Despite having lived in London for over two years, I’d never been to Kew Gardens. At a loss for something to do on Sunday, however, I decided to finally visit. I caught a bus from my home in west London which dropped me off outside, however there is also an Underground and Overground service nearby in the form of Kew Gardens station (you could also try wombling free – sorry, bad joke).
Though Kew opens at 9.30 am in the summer, I didn’t get there until 1 pm, and wished I had turned up earlier as there was a bit of a queue – I only had to wait around fifteen minutes, however. Kew is huge – the site covers 132 hectares (326 acres) and there is a lot to see. It is possible to take the Kew Explorer, a kind of open bus, around the gardens, with regular departures at key points plus a commentary – but this costs £4 (£1 for a child) so I didn’t bother. I wished I had by the end of the day, though, as I was shattered!
The Temperate House (along with its neighbour Evolution House) is currently closed for restoration until 2018. This was a shame, as it is the largest surviving Victorian glasshouse in the world (opened 1863, the same year as the first London Underground line) and I would have liked to see it. Still, I suppose they’ve got to do their restoration work sometime – and it was one less thing for me to visit.
Instead, I headed right and went into the Palm House. As the name suggests, this glasshouse holds an amazing variety of palms. Not being a gardening expert, I grew slightly bored after looking at a few, but the general atmosphere of the house was evocative. In fact, it was rather TOO evocative – up on the walkway, it was so hot and humid that I thought I was going to faint! Underneath the glasshouse, there were – bizarrely – a number of fishtanks.
Outside, I popped into the nearby Waterlily House. Though it was small, the waterlilies were amazing – but there was the same humidity problem I had experienced in the Palm House, so I made a fast exit.
As a respite from the humid greenhouses, I decided to have a look inside the Plants & People exhibition in a stone building behind the lake. This looked at the ways in which people make use of plants, from food and housing to furniture, jewellery, musical instruments and pain relief. The exhibition was fascinating, if a little too packed to take everything in.
Next, I headed towards the Princess of Wales Conservatory, which was one of my favourite parts of Kew. Inside, varying climates are replicated in different areas to show the different kinds of plants that grow in varied climates. For instance, cacti and plants such as aloes grow in the desert – I was fascinated by one species that resembles a group of stones, which helps protect it from predators. Delicate orchids grow in more temperate climates, while leafy palms prefer tropical environments. I was also interested in the room of carnivorous plants: I spent some time watching a fly hovering round the edge of one to see if it would be eaten – luckily it survived this time!
After this I wandered over to Kew Palace (open April – September 10.30 – 17.30). This palace is small by palatial standards, resembling a small country manor more than a royal home. Famously, it is the place where George III stayed during his bouts of ‘madness’ (probably porphyria). Poignantly, the dishes from which he was fed during his worst days are on display, as are letters relating to his illness. The rooms at the top of the house are unrestored and stripped back, allowing us to get an idea of what they would have been like when Georgian princesses lived in them. Round the corner from the Palace are the Royal Kitchens, the only remaining part of the former palace complex that stood on the site.
After stopping for a piece of cake and a cup of tea at the White Peaks Café, I spent some time exploring the top end of the gardens. There were fewer people at this end and it was peaceful and pleasant, with beautiful plants and trees everywhere. At one point I was walking by the river. Eventually I passed the Badger Sett, which is designed for kids to explore – obviously I didn’t go in here but it looked like the kids who were there were having a great time!
Eventually I came to the Treetop Walkway, which allows you to see round the gardens, although I couldn’t see much except the tops of the trees (and the Temperate House through a gap in some of them). The walkway is high and there are lots of stairs, but there is also a lift. The walkway itself can be worryingly wobbly, but it seems sturdy enough, and the barriers around it are high.
After this, I wandered over to the bottom corner of the gardens to admire the Pagoda and the Japanese Gateway before walking in the direction of Victoria Gate (the main gate, where I came in) once again. On the way, I entered the Marianne North Gallery and the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art. The former contains hundreds of beautiful watercolours painted by Victorian artist Marianne North, while the latter is currently displaying beautiful and intricate paintings of flowers and vegetables (which are more interesting than they sound!).
I was really exhausted by this time, so after a quick look at the Mediterranean Garden, I headed off. Not before treating myself to some hand cream and wildflower body spray in the shop first, though!
Kew has several entrances: the Victoria Gate is the main gate on Kew Road – other gates can be found to the left of the Victoria Gate (Lion Gate), the right (Elizabeth Gate) and by the river (Brentford Gate, for cars and motorbikes only).
Tickets are priced at £16 for adults (£14.50 without the ‘voluntary’ donation – I hate this practice but loads of places do it nowadays), but I was able to get in for half price with my Art Fund pass. Concessions are £14 (or £12.50) and children under 16 go free. This summer, it is also possible to buy a “lazy summer afternoons” ticket for £7 if you turn up after 3.30 pm.
Opening times vary with the season; in summer the gates open at 9.30 am and close at 7.30 pm, though most attractions within the gardens close at least half an hour earlier.
I had a really lovely day at Kew and I would recommend it to anyone. I think you’d get the most out of it if you have a particular interest in gardening or plants, but I haven’t and I still managed to have a good time. I would like to visit again at a different time so I can get an idea of how it changes with the seasons.