit more if you walk without a stick and still have your own teeth, you’ll really see how long ago it is since I was last here. Mind you, my canny wife picked up a National Rail voucher that gave us 2 for the price of 1 on presentation of our rail tickets, so it only cost her 28,000 per cent more for each of us than on my last visit.
Anyhow, so it was that, in glorious sunshine, we entered these hallowed grounds. The weather forecast was correct, for a change.
The estate has been here for many, many years, although it was only in 2003 that it was officially inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. You’ll need to read
The Kew Explorer
The easy way to tour the Gardens
for a full run-down of its origins. In a recent incarnation, it was a pleasure garden for King George III – towards the end of the 1700s. The lofty Chinese Pagoda actually pre-dates even him, having been built in 1761; it’s still standing minus a quantity of carved dragons that had to be sold at some time in the past to repay a royal gambling debt. Unfortunately, the public aren't allowed to climb to the top any more - it's perfectly safe, but would cost millions to rebuild the staircase when it was worn out by visitors' footsteps.
In George III’s time, the estate was quite small. It was only when the gardens were adopted as a national botanical garden in 1840 that they were increased to 75 acres (30 hectares) and what we now consider an arboretum was extended to 270 acres (109 hectares) and, later, to its present size of 300 acres (120 hectares).
Many today will know Kew as a place of research and conservation
– it’s world-renowned for achievements in these fields. In the 19th
century, for example, it was the location of the successful effort to propagate rubber trees for cultivation
outside of South America. The visitor to Kew won’t see all the behind-the-scenes work, but our entry fees contribute to its on-going scientific endeavours with a Millennium Seed Bank and Breathing Planet Programme, among other things.
Although extremely busy with visitors, particularly on such a fine day, the place is so large that we often found ourselves alone on the leafy pathways and tree-studded lawns. However, you don’t have to walk around this vast botanical funfair. For an extra £4 a head you can board the Kew Explorer on a hop-on-hop-off ride to seven key points around the estate. The driver gives an interesting commentary and waits at each stop so you can get off, or back on half-an-hour later. We got our bearings by doing the Explorer’s complete half-hour circuit around the perimeter of the estate, gaining valuable insight into the history, the planting and the buildings along the way. As it happened, we didn’t manage to return to all of the places we saw from the Explorer – the day simply wasn’t long enough.
We’d entered by the Victoria Gate, one of four gates and the one nearest Kew Gardens Underground station. When the Explorer dropped
us back to where we’d started, we found it was only a short walk to the Palm House. This imposing wrought-iron structure with hand-blown panes of glass was designed by architect Decimus Burton and built between 1844 and 1848. It must cost a fortune to maintain – I, for one, wouldn’t want the window cleaning bill, for a start. It wasn’t our favourite of the huge glasshouses, but magnificent just the same. Inside, it’s hot and humid – ideal for tall palms and other lush, well-tended plants from the world’s tropical rainforests, but not for us oldies on such a warm day.
The small Waterlily House nearby was more to our liking. Although it’s supposed to be the hottest and most humid of Kew’s glasshouses, the water seemed to have a cooling effect - or was it the stiff breeze through wide open doors that had something to do with it? The lilies were notable for vibrant blue and yellow flowers, and the gigantic leaves of the Santa Cruz waterlily had to be seen to be believed. There’s a rose garden close by too, full of some really lovely old English varieties.
Hopping back on the Kew Explorer,
we rode sedately past the Temple of Bellona folly and through the Berberis Dell, to its first stop, the Temperate House. This, the largest Victorian glasshouse in existence, is twice the size of the Palm House. The gallery that runs high above floor level, reached by a winding iron staircase, gives some spectacular views over lush vegetation from the likes of South Africa and Australia.
