London: Kew Gardens

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Before I proceed with more WWI sites, here’s a post I’ve had sitting around for a few months now (as you may be able to tell from the tulips in bloom) on Kew Gardens.  I was kind of planning on going back at some point and expanding on what I’d originally written, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon, and I just need to publish the damn thing already, so enjoy!

How does a person live in London for well over six years without visiting Kew Gardens once?  Well, quite easily, if you’re me, evidently.  But my boyfriend received a year’s membership to Kew as one of his birthday presents, so now all that has changed, and I have experienced said gardens.  And now I have the problem of figuring out what to say about them, because really, how much is there to say about some gardens (quite a lot if you go off on tangents like I do, as it turns out).

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Well, because we had only activated our membership that morning, we hadn’t received official membership cards yet, so we printed off a confirmation email to flash at the guards, who herded us through so quickly we weren’t even given a chance to grab a map, so I was wandering blindly most of the visit.  One of the reasons I was hesitant about visiting Kew was because their website referred vaguely to butterflies flying around one of the greenhouses, and having a raging case of lepidopterophobia (I actually just wrote a story based on my phobia for National Flash Fiction day, you can find it here if you’re interested in reading some of my fiction for a change (and bear in mind that this is some of the first creative writing I’ve done in about a decade, and the title is crap because I was under a time crunch)), that was something I was anxious to avoid at all costs, so it was not without trepidation that I entered the Palm House (the only thing that calmed me was the absence of those chain things that are usually outside a butterfly house to prevent those vile little creatures from escaping and wreaking havoc).  Fortunately, there wasn’t a single butterfly to be found at Kew (not even outside), despite some worrying pictures of moths in the orchid house, so at least I was ok on that score.

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However, I was cheated out of seeing a statue of the ever-dishy Joseph Banks, who played an instrumental role in creating the gardens that would become Kew, because they don’t have one.  As my boyfriend had gotten me to visit Kew by promising that such a thing existed, I was understandably annoyed, though that was my own fault for believing him (well, I didn’t believe that it would be a nude statue, as he tried to claim, but I thought they might have something.  Upon searching now, it seems that Canberra has a statue of Joseph Banks, but it’s only a bust, which in itself is kind of a bust).  Anyway, the Palm House was fine, if you like palms (it made me crave a pineapple fruit shake like I had in Thailand to a ridiculous extent, and I think it’s a shame they don’t sell them in the cafe.  I even went so far as to buy a sad Sainsbury’s pineapple after leaving, which I’m quite sure will be disappointing, and not at all delicious like a Thai pineapple (update: it was extremely disappointing)), albeit unbearably hot, even on a gently warm spring day.  There was a rather pathetic aquarium in the basement, with a definite air of neglect, being perused by a few Russian women clad in leather mini-dresses and high-heeled ankle boots, because I guess that’s a sensible thing to wear when walking around muddy gardens?!

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I was more impressed with the tulips in bloom outside, as they were reminiscent of a Keukenhof in miniature (which I was fortunate enough to see about six years ago; now THOSE are some tulips), and I just like tulips (they’re one of the few flowers I can reliably name, those and Gerbera daisies, which I’m partial to because they come in such bright colours).  In fact, they even had them arranged to grow in the shape of intertwined British and Dutch flags.  Sadly, unlike the Keukenhof, there were no clog-wearing, sea shanty singing choirs, or more importantly, poffertjes.

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Although the greenhouses are undeniably the centrepieces, most of Kew is just taken up by parkland, with a few gardens (like the rock garden shown above) scattered around in it.  I was not particularly impressed by this, as it just meant a lot of walking, and I can visit most of London’s other parks for free, so I don’t know, I think they could have filled all the in-between spaces with more flowers or something.  I was especially annoyed when I realised that Kew’s main greenhouse is currently under construction, and won’t be open again until 2018(!).  However, the Princess of Wales Conservatory is open, at least, with its “ten climatic zones.”

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One of which was obviously desert.  And, er, orchids, carnivorous plants (maybe, not sure if that was a separate zone), tropical, and I’m not sure what else.  To be honest, I was more concerned with the gaseous mist spraying down from the ceiling, as it smelled funny and I wasn’t convinced that it wasn’t toxic.  The only comfort was that I supposed butterflies couldn’t survive in that kind of environment, so I felt secure in walking around without being accosted by winged hell-spawn.

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Speaking of things that scare me, Kew is also home to a tree walk, wherein you have to climb this awful shaky metal structure with a million steps and then look down on the trees below, whilst the structure sways with you on it, and the metal grating below your feet bounces and feels as though it might give way any minute.  As you might imagine, I am no great fan of heights (well, I’m ok with them when I feel like I have a reasonable chance of not dying.  So tall buildings are ok, zip lines and tree walks are not, apparently), so my main goal was getting around the tree walk as quickly as possible so I could climb back down again, which was a challenge because the thing was swaying so much it made me dizzy.

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And on the continued subject of tall structures, there is rather famously a large pagoda in Kew, but the doors were very firmly closed on the day we visited, so I’m not sure if you’re allowed to climb up there at all (according to my own logic, I’d be ok with climbing it as it is an actual building, and not just some shaky-ass metal thing with thin girders).

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We were getting tired after all this excitement (and walking) at this point, so we just made one last detour to Queen Charlotte’s cottage (wife of George III).  George III owned the area that would become Kew, and so the grounds are home to Kew Palace (which is part of HRP, meaning we weren’t sure whether we had to pay extra admission or not; upon studying the website, it appears you don’t), some royal kitchens, and the cottage.  Aside from the print room, which contains copies of many of Hogarth’s prints, it is fairly unremarkable, and had people standing around in Georgian clothes outside; rather like Emmett’s fear of having Hyacinth sing at him on Keeping up Appearances, I was terrified they were going to talk at me in character; fortunately, the woman just told us what to see in the house, and that was the end of it (damn, this post is reading like a catalogue of my phobias).

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I know there are many things I missed seeing, most notably Kew Palace and the Royal Kitchens, but since we have membership all year, I reckoned we could come back and see those; I was tired and I wanted to go home.  Now, I’m sure Kew is a wonderful institution and all that, and they have an important plant collection, but the £16.50 they charge for non-members is insanity.  The greenhouses are nice and all, but having already been to the (also overpriced) Eden Project and various other botanically things over the years (not Cleveland Botanical Gardens though, no way I’m going in there until they get rid of the damn butterflies), they were really nothing special, and the rest of the property, save for the tulips, was just like walking through Richmond park (sans deer), which I could do for free anytime.  It’s hard to see how they justify such a steep admission fee, and though I don’t feel a pressing need to return, I’m sure we will, just to get our money’s worth out of the membership.  I think someone who is more into nature than I am would be more impressed, but for me, meh, 3/5.

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