gardens

London: Christmas at Kew

And I’m back (for now), with a long overdue Christmas post, though the belatedness is not entirely my fault. I couldn’t possibly have written this before Christmas, since I didn’t visit Kew until the 4th of January. This past month has certainly been interesting, and not in a good way, but I’m glad Biden at least managed to get inaugurated without further incident from Trump’s idiotic minions (though I was super weirded out to see people hugging and kissing at the inauguration, even with masks on). Here in England, we’re in lockdown again until at least the middle of February, so I’ve barely been leaving the house. It was lovely having a break over Christmas to sit on my couch and watch nonstop Christmas and Cary Grant movies (The Bishop’s Wife is both!), but going back to work (remotely, of course) has just made me a giant ball of stress. I’ve been asked to help finish up our NLHF project, which means getting out a TONNE of content in the next month, so I’m working an extra day a week to stay on top of it (with pay, but still), and since I’m mainly working with our WordPress-based website where I have to use stupid Block Editor and the formatting gives me migraines, I’m not feeling especially inclined to be regularly blogging in my free time. So I think that for the next couple of months or whenever things might start to open up a little bit again, I will probably just be posting once a month or so to give myself a break from WordPress (because spending like 30 hours a week on it for work is enough!) and not give myself the added stress of trying to develop posts when there’s no museums to visit (ironically, I took this job because I thought it would be less stressful than my old one and I’d have the mental energy to write more…).

 

But enough with the complaining (at least in the introduction), and let’s get to Christmas at Kew. I’ve been trying to visit this festive light installation at Kew Gardens for a number of years, but it always sold out before I could book tickets (they offer it to members first, and those jerks seem to book it all up). So when I saw last September that they were still hoping to go ahead with it this year, and there were still tickets available, I took a chance and snapped up two tickets for early December at the hefty price (off-peak, no less!) of £19.50 per ticket. And then, of course, the November lockdown was announced, which not only spoiled my intended wedding date, but also my Christmas at Kew visit. Fortunately, rather than cancelling, Kew added in more dates in January, and re-booked us for the 4th. Not as good as going before Christmas, but better than not going at all!

 

Marcus and I did have some concerns, since we knew Covid rates were on the rise pretty badly in London (though we hadn’t realised quite how badly until the lockdown was announced), but Kew is only a few miles away from us, and the event was entirely outside, required masks, and had limited numbers attending, so we decided it was worth the relatively small risk, and set out in early evening to check it out. Since we’d never been to Christmas at Kew before, I don’t know how it compares to what they normally offer, but it was pretty magical. Kew Village itself still had some nice lights up as we walked to Kew Gardens, and all the staff when we arrived were friendly and helpful. Because of Covid, they had three entrances open this year to space out traffic – you chose the entrance when you booked based on your intended method of transport, so we used Victoria Gate because we came by train, which didn’t have anyone else going into it when we arrived.

  

As you can see, all the paths were bedecked with lights, and it was easy to social distance on the pathways, but perhaps a bit less so in front of the larger light show installations where people tended to congregate, but I guess at least we were all outside, so it felt safer than some of the museums (looking at you, BM) I’d been to back when that sort of thing was allowed. Although eating maybe wasn’t the smartest thing to do, as it involved removing our masks for a bit, I was excited that Kew was still having food stalls this year. I visited Southbank Christmas Market in 2019 more times than I can count for the toasted cheese stall there (and considering what happened in 2020, I have no regrets whatsoever), so I do totally love a hipstery Christmas market, and since the delivery options are pretty poor where I live (nearly all chain restaurants except for a handful of Indian places and a falafel/hummus bar that is delicious but is only open until 4, so I have to be in the mood for a really late lunch or early dinner to eat it. Not gonna lie, I do love the occasional Domino’s (but only in the UK – the American version is gross), but not a fan of fast food or chains otherwise) I was thrilled just to eat some nice food that I didn’t have to cook myself. And the stalls we tried were actually surprisingly high quality. The chip “shack” had literally the best cheesy chips I’ve eaten in the twelve years I’ve lived in the UK – the guy even blowtorched the cheese on top so it got all gooey and delicious – and the waffle topped with peanut butter cremeux, banana, chocolate sauce, and honeycomb crumble that I had from Utter Waffle was amazing (and this is coming from a waffle purist who usually just likes syrup) and gluten free to boot (not that I care, because I love gluten, but it made the tastiness of the waffle even more impressive), so I was excitedly messaging my gf friend who lives in Kew whilst I was eating it and telling her she had to go there. I also may have had two hot chocolates, because fuck it, I was treating myself.