In October 1987, England experienced a great storm
of hurricane proportions. It killed 18 people and caused devastation in numerous places. Most famously perhaps, the town of Sevenoaks in Kent became ‘Oneoak ‘overnight, having lost six of its seven ancient oak trees. Kew Gardens meanwhile lost a staggering 700 mature trees, many rare and centuries old, in just that one wild night. Some of that timber, as well as that from more recent felling of trees which have reached the end of their natural life, has been put to good use by the renowned sculptor David Nash
. His works of art, carved mainly by chainsaw and axe, are exhibited throughout the gardens. There are some particularly good pieces on display in the Palm House and the Temperate House.
From the Temperate House, we
bravely followed clearly-marked paths to the Treetop Walkway. You can climb spiral stairs to reach the tree canopy, 18 metres (59 feet) above the ground; the less able-bodied and old folk like us can use a lift. The bird’s-eye view of trees from above is fascinating and quite a unique experience in this part of the world.
Descending to terra firma, we discovered, after a somewhat circuitous search, the only compost heap we know that has a public viewing platform. Gardens on the scale of Kew generate tons of foliage waste every day. This area, busy with mowers and tractors hauling trailers, little sweeping machines and green-shirted gardeners with wheelbarrows, is said to be the largest compost heap in the whole of Europe. You could almost hear the bacteria at work. You could certainly smell them!
Past the Waterlily Pond, with coots chasing around among lily pads and peacocks pecking at crumbs from a visitor’s picnic, we reached the long main lake with its elegant serpentine bridge, the Sackler Crossing
. Around here, you might spot some of the estate’s resident waterbirds – red-crested pochard, tufted duck, widgeon, mandarin duck, and four types of geese (barnacle, bar-headed, greylag and
One of many peacocks
Strangely, we only saw male peacocks and, as there were no peahens around, they didn't display their fabulous fan-shaped tails.
Egyptian). We saw only some of them – and a pair of swans.
Then, crossing one of the wide vistas, a feature to which the lost should always aim (and, believe me, it’s easy to get lost among these verdant acres), we entered the Bamboo Garden. Here, among 1,200 small, large and downright enormous bamboo plants, is a Minka House
. This ancient Japanese farmhouse, designed without foundations to withstand earthquakes, had wattle and daub walls and logs tied together with rope. The likes of this are fast disappearing from the countryside of Japan and this one had already been moved a couple of times in its homeland before being sent to Kew as a gift for safekeeping. It looks quite at home here, but woodworm does seem to have had a field day on its timbers.
We’d planned to walk to the nearest Explorer stop from here but just missed the half-hourly departure. Instead, we meandered back along some of the many shrub-lined pathways, past Treehouse Towers, a large playground for children, complete with an educational Climbers and Creepers area, to the Victoria Gate.
During the day, we stopped for a sandwich and a cuppa at one
An interesting David Nash scuplture
This one, like two soup ladles, stood in front of the Rysbrack Pedestall (by Dutch sculptor Joannes Rysbrack 1693-1770), one of few surviving sculptures from landscaping undertaken in Prince Frederick's time)
of the cafés-cum-restaurants thoughtfully converted from existing buildings at strategic points in the grounds. The catering by an outside company, however, amounts to poor quality at high prices (£1.20 for a bag of crisps is a joke, £3.20 for two cups of tea in paper cups is simply a rip-off). Next time, we’ll bring a picnic. There are hundreds of bench seats scattered liberally throughout the gardens, some by the paths, some beneath trees, some in the middle of shrubberies.
Oh, and there’s a terrific little café called The Kew Greenhouse
just a few doors along from boring old Starbucks, near Kew Gardens Underground Station, for excellent coffee before your visit and a real English cream tea on your way home. It's good - we had both!
There were lots of places in the gardens that we just didn’t have time to see - the Princess of Wales Conservatory, Kew Palace, David Nash’s Wood Quarry, the Davies Alpine House, the Duke’s Garden, the Mediterranean Garden… Of course, we didn’t make sufficient use of the Kew Explorer! Of course, we’ll be coming back another day soon
! Please scroll down for lots more pictures!
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