gardens

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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London: The Garden Museum

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Did you ever write a post on something, and then it just let it sit around for months without getting used because you end up blogging about things that are more pressing/interesting?  That’s exactly what happened with this one on the Garden Museum, based inside the former St-Mary-at-Lambeth (vaguely between Waterloo and Vauxhall).  The Garden Museum is another one of those places that’s been on my radar for a while, but much like publishing this post on it, visiting it was something I kept postponing, because frankly, I couldn’t give less of a crap about gardening.

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However, flying back home from America after Christmas, and completely unable to sleep on the plane, as usual, I read Caroline Alexander’s The Bounty and learned that William Bligh was buried in the churchyard of the former St. Mary’s.  As my interest in Georgian seafaring is a hell of a lot greater than my interest in gardening, this was enough to convince me to check the place out.  (Technically, I’m pretty sure I could have just visited the cafe and had a poke around the Knot Garden/churchyard, but I thought the fiver might be better spent on a museum visit than a piece of vegetable cake (ick) and a cuppa, especially as I was alone and dislike drinking a pot of tea without someone to share it with (because I’m not British).)

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I’m still not entirely sure how the admission prices to the Garden Museum are determined, because on their website, it says it is £7.50 when they have a temporary exhibition, and £5 otherwise, yet they appeared to have two temporary exhibits when I visited, and it was only £5.  Maybe because they weren’t quite full-scale exhibitions? (Even the staff seemed unconvinced by the merit of one of them.)  Most of the ground floor space is taken up by a cafe and shop, and there was a temporary exhibit thrown in almost as an afterthought in one corner.  Seriously, there were bits of tape and discarded sheets of paper all over the floor, as though people were in the middle of working on a craft project and then never cleaned up after themselves, and there was a door open to one side so you could see the unfinished space behind the exhibit.  It seemed quite odd, and I felt that it showed a lack of pride in the museum.  That said, the photographs in question, “Faded Glory” by Rachel Warne, were really lovely.  They were black and white shots of gardens that had fallen into disrepair over the years, but the way she photographed them made them look appealingly creepy and mysterious, better than most of them had in their prime (there were also photographs of the gardens in their prime for comparison); it’s a shame the museum couldn’t tidy up and show more respect for this collection (the rubbish remained there for the entirety of my visit, and there were plenty of staff about.  In fact, I had to wait for a couple minutes whilst the women behind the admissions desk finished their conversation before I could even buy a ticket, so it’s not like they were busy doing anything other than talking amongst themselves).

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I also had a look at the other temporary exhibition, entitled “Connect and Grow,” and sponsored/created(?) by a dance company.  As I said, the women at the desk didn’t really seem to care for it when they described it to me, and it was underwhelming, to be fair.  I guess they were going for a multi-sensory experience of some sort; basically you walked into a dark room that had some leaves projected on the walls, and then a video of a car driving past a garden with sound effects.  I mean, it wasn’t the most terrible thing I’ve ever seen, but if that’s the reason why they weren’t charging people the full admission fee, it was probably a good call (if you visit, bear in mind that this post is old, and neither of these temporary exhibits are there anymore).

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And thus, onward to the permanent museum space.  As you can probably tell from the photographs, the museum building/former church is absolutely lovely, and whoever converted it into a museum did a really nice job of combining the old and modern.  The permanent gallery is located upstairs, up a long, lone staircase, which gives a good view of the whole interior, and allows you to get close to some of the old stained glass.  The gallery is only one small room, but I had the place to myself, and could wander around at leisure.  It opened with a tribute to the garden gnome (see also the Gnome Reserve in Devon), and had a large display of various gardening tools.  As I’ve said, I have zero interest in gardening (and just managed to kill my poor houseplants, RIP Coleridge and Edgar), so I initially found it hard to get excited about this stuff.

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But then I laid eyes on the scare-cat and cucumber straightener.  I mean, how awesome and hilarious are those things?!  An actual cucumber straightener, and the eyes on that scare-cat!  Classic.

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I also fell in love with this book about the Potato Man (you can see him lurking sinisterly in the far right corner of the illustration) and feel like I’m probably going to have to try to hunt this one down on Amazon.  (I have a weird obsession with potatoes.  Besides the obvious (they’re delicious!) I had to submit a portfolio at the end of a creative writing class I took in high school, and I wrote every single piece about potatoes.  I’m not even sure why, I just thought it would be funny probably.)

