I can still remember seeing the joy on Ken Livingstone’s face when London won the selection to host the 2012 Olympic Games, so why wasn’t I jumping up and down for joy with him?
Call me an old cynic if you like, but the legacy of the 2004 Athens Games is a stark reminder of how emotions can change from joy to despair in such a relatively short space of time. The debt that Greece accrued for putting on the world’s greatest sports event was a heavy enough price to pay without the knowledge that the sporting venues quickly fell into disrepair as well.
I’m pretty sure that Ken wasn’t thinking about the sporting side of things when, as Mayor of London at the time, he put the bid in: in fact, I don’t think he even expected to win it. The reason behind his thinking was that the event would focus minds on giving a much-needed boost to rejuvenating a part of East London that was in desperate need of some extra cash, so I think his wide smile was for a different reason to those involved in sport.
I’m also pretty sure that the powers that be were only too aware of what happened in Athens and would have been determined that London’s legacy would be different.
With all this in mind a 500-acre site at Stratford was given the go-ahead as the home of the Olympic Park, the main venue for both the Summer Olympics and the Paralympics.
I intimated in my Introduction to Kew Gardens that I was intending to follow it up with some more detailed posts about other aspects of the park, and as Christmas is on the horizon, I thought it would be a good time to show people what Christmas at Kew is like.
2018 will be the sixth year it’s been running and has already established itself as a firm favourite with everyone.
Basically, it involves a trail that is festooned with illuminations of all descriptions, but rather than explaining what it’s all about I’ll leave you with a link to the website and some pictures from 2017 that will give you a taste of what to expect.
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.
The Southbank is not a defined area, but for this review it refers to the riverside area south of the river between Westminster Bridge and Lambeth’s border with Southwark at Bankside.
It may be difficult to imagine now, but this area known as Lambeth Marsh, was virtually undeveloped before the 19th century. The wet terrain was hardly a prime location for the type of development that had taken place across the other side of the river, but during the Victorian era, the shallow bank and mudflats became an asset for industries such as printing works, coal wharves, dye works and breweries, to name just a few.
The first half of the 20th century wasn’t kind to Lambeth with factories either in decline or being destroyed by WWII bombs, and so when it was suggested that a Festival of Britain would have its centrepiece here, things started to take a different direction.
The festival was supposed to be a national exhibition celebrating British achievements, but it was to become more than that. The ravages of WWII had left the country in need of a lift from austerity, and so entertainment and culture were deemed just as important as science and technology, and so various forms of entertainment were included when the festival opened on 4th May 1951.
The Southbank site was only ever going to be temporary and most of it was demolished after the festival was over five months later, but the Royal Festival Hall remained.
A Wander through Victoria Embankment's Main Garden
Following the completion of Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s Victoria Embankment in 1870, a series of gardens were designed to enhance the appearance of this stretch of the riverside between Westminster and Blackfriars Bridges.
There are in fact four separate gardens, the main one being imaginatively called the ‘Main Garden’.
As you enter the Villiers St entrance next to Embankment underground station you’ll have a bandstand to your left which has a programme of events throughout the summer, and a grassy area which gets taken over by office workers during their lunch breaks.
You may well be tempted to head straight for the footpath that leads past the magnificent mixed borders through the garden, but if you would like to know where the bank of the Thames used to be before the Embankment was created then head up to the north-west corner and check out the York House Water Gate.
This gate was built in 1626 as an entrance to the Thames for the Duke of Buckingham but now stands a hundred metres away from the river, but still in its original position.
Nearby is Gordon’s Wine Bar which I can highly recommend, but if you’re anything like me, is probably best left until later.
London is blessed with so many well known parks and gardens that it’s easy to overlook some of the less obvious ones, even in the centre of the city.
In Westminster, next to the Houses of Parliament, are the Victoria Tower Gardens, and as the name suggests, are located at the Victoria Tower end of the building.
