“Kew is the premier botanical gardens in the world, scientifically.” Sir David Attenborough
It’s official we’re old, we visited two Botanic Gardens in less than a month. I have absolutely no excuse as to why we have been drawn to this past time except there was alcohol involved and living in the desert we miss the green, green grass of home. I know that’s so lame but in my defence planning a visit to Kew Gardens involved beautiful glasshouses and the promise of gin cocktails, or so I thought.
The Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew was established in 1759, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003 and celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2009. As well as being a famous public garden and a major tourist attraction, Kew Gardens is a place of scientific, conservation and horticultural research helping the worldwide understanding of plants and fungi, their benefits for mankind as well as promoting plant sustainably and safeguarding plant life for the future (Kew has built up the largest collection of living plants anywhere in the world, preserving collections comprising seven million vascular plants and over a million funghi.) With all its history, our expectations were high for a great day out and after a pub lunch at nearby Kew Gardens Hotel (standard), we began our visit on a sunny-ish July afternoon.
Now Kew had a lot to live up to after the splendour of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh which were immaculate, well-stocked and beautifully presented (read about that here) but sadly it just didn’t, disappointed doesn’t even cut it. This 132-hectare British institution felt like a sad, unloved park rather than a lush botanic garden. Shoddy landscaping, poorly maintained dry patchy grass, inadequate variety of trees and just a general lack of flowers and colour gave us a bad first impression of the first half of the garden. Add to that the lack of signage and the vast amount of walking without seeing very much and things were looking dire, but it’s ok there’s was the famous Temperate Glasshouse to visit, but guess what it was closed for restoration (I felt that should have been made clear when booking online)!
On a positive note the 18-metre high Xstrata Treetop Walkway was open and although quite short it did give a birds-eye view across the canopy of trees and city beyond. Another feature of this part of the garden was the Mediterranean Garden with trees, shrubs and bulbs typical of the region and climate. A large Henry Moore bronze ‘Reclining Mother and Child’ sculpture resides in a tranquil spot but even that was surrounded by patchy yellow grass with only a couple of rickety old benches to sit on.
Besides the lure of gin, we were looking forward to the Full of Spice summer festival that promised to be bursting with taste, scent and colour but you guessed it, that was all pretty non-existent. Except for a few inflatable spices, I only managed to see one of the beautifully painted spicy rickshaws (rickshaw rides an additional £8.50 per person) and some individual wooden spice cabinets dotted about the place that were colourful and informative exhibits but were not really that impressive. By now we had walked forever and were all pretty despondent, things did start to look up (slightly) when we reached the large glass centralised Victorian iron and glass Palm House. The yellowing white paint might have been peeling and the metal rusting but the humid house was full of an array of tropical palms from around the globe with a feature ornate metal spiral staircase leading to the top viewing platform (sorry but the Edinburgh Glasshouses were far more impressive).
Descending the spiral staircase to the basement level you come across probably the worst marine aquarium I’ve ever been to with only one fish in each tank and everything in desperate need of some TLC, the positive vibes were fading fast. Outside was the most impressive display yet, statue lined uniform flower beds filled with a stunning mix of red and purple blooms, perfectly planted and well maintained, it saved the day and the mood for a while! Desperate for refreshment we made our way to the Orangery restaurant which offered a typical visitor attraction type menu with overpriced cakes, drinks and savoury offerings. The whole place needed a good clean, dirty plates were stacked up all over some the tables but at least the cake tasted ok and it was pleasant to sit outside on the terrace! Like the rest of the gardens this cafe needed some care and attention, maybe an injection of cash and some staff training wouldn’t go a miss either!
We popped into Queen Charlotte’s Cottage for a quick browse around the countrified retreat of former Royal Family but the highlight were the gardens to the rear of the property filled with herbs and medical plants that gave off an amazing aroma, it also had better Scottish thistles than those in we saw in Scotland. We were so tempted to abandon ship at this point and head to the pub having found out the Gin Garden was only open at the weekends and Bank Holidays, so no spiced No.3 gin cocktails for us then!
We persevered, forcing one last push of enthusiasm which luckily paid off as the Princess of Wales Conservatory was really marvellous and by far the most interesting and well looked after exhibit of the day. The modern low-lying conservatory, opened by Princess Diana herself in 1987, has ten climatic zones with a good variety of plants (actually labelled too which is always helpful) that includes ferns, exotic orchids, water lilies and an excellent display of cacti. Hooray Kew, you got this bit just right and in memory of a great lady too.
Things continued on in this positive vain with the Rock Garden complete with water features, the Davis Alpine House filled with tiny delicate mountain plants and the Bonsai House that was very cool, housing several small-scale trees from Kew’s collection (some of which are over 150 years old), who doesn’t love the miniature manicured trees! A final stroll through the symmetrically planted family beds felt like you had stepped into Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit story and everything finished on a happy note, helped by the lure of a pub next on the agenda, wine was very much required by this stage).
I think all four of us were in agreement that Kew Gardens just didn’t deliver on its expected potential which was a real shame and was certainly not worth its £14 (online discounted price) entry fee in my opinion, in fact many of the free London parks offer better options for a day out and are better maintained. I not sure what has caused the gardens to suffer from so much neglect in some areas but I’m guessing it’s a funding/budget issue but like everything don’t take my word for it go visit yourself and see what you think, take my advice though wear comfy shoes and take a picnic!
The day took a turn for the better with cocktails and dinner at Brinkley’s Kitchen in Wandsworth Common. This large contemporary restaurant was a perfect place for the other half’s final night in the UK and I can recommend both the cocktails and the international influenced cuisine if you find yourself in that area.
Location: Kew Gardens, Richmond, Surrey (next to the River Thames, ten miles west of central London).
Opening Times: Kew Gardens is open daily, except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Times may vary according to season – click here for more specific detail to plan your visit)
Unless otherwise stated, all photos on this page © Jo Brett 2015. All rights reserved.