Kew: an oasis in the big city

Date Posted: 25/10/2012

A gaggle of resident geese at Kew.

Pictured: A gaggle of resident Canadian Geese at Kew Gardens.

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew is as well-known for being English as tea and cucumber sandwiches, but how many of you have actually taken the time to go? Carrie Martindale paid a visit to find out more.

My quiet leafy stroll from the car park to the Orangery was rudely interrupted by a gaggle of Canadian Geese, which I was reliably informed are as much residents of Kew as the green Macaws (of which no one seems clear of their origin).

That’s how it is at Kew. From the hustle and bustle of Chiswick, across the Thames via Kew Bridge, past the opulence of Kew Green and you’re into a peaceful idyll. The only clue to your location is the occasional glimpse of a high-rise; and boasting peace and quiet, and wide-open spaces, it’s definitely a place that you can go to and escape.

I confess to living near enough opposite Kew Gardens for a couple of years, and yet I only ventured in there a couple of times. So, eight years later, I was quick to reply “yes” to an invitation to see the attractions’ highlights.

Group packages for Kew Gardens and Kew Palace

I joined a large group of travel trade and group travel organisers for a whistle-stop tour; the first of three similar parties spread throughout the day, so it was a good chance to see how Kew coped with a group. Keen to promote packages for Kew Palace and the Botanical Gardens, representatives from Historic Royal Palaces were also on-hand to help alongside staff from Kew.

Kew isn’t just a pretty place to ponder in; it’s one of London’s top visitor attractions, and a world leader in plant science and conservation – with around 200 scientific staff working at the site. There are also various ongoing projects at Kew and at its country garden, based at Wakehurst in West Sussex, which is the home of the Millennium Seed Bank. The non-profit making charity relies on grants and its visitors, so Kew is keen to look after them, and has a wide variety of facilities.

Soar amongst the tree tops  at Kew.

Pictured: The Xstrata Treetop Walkway takes groups a staggering 18-metres up.

A trip on the Explorer Train and a climb to the tree tops

After a cup of tea and a chat, we all piled on to one of the Explorer Trains and trundled through the gradually-clearing autumnal mist for a short circuit.

On a normal 40-minute guided tour, there are seven stops throughout the gardens, to allow visitors the opportunity to hop off and take in the glasshouses and gardens. As it was for us, with our limited time, we were taken all the way through the route, stopping once for the Tree Top attraction and lastly at Kew Palace itself for a tour.

Kew has come a long way from when The Express wrote about how Mad Women Invade Kew, after a particularly destructive Suffragette demonstration led to the burning down of one of the garden’s buildings in 1913. And, if you were wondering how I know this, I am now full of Kew-related snippets of information, thanks to the well-informed guides and members of staff, all of whom take an active part in this living and breathing organism of an attraction.

The staff were keen to promote Kew’s autumn colours, and I was reminded how the attraction has appeal throughout the year, and is somewhere an organiser could arrange group trips to throughout the seasons, without it getting boring.

The Xstrata Treetop Walkway is the perfect way to see those reds, oranges and golds – at head height. The 18-metre high walkway is quite a climb to get up to, but there is a lift for those members of your party who are less able.

Once you are up at the top the walkway provides an ideal platform from which to see the whole plot of Kew, including its panoramic vistas. The walkway was made to be slightly flexible, so can feel a little unstable (a bit like you are swaying) when you’re strutting along it with other people, but I was assured that it had been designed to last for at least 300 years. Well worth the climb.

Kew Palace was once the home of King George III.

Pictured: Kew Palace was once the home to the 'Mad King' George III.

Kew Palace and the Royal Kitchens

Famous for being the home/sanatorium of the monarch King George III (the ‘Mad King’) during the late 18th century, Kew Palace stands proud, a 17th century Dutch-gabled red-coloured property, in a corner of the botanical gardens.

We were treated to a tour of the recently opened Royal Kitchens, as well as the palace itself. Our passionate guide was knowledgeable, interesting, and full of delightful titbits. I learnt, for example, how the direction a piece of fish lay at the dinner table would point to how the King deigned your favour with him, or how King George had five or six baths a day as a ‘treatment’ for his porphyria. There’s also a bath to see in the pantry which may or may not have been the said bath.

One aspect of the Royal Kitchens where HRP has really gone to town was within the kitchen itself, where an interactive experience combines the original long lime-wood table with projected film imagery and sound effects. All very clever and slightly unnerving, but I won’t give too much away.

Although I learnt a lot from the guide at the palace, I would personally have liked to wander around the kitchens and palace at my own pace, but this is a preference. There’s also a pretty kitchen garden outside the Royal Kitchens, which in summer must be a carpet of colours, and one of many places you can stand still and contemplate within the understated majesty of Kew.

Groups of ten or more visiting Kew can enjoy a joint ticket for both the palace and the gardens, when pre-booking.

For further group travel information telephone Kew on 020-8332 5648, e-mail groups@kew.org or visit www.kew.org.

For further details on Kew Palace visit www.hrp.org.uk.

facebook twitter make as homepage