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Don’t get me wrong, this was by no means a large space, and I still don’t care about gardening, but damned if I didn’t get a kick out of many of the quirkier objects I found there.  And yes, I might have learned a thing or two about gardens, but certainly not enough for me to go out and attempt it myself.

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And now I’ve come to the whole reason I was newly inspired to visit the Garden Museum; Bligh’s grave.  I was at first a little confused, because there was a sign at the back of the cafe pointing to the garden, but the door to access it went through an area that was kind of forbidding and seemed like it might be staff only, so I went back out the front of the museum, thinking I could access it by walking around the building.  It turns out you can’t, so don’t make my mistake and have to walk back in and through the museum and have the staff look at you like you’re an idiot.  Anyway, Bligh is buried in the Knot Garden, along with John Tradescant, who is apparently some kind of famous gardener and the whole reason the museum exists in the first place (looking now at his Wikipedia entry, there is apparently an elder and a younger John Tradescant, but they were both gardeners and I’m not sure which was the inspiration for the museum.  No matter, as they’re both buried there).

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I have to admit that John Tradescant’s tomb was pretty awesome, covered in a carving of some sort of fantastical garden (I think I can spot a crocodile in there), but Bligh’s was what I was really excited for.  I loved that it specifically mentioned that he transported breadfruit trees to the West Indies (which was the whole original mission of the Bounty before Fletcher Christian took over, and poor Bligh had to complete the mission on a subsequent voyage, both voyages being sponsored by none other than the foxy Joseph Banks), and that it referred to “Otaheite,” which was the old spelling/pronunciation of Tahiti (say it out loud, it works, kind of).  Bligh is much-maligned, but no matter what the truth of the mutiny was (and seriously, if you’re interested in this at all, read that Caroline Alexander book, it is extremely comprehensive, though I think she dwelt too much on the trials of the mutineers, and not enough on what happened to Bligh and his comrades in the boat they were sent adrift in), no one can deny that he was an incredible navigator, and it was nice to finally be able to see his tomb.

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I think my mixed feelings for the Garden Museum have probably come across.  On one hand, the church is beautiful, and I’m happy that it, and the churchyard, have been preserved (there’s quite a few other graves out there and in the building itself; I had to really watch where I was walking to avoid stepping on someone’s grave).  On the other hand, I think the building has a lot of potential that is simply not being utilised.  The museum was small and not particularly impressive (save for the odd amusing object), and the rubbish lying on the floor really annoyed me, especially because it was sitting right over someone’s grave marker.  I’m going to have to give it a mere 2/5.  At least I can cross it off the old list at last, and move onto other things.

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Island of Funen, Denmark: Egeskov Castle (Slot)

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I have been completely dreading writing this post simply because Egeskov Castle is properly huge, at least, once you count all the gardens and outbuildings.  I think I said the same thing about the National Museum of Denmark, but at least that was just a museum.  Egeskov Castle is not only  a castle, but has museums, games, and other attractions – similar to Osborne House, which I loved, but really, Egeskov puts Osborne House to shame (although it doesn’t have the bed Victoria died in).

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We were greeted at Egeskov (which is the sort of place you need a car to visit, as it appears to be miles from anywhere) by signs featuring the current owner of the castle – the eccentric Count Michael who has an apparent love for Segways and armour.  Ain’t nothing wrong with that, though the admission is a pricy DKK 180 per person (about 22 quid, but sometimes it’s best not to think about the conversion rate), presumably so he can afford the finest Segways money can buy.  (I kid, I’m sure he’s already wealthy, plus there’s undoubtedly a fair amount of upkeep involved).

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Unsure of the best place to start, we did the only sensible thing and headed straight for Dracula’s Crypt.  As far as I can tell, there’s no actual connection between Egeskov and Dracula, Bram Stoker, or anyone else relevant, so the whole Dracula’s Crypt is essentially just a hokey tourist trap, but I don’t have a huge problem with that.  It was full of drunken Germans when we arrived, and is basically just a dark room with a coffin that I believe is motion activated, though we managed to avoid tripping it.  The Crypt is incongruously plunked in the middle of a motorcycle museum that we pretty much skipped over, because I feel pretty meh towards motorcycles.

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In addition to motorcycles and cars, there was also a big Falck Museum.  I initially hoped Falck was Danish for folk or something, but it turns out it is a brand of trucks (?) that seems to have a virtual monopoly over emergency vehicles in Denmark.  Or maybe it just is the Danish name for an emergency vehicle?  I think I definitely missed something in translation, but there were some great mannequins in this section.

