Thursday, 12 July 2018

Kew Gardens

The Palm House

It is about eight years since we last visited Kew. This visit, with our daughter and grandson was so interesting that I felt it had to be blogged.

We started from the main entrance (Victorian Gate in Kew Road) and admired the magnificent Palm House. It was built between 1844–1848 by the iron founder Richard Turner to the design of architect Decimus Burton. At the time it was the largest greenhouse in the world.

In front of the Palm House is a pleasant lake with a campanile behind it. Curiously it is not even marked on the official map. It tuns out that it was also built by Decimus Burton in the 1840's. It is 32.42m (107ft) high and was originally designed as a water tower and chimney for the Palm House, to which it is connected by a tunnel. However, it was not very successful and became purely ornamental after changes were made to the Palm House.

In front of the Palm House gardeners were putting the finishing touches to an elaborate and ornate series of flower beds. It seemed to us to be an extreme example of the municipal flower beds found in civic parks up and down the country. Why not have a more natural-looking planting of wild flowers which are more amenable to wildlife?

We headed off in the direction of the famous Kew Pagoda and first passed the enormous and imposing Temperate House. This too was designed by Decimus Burton. Building began in 1860 and it opened to the public in 1863. It is twice the size of the Palm House and is home to temperate plants from around the world.

We continued along the long grassy avenue of trees that leads to the Pagoda (know very reasonably as Pagoda Vista) and spent some time, with a bit of success, trying to identify the trees. This cedar was especially imposing and photogenic.

Here is the Great Pagoda, designed by Sir William Chambers and completed in 1762 as a gift for Princess Augusta, the founder of the botanic gardens. Chambers had previously traveled to China. It is a ten-storey octagonal tower, almost 50m high. Each level is 30cm narrower than the one below.

It has just re-opened after extensive renovation, which included reinstating the 80 dragons which originally adorned the roofs, each carved from wood and gilded with real gold. The dragons were removed in 1784 and were rumoured to have been sold to settle George IV’s gambling debts. However, experts believe that since they were made of wood, they had simply rotted over time. Quite by chance, today was the day of the formal re-opening and if you look closely you can make out Prince Charles talking to an interviewer among the knot of people over to the left.

We walked along the wonderful Cedar Vista (also well-named) and after a break for lunch headed towards the wonderful Aquatic Garden, dating from 1909, on the opposite side of the Gardens.

Our next destination was the Orangery and en route we stumbled upon Turner's Oak. Was it perhaps named for the great painter J M W Turner?

No, it was created by a nurseryman, a Mr Turner of Essex in 1798 by crossing the English oak - Quercus robur - with the Holm oak - Quercus ilex. It is about 6.25m in girth. It was very impressive, but since then I have seen the Cathedral Oak in Savernake Forest in Wiltshire which is nearly 10m in girth and at least 1000 years old.

Soon after we emerged in front of the exquisite Orangery. It was the work of Sir William Chambers (who also designed the Pagoda - and Somerset House in London). The Orangery was completed in 1761. Sadly, it was found to be too dark for its intended purpose of growing citrus plants and they were moved out in 1841. After many changes of use, it is currently used as a restaurant.

We had one final delight: Kew Palace. This charming building in the Dutch style was built in 1631 and was long known as the Dutch House. It was used by the Hanoverian kings but was abandoned after 1844 and many of its ancillary buildings were demolished during the 19th century. It was restored during the early years of this century.

Conditions: warm and sunny.

Distance: maybe 3 miles.

Rating: five stars. A great place to amble round, even without going into the great greenhouses. Maybe next time.

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