Being a fan of all exotic flora, I once tried to nurture a tropical garden, filling it with banana plants, various palms, tree ferns, papyrus and canna. They limped on through gales, frosts, snow , cold drizzle and summer drought, slowly withering year on year until I had to concede defeat and build a pond instead. Now we are charmed by frogspawn and visiting hedgehogs. There is a moral here about everything having its place. Now if I want to mingle amongst tree ferns and strelitzia, I either find a flight to Asia, or hot foot it to Kew Gardens – which only takes an hour along the M4 from where I live.
Kew began life as a Royal retreat, a pleasure garden where King George III and Queen Charlotte spent much of their private hours. Queen Charlotte’s cottage is tucked away in a woodland glade, completely out of the way, and must have been a wonderful hideaway. Go there for a sense of her escapism. It’s very restful.
Kew Palace itself is quite intricate with many rooms and tells the story of a happy marriage that begot 15 children, and the sad decline of George III, who was famously deranged in later life, and subjected to many unpleasant treatments in search of a ‘cure’. Queen Charlotte died in Kew palace, and visitors can see the room, and the black chair in which she took her last breath. The children’s bedrooms are fascinating, and the views from the balconies, staggeringly pretty. I was particularly taken by a miniature painting of the king and queen’s baby granddaughter, Alexandrina Victoria – who was later to become Queen Victoria.
These days of course, Kew is a famous botanical garden an UNESCO World Heritage site. It contains the most diverse collection of living plants of any botanic garden in the world. The collection contains plants from tropical, temperate, arid and alpine climates, and are grown out in the gardens and in controlled conditions within glasshouses and nurseries. In other words – there is simply oodles to see.
The Palm House is my favourite: I always go there first before it fills up with visitors. Early, the air is very humid and it steams my camera lens, and the water jets leave puddles on the paths. Water runs down the windows and you can see the effect of it on the wrought iron ribs that support the 16,000 panes of glass. Still, I like the sense of age the rust imbues – the Palm House is around 170 years old, after all:
I find the structure endlessly fascinating and get hung up on the interaction between the lush planting and the metalwork. The intricate wrought iron staircases are appealing on their own, not withstanding the foliage winding through it, and the light seeping through the gaps in the steps:
I like to take sandwiches for lunch and eat them by the lake, watching the birds. Late spring is a great time to watch all the ducklings and signets, along with all the other waterfowl, and the bridge across the lake is another piece of eye-catching architecture to be found in the gardens. To be honest, you will find a glasshouse, or tree house, or art work around most corners at Kew, and all of it has the trick of working with, not against nature. It really is very clever. But you will have to see it for yourselves…
The place to find orchids is the Princess of Wales Conservatory. There’s a lovely water-lily pond there, and a lower level where the children like to peer at the bright tree frogs and piranha lurking in the fish tanks. Various levels take you into hotter and steamier climates until you find the most intricate and delicate orchids amongst dripping vines moss covered boughs. Sublime! Be prepared to take off layers if visiting here outside of summer, and watch out for the world’s smelliest flower, the giant Titan Arum.
A pretty woodland and alpine rockery surround The Princess of Wales Conservatory, well worth the walk. Nearby there is also another sculptural structure known as the hive. Surrounded by wildflowers, it invites the imagination to imagine the life of a bee. Inside, there are amplifiers which reproduce the sound from a bee hive, and lights which react to activity in a hive. It’s quite mind-blowing.
Another high spot, literally, is the tree-top walk. Climb up this for a view of the canopy, parts of London city, Glass house rooftops, and the odd low-flying passenger plane coming in to Heathrow:
The last glass house I wanted to mention was the Temperate House. This is the largest Victorian glasshouse in the world, and has just re-opened after restoration. It is twice the size of the Palm House and home to an internationally important collection of temperate zone plants, including some of the rarest and most threatened. There is one incredible plant there called the Encephalartos woodii. It is the only one of its kind ever to have been found and it has been at Kew since 1899! It is a male of the species and without a female the seeds in its cones cannot be pollinated. The restoration is very obvious, with all the paintwork gleaming and not a patch of rust in sight.
We were lucky enough to catch a trapeze artist performing in the Temperate House when we visited. Time never stands still at Kew:
There are woodlands, bowers, small temples, museums and tree-houses, rhododendron walks, bamboo gardens, kitchen gardens, herb gardens, a Japanese pagoda, and ponds. There is something for everyone at Kew, even if you only want to enjoy a delightful walk and smell the roses.
To find out much more about Kew Botanical Gardens, click here for their official web site : https://www.kew.org