I think the word ‘gardens’ is a bit misleading because it has a large open grassy area more reminiscent of a park, but whatever you think this open space should be called, it’s a welcome respite from the area around Parliament Square with all its hustle and bustle.
The gardens were created during the 1870s, but not officially opened until 1914.
Apart from the fact that it has a great riverside location, there are some interesting monuments here as well.
Just inside the entrance gate is a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette leader. It was unveiled in 1930 and is a timely reminder that 2018 is the centenary of the ‘Representation of the People Act’ which granted votes to all women over the age of thirty and all men over the age of twenty one. (The difference in ages was supposed to ensure that men didn’t become minority voters after the huge loss of life during WWI).
Emmeline Pankhurst died on 14th June 1928, just weeks before the Representation of the People Act (1928) which also allowed women over the age of twenty one to vote.
The Outdoor Biome has everything from plants that make beer, dyes, medicines, food and fuel, to sculptures and things to amuse the kids. Covering over 20 acres, it’s not about what there is to see, but more about what you’re going to have to leave out.
As with the other two biomes, the outdoor gardens are not about how pretty they can look, but more about how plants are used to create things and make our world the place it is.
Consequently, the time you spend here will depend on how interested you are in all the different ways plants are used. As a guideline, Eden suggests that you’ll probably need a couple of hours here, but it’s probably likely that it’ll depend more on your own personal timetable and what interests you the most.
It’s pointless trying to explain everything that the Outdoor Biome covers because there is so much. It’s one of those places that the more you look, the more you see. I’ve been here several times and at different times of the year and I still find it difficult to take everything in. It might not appear like that at first glance, but believe me, there’s been a lot of thought that’s gone into this place – and it’s ongoing – funds permitting.
The good thing about the Mediterranean Biome is that it’s nowhere near as humid as the Rainforest Biome and much more comfortable to wander around. It’s not as big either and you won’t need any longer than about an hour in here.
Although it’s called the Mediterranean Biome there’s also a couple of areas representing South Africa and California, but it’s the Mediterranean feel that prevails. Olive trees, citrus fruits and vines are the order of the day as well as more colourful plants associated with a warm temperate climate.
Whereas the Rainforest was a challenge, this is a delight, and you almost feel as though you’re on holiday in Spain or Greece.
When you’ve taken in all the sights and smells why not stop for lunch at the Med Terrace Restaurant. I reckon you’d be hard pushed to resist the paella cooking away and it’s a great place to take a break. The food’s lovely and all based on Mediterranean ingredients, although whether you can call pizzas a part of a Mediterranean Diet, I’m not sure.
When you go into the Rainforest Biome there’s one thing you need to take with you – a drink – and one thing that you don’t – your coat.
There’s a place you can hang your coat nearby (but not bags) and there are several places you can get a drink. Whether you take my advice or not you’ll probably still come back out feeling as though you’ve just been in a sauna, so it’s no co-incidence that there’s an ice-cream parlour near the exit. The good people at Eden maybe ethical – but they’re not stupid either.
It’s a simple question with a not so simple answer, so the best thing to do is quote the official guidebook. It describes itself as “An educational charity that creates gardens, exhibitions, art, events, experiences and projects that explore how people can work together and with nature to change things for the better”.
To put it even more simply the concept is about trying to educate people to use our planet in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way – so how did this project materialise?
The answer to this question is somewhat easier. Although other people were involved, the whole idea was the vision of one man – Tim Smit, or Sir Tim Smit, as he is now officially known. This remarkable man gained notoriety after helping to bring the nearby ‘Lost Gardens of Heligan’ back to life in the 1990s.
At Eden his idea was for a millennium project to turn a disused former clay pit at Bodelva into something that nobody had ever seen before. This 60m deep sided clay pit with no soil and 15 m below the water table was to be transformed into life by creating giant conservatories, or biomes as they are now called, full of exotic plants planted in 83,000 tons of soil made from re-cycled waste and watered by natural rainfall.