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The pink car shown here is a lady’s car that was driven by Woodrow Wilson.  It’s not particularly relevant to anything, I just feel like it’s the sort of thing you might want to know (assuming you’re anything like me).

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We could spy the castle across the water at this point, but it proved to be surprisingly difficult to get to, which is perhaps the point of a moat.  It involved going through a barn/museum, which gave a history of the castle starting in the 1800s, but it was difficult to focus on reading in the midst of wax figures with mustaches bigger than their faces.  From there, we had to cross over a ravine, but were still on the wrong side of the castle which gave us the chance (forced us to) walk through the extensive gardens.  There was an old hedge maze which looked amazing, but is not open to the public, and a random giant gold ball, but I was most charmed by the squirrel topiaries.  I mean really, squirrel topiaries!  Delightful.

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Before the entrance to the castle (which was finally in sight), we came upon the old Gate House, which now houses the dress collection of one of the 19th century Countesses of Egeskov.  I adore old dresses, and was more than happy to spend some time perusing her collection, especially as it involved going up spiral staircases.

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The highlight of the collection was undoubtedly the (partial) gown once owned by Marie Antoinette, which they wisely chose to display in a room with a mock guillotine and severed head.  I like the way this Count Michael (or probably the curator) thinks!

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Having at last made our way over the drawbridge into the castle, we were rewarded with an eclectic collection of taxidermy and other miscellany from around the world, including a “magical” foot stool (on top of the cabinet to the right).

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Most of the rooms were decorated as they would have been in the late 19th century, but the Great Hall is noteworthy for containing a pair of portraits with the kind of eyes that follow you around the room, and Count Michael’s suit of armour, which was only made recently, but is based on medieval armour.

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I’ve talked about my fascination with dollhouses quite a lot on here lately, but the one at Egeskov makes most other doll houses look like a pile of puke (just like Lil’ Lisa!).  Titania’s Palace (as it’s called) was created by a British artist and craftsman who built it for his small daughter so the fairies in the garden would have somewhere to live.  As it took him 15 years to complete it, presumably his daughter was no longer little nor believed in fairies by the time it was finished, but it’s still a nice story, and a gorgeous dollhouse.  The rooms are almost unbelievably intricate, and full of literary references.  In case you can’t study it in enough detail through the glass over the rooms, the video in the adjoining room gives an even closer look.  There was an older British lady in there watching it with me, and we both kept emitting little awed gasps throughout.

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The attic is home to more toys, though none so impressive as the dollhouse, as well as some pottery, and a curious little wooden man who sleeps under the rafters, as there’s some sort of legend that if you disturb him, bad shit will happen (I’m sure it’s more poetic than that, but you get the idea).

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There were many more gardens that we could have strolled through, but we had a long day ahead of us, so we headed straight to the Yew Maze (I think.  There’s also a Larch Maze, which is presumably like larch on oak to get out of).  I don’t think I ever actually found the centre, I just ended up wandering back out again after a while.  If you are wearing a skirt or dress as I was, might I advise you avoid exiting via slide?  Just like the super fun happy slide in Mr. Burns’s mansion, this slide also had a dark side, as it was really really slippery and caused my dress to ride up, which resulted in terrible thigh burning that lingered for days (too much information? I’m only trying to be helpful!)

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There are quite a few other activities at Egeskov that we didn’t partake in, as some of them cost extra.  There’s a playground for children, and some kind of Tree-Top Walk, which would presumably have resulted in me clinging to a tree in terror, and…a Segway jousting course!  You get to wear a breastplate and carry a lance, which you can aim at various obstacles in the course.  It wasn’t so much the cost that deterred me as the fact that everyone who went on it had a crowd of people standing around gawping at them, and I don’t do well with attention from strangers.  I’ve no doubt it’s a grand time if you’re not shy though!

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We saw a number of cafes around the place, most of them serving hot dogs (ick), and even chips mixed with chunks of hot dog, a concoction known as Pølsemix.  Fortunately, you could get chips sans meat, as well as a variety of exciting looking ice creams.  Although there were several gift shops, only the one at the exit was open during our visit.

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Overall, whilst I was disappointed that there wasn’t more information on the history of the castle (I’m still ignorant as to why and by whom it was built), it was nonetheless a pretty great attraction.  I don’t know if Count Michael is to thank for all the quirky touches, but if it is, he seems to be the sort of person I would get along with (which is saying something, as I hate most people).  I’d love to see more history and relevant information on the castle, but I’m still going to give it 4.5/5.

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