Kew Gardens

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!

28 comments

  1. kew gardens and the gallery look lovely! Public gardens must be the topic of the day..I just posted about a small kitchen(food growing) garden in Napa Valley we stumbled upon yesterday. I love to explore gardens and arboretums especially on long holiday weekends such as we have this weekend in the States..

    1. Yes there are some amazing wood sculptures there at the moment but I’m afraid they all went a little bit over my head!! Thank you – start tomorrow…need to get those nerves in check!

  2. I went there once R. Took some photographs of a hot house like you, using black and white film.

    Its fascinating, and strangely odd, how the Victorians did that stuff. The rich ones invented curious ways of growing and maintaining exotic plants, fruits etc in their private gardens – never mind places like Kew. They had ‘hot walls’ for example kept that way with fires, steam and such, two brick sides with a hot interior cavity. You could grow grapes etc on such walls. In grey and cold old England! Ferns, orchids, etc. All very lovely.

    The odd part of it – I find – is how it coincided with massive labour exploitation and the British Empire. They were rich because of that. And had access to exotic stuff, because of that. So while the results were lovely, look a big deeper and it starts to look dodgy – more so when it was only privately enjoyed.

    Anyway, that has no bearing on the fun of Kew and its always nice to see you out and about, giving us your lovely reports.

    As you were!

    – Bop
    x

    1. As always Bop, you always have such fascinating information to share! I never knew that about the heated walls…I’d love to learn more!

      Thank you for reading and enjoying, as always!🙂

  3. Mumsy means more like two years of foot problems wandering around Kew Gardens. Fortunately I wasn’t with her, or I would have felt terribly, terribly guilty for two years while her foot healed. I think she should have come with me to Portobello Market where she wouldn’t have messed up her foot.

  4. In his usual modest way, Ravilious manages to capture the eeriness of greenhouses perfectly. Maybe it’s something to do with the slope of the roof and the depth of perspective, for example in ‘Cyclamen and Tomatoes’, that evokes humidity and confinement. I am always glad to step into the Palm House at Kew but just as glad to step out into the fresh air after about a quarter of an hour – probably because dense vegetation is a bit of a memento mori.

    1. You’re quite right, Bruce – thank you for reminding me of that! I must go and look at those paintings one day. Yes, quite – there is something very primal about it all, isn’t there?!

      1. Yes, primal. Which I think, when you dig deeper, was one of the psychological undercurrents of the Victorian era. They wanted to classify the primal – like Darwin and to some extent Dickens, and the chap in French Lieutenants Woman who collects fossils. I think the Victorians were a fascinating transitional phase, R.

        More tea?

        – Bop

  5. I went to Kew about 15 years ago, the year I went to the Chelsea Flower Show, both dream destinations for me. I was travelling alone and was delighted that getting to Kew was so easy. It’s an amazing place. I loved the Marianne North paintings.

    1. It is a nice and easy place to get to, isn’t it? I’ve never been to the Chelsea Flower Show, I bet that was fantastic! I’m so glad you saw the Marianne North paintings – they’re so striking, aren’t they?

  6. Would so love to be able to get there so easily. We went a long time ago and were so impressed. A real oasis, which London seems to feature.

    1. I’m glad you’ve had the chance to visit, Nan! London does have plenty of oases, which does make city life somewhat easier when you want a break from all the hustle and bustle!

  7. Great day out!
    In the hot houses, did you see those enormous flat lily pads, about the size of a double bed (well, you know…)? I recall the humidity and the beauty of it all.
    I took my Mum there years ago and am always glad I did as she loved discovering new flowers. I remember we were so tired after trekking round Kew that we just ate fruit in the evening. It was that sort of day.

  8. What a strange coincidence – only two days ago, I decided to end my week in London with a visit to Kew Gardens! I went there by Thames River Boats with a pretty little boat, the “Princess Freda” from 1926. The trip takes 90 minutes which were absolutely delightful for me, especially as the tidal conditions on the Thames were very different on both ways.
    I liked the little Waterlily House very much, did you see it?
    I didn’t like the noise of the planes flying so low into the airport that they almost grazed the tree tops. Well, the founders of the garden couldn’t know what would happen 150 years later… But I was glad once more to have travelled to England by train!
    After having spent the day before in Sissinghurst Castle, Kew was for my taste too neat and tidy, sometimes almost “unnatural” after the abundance and freedom of the roses there. But of course it’s not meant to be a romantic garden.
    By the way, I followed your advice and visited “Any amount of books”. What an amazing shop! So crowded and untidy, I loved it!! It was great fun. And I was in an Oxfam Bookstore in Bloomsbury where I found an old copy of Vera Brittain’s “Testament of Youth”.
    Sorry for the lenghty comment, but I am still absolutely happy to finally have been to London! Best to you, Martina – far away again

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