Just as it’s impossible to see the whole of Kew Gardens in one visit, the same thing applies to writing about it, and so I’ve decided to begin with an overview of how the gardens evolved and the main areas of interest.
To give you an indication of the magnitude of the place, it boasts that it has the “largest and most diverse botanical and mycological (fungi) collections in the world” with more than 30,000 different kinds of plants, an Herbarium with over 7 million specimens, a library with 750,000 books, and more than 175,000 prints and drawings. To that you can add five Grade I listed buildings, and (including its sister botanical garden at Wakehurst in West Sussex) currently employs around 800 staff. It even has its own police force. No wonder it’s on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
So how did Kew get to become one of the world’s most important botanical gardens, especially as the UK is hardly one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet?
It probably won’t come as any great surprise to learn that much of Britain’s interest in the world’s plants came about when explorers started to reach parts of the globe where exotic plants were so different to our own, but why did they end up at Kew?
The reason has a lot to with with how the area around Kew started to become fashionable. During the 16th century a palace was built for Henry VII in the royal hunting park at nearby Richmond, and of course where the monarch went, so did everyone aspiring to be in his company. Large houses were built with large gardens to match.
One of these large houses became known as Kew Palace, which by the 18th century came into the hands of Prince Frederick and Princess Augusta (parents of the future George III), who then started to create a garden next to the Royal Park.
The importance of Kew really started to take off when the great botanist, Joseph Banks, joined Captain James Cook on his ship Endeavour for a 3-year trip to the South Pacific between 1768 and 1771.
On landing in Australia, Banks was so astounded with the diversity of plants that they found, that they called it Botany Bay (now a part of Sydney).
On his return home his collection found its way to Kew where he became its first unofficial director.
Other collections by other collectors followed and in 1802 King George III combined the Richmond and Kew estates and then in 1840 the land passed from the Crown to the government, and it’s from this date that the gardens were officially founded.
So much for how Kew Gardens evolved, so what is there to see?
If you’ve entered by way of the main entrance at Victoria Gate you may want to consider jumping on board the Explorer Land Train. It’ll cost you £5 (£2 for kids), but it does a circumnavigation of the 330-acre site with seven stopping off points which will allow you to hop-on and hop-off all day long. You won’t get to see everything of course, but it will give you an idea of what’s on offer here and a good introduction to the park.
If you choose to be more selective, then it’s worth knowing where some of the focal points are in order to get your bearings. Just to the right of the amenities at Victoria Gate is the Palm House and one of Kew’s favourite landmarks. It’s more than possible that you’ll either start or end your exploration of the park at the pond in front of the Palm House.
If I’m allowed to generalise for a moment, I would say that the eastern part of the gardens (in other words, to the right of the Palm House) is the area that has the most to offer in the shortest distance, so if time is at a premium then arguably, this is perhaps the best corner to visit. This area includes the Princess of Wales Conservatory, Davies Alpine House and the Hive amongst other things.
The glass houses are one of the most popular things to see in the gardens and the Temperate House has just had a £41 million restoration project completed. I’ve still yet to see it finished, but I’m sure it would have been worth the 5 year wait.
Another restoration project nearing completion is the Chinese Pagoda which is due to re-open to the public in April 2019. This was the first major building to appear at Kew and was gifted to Princess Augusta by the architect Sir William Chambers in 1762.
These man-made structures are only a part of the appeal of Kew though. There are different areas given over to all manner of living things from the 14,000 trees in the Arboretum to the tiniest of microscopic plants that don’t even need soil to grow in.
Given that Kew is all about conserving as many of the world’s plants as possible, it would be pointless in trying to have a go at naming any of them. Whatever plant you’ve heard of – it’s here, as well as a countless number of plants that you probably haven’t.
You might be thinking that having all these plants here doesn’t necessarily make for a garden that’s good to look at, but if it seems obvious to you and me, then I can tell you that it’s obvious to the experts too, and they’ve gone to great lengths to present the plants in a visually attractive way where possible; if you take a walk along the magnificent Great Broad Walk, you’ll see exactly what I mean.
The best time to see the Great Broad Walk is in the height of summer, but other parts of the park have their best times too: the bluebell woods and Japanese Gateway in the spring, the Treetop Walkway in the autumn and perhaps the most popular of all – Christmas at Kew, which I’ll be bringing to life in my next post.
It’s not possible to cover everything in this short introduction to Kew Gardens, but hopefully it would have whetted your appetite enough for you to want to read more, or better still to come and see one of the world’s great botanical gardens for yourself.