I’m not much of a gardener. I know a rose from a tulip but that’s about it; I blame my black-fingered mother and growing up with a slab of concrete for a back garden. However, I do appreciate nature, and I love spending time in beautiful gardens where the air is sweet with the scent of flowers and the earth is alive with bursts of coordinated colour. As such, Kew Gardens is a place I’ve been meaning to visit for years; there’s no good reason why I haven’t been, it’s just always been a ‘oh, I’ll go next weekend’ sort of place that I never got around to. Last week I finally had the urge to go, with the delightful company of the lovely Miranda, no less. Hopping off the tube onto a suburban street, I wondered exactly what to expect as I followed the signs past rows of densely packed Victorian houses; where would the Gardens fit amongst all of this urbanity? Eventually I reached a road, opposite which ran a wall so long I couldn’t see where it ended. Peeking over the top were trees upon trees upon trees. Quite the Secret Garden!
Kew covers nine acres and is the world’s largest collection of living plants. Founded in the 18th century, it is a beautiful and often surprising series of different gardens and wooded areas containing plants from various climates and continents, as well as a number of amazing Victorian hothouses containing exotic plants. There is so much to see that we didn’t nearly make it around all of the gardens in a day, and you’d really need several visits to fully appreciate all that is grown here. It’s not just all about the living plants, however; one of my favourite places in the Gardens was the Marianne North Gallery, an exhibition space built in the 19th century to house the collection of botanical paintings made by the intrepid Victorian traveller Marianne North on her journeys around the world. On walking into this purpose built red brick villa, you are hit with a wall of glorious colour, as painting after painting, rising to the ceiling, unfurls before you. There are scenes from many countries all over the world, as well as painstakingly detailed images of flowers and plants that are amazingly lifelike. It’s a real treasure house, and a shame that it’s not more widely known.
I loved walking in the hothouses, where there are some incredible looking plants that could easily come out of the pages of a Boy’s Own Adventure story; brightly coloured, spiky, oozing with foul smelling liquid, they rise to monster-like heights and dangle down from the glass ceilings that are dripping with condensation. We climbed one of the cast iron spiral staircases to the roof; with every step the humidity increased, and when we reached the top and wandered along the gallery, I felt like I was back in the oppressive heat of a New York summer, struggling to breathe as my clothes began to stick to my skin. It’s amazing that we can create these conditions to enable plants that were once in chattering, humid rainforests to survive here in the cold and damp British climate. If I half closed my eyes and imagined away the cast iron pillars and the crowds of visitors, I could almost have been in the rainforest myself.
Back in the cool fresh air, we enjoyed wandering in the woods while peacocks roamed around us, catching glimpses of the tall pagoda, Queen Charlotte’s Cottage and Kew Palace, popping into the Alpine Garden and walking around the beautiful lake. At Kew you can truly appreciate the wonder and variety of the natural world, and marvel at the skill and vision required to ensure that these plants survive and flourish in innovative and aesthetically beautiful settings. They don’t deny the tastebuds, either; The Orangery restaurant has delicious cakes, and Miranda and I enjoyed a lovely afternoon tea overlooking a lawn where they had ingeniously planted flowers in the shape and colours of the Olympic Rings. I know I’ll be back again soon!