  

And the lights were pretty great too, though I confess I was more distracted by the food for some of the time. I especially loved the tree shown above left, the animal sculptures, and the dandelion pod things that were suspended over our heads. I’m team coloured lights all the way (white lights are just so boring), so I was glad the installations were mostly pretty colourful and the white lights were at least in interesting shapes. There was Christmas music piped in throughout, and a final large display projected on the fountains in front of one of the glasshouses, which was particularly cool but fairly crowded, so we didn’t hang around for long. Kew had made an attempt to accommodate this by clearing a large standing space in front of the fountains, but people gonna be jerks if given any opportunity, so they did still pack themselves in, albeit not as tightly as they would have done in pre-Covid times. I would imagine the whole thing was much less crowded than it would have been before Covid, and probably so much the better for it, as we could explore with ease, and staff members at least kept people moving along on the pathways.

 

I actually really loved Christmas at Kew, perhaps partly because it was the only Christmas activity I got to do this year, but I would definitely go back in a “normal” year too to check it out again (if such a thing as a normal year exists anymore). And it turned out to be the only activity we got to do at all for who knows how long, because whilst we were there, my friend who I messaged about the waffles messaged me back and said that it looked like they were about to announce another lockdown, which happened as we were on our way back home (luckily, the trains were super empty that day, and we were the only people in our carriage), so I guess Kew rescheduled our visit for the perfect time, as we wouldn’t have been able to go if it was even a day later. 1 in 30 people in London with Covid is a pretty terrifying figure, so I understand why it had to be done, but I am still happy we got to squeeze Christmas at Kew in first, because it was a much needed treat! 4/5.

  

See you again at some point in February, and really hope things have improved a bit by then, though I’m not counting on it!

 

Cobham, Surrey: Painshill Park

This post is slightly bittersweet for me to write, because if we had gotten married on 28th November as planned (our 12th anniversary), we would have also gone to Painshill Park on the 7th November for a pre-wedding photo shoot, and I was super excited to bust out my witch hat and take a bunch of fun Halloweeny pictures with all the foliage. But the reality is that lockdown happened, we had to move our wedding to the 4th of November (with only two days’ notice) so it didn’t get cancelled, and even though we technically could have still gone ahead with the Painshill photo shoot, it seemed a bit redundant to do a pre-wedding shoot after we were already married, not to mention the fact that we had just paid a photographer to photograph our wedding, and couldn’t really afford two photo shoots in the same week. Don’t get me wrong, I do really like most of the photos we ended up with, but a lot of the poses weren’t ones that I would have necessarily chosen, and it makes me a bit sad to look at these photos of Painshill and think what we could have done there. Oh well, I guess there’s nothing stopping us from doing it next autumn if we really want to, but it won’t be quite the same.

 

But I digress. This was actually the second time we’d been to Painshill Park, as it is quite close to us by car. The first time was about eight or nine years ago when Marcus dragged me there in the middle of the winter to get some fresh air, and I was not a happy camper. It was so long ago that I hadn’t even started blogging yet, which is why I never posted about it. But this visit was so much better, coming as it did on a warm day back in September, except for a bit of confusion on arrival.

  

Painshill’s website said that due to Covid, pre-booking was required unless you were a member, or had a Gardener’s World or Historic Houses card, or National Art Pass. Straightforward enough, except for when you went to the booking section of the website, it didn’t mention National Art Pass at all and said you had to pre-book unless you were a member or had one of the other two cards. We decided to take our chances and just turn up, but were even more uncertain when the signs in the carpark also failed to mention Art Pass. And when we reached the entrance and tried to explain that we hadn’t pre-booked because we had Art Pass, the woman standing there had no clue what we were talking about. Fortunately, another staff member overheard and swooped in to save the day, so we were able to buy tickets on the spot (£9 normally, Art Pass gets you a 25% discount). They seemed to have remedied this error on their website, so hopefully other visitors with Art Pass won’t have the same issue (the reason we didn’t pre-book just to be on the safe side was because they didn’t offer discounted tickets online). And since they’re a park, they remained open to the public during lockdown.

  

I don’t think we had even walked the entire length of the park (probably due to my crankiness about the cold) when we visited years ago, because whilst I remembered some follies, I didn’t recall quite this many! Painshill Park was built between 1738 and 1773 by Charles Hamilton, the 14th child of an earl who clearly had lots of money to blow. The garden was inspired by his trips to Italy, and his goal was to create a “living painting” through landscaping and the creation of various follies. One would assume there was originally a manor house of some sort as well, but if there was, it’s not there now. Some of the original follies have disappeared too, but Painshill is gradually restoring them, which is probably why I don’t remember quite so many on our first visit, because some of them weren’t actually there then!

 

Be prepared for a lot of walking (they offered us a golf cart rental when I booked the photo shoot, which I probably would have taken them up on just to not have to hike in shiny silver heels), but you will be rewarded by discovering grand vistas and delightful follies at every turn, including a Turkish tent, Temple of Bacchus (this was only rebuilt recently), mausoleum, gothic temple, and more! My personal favourite thing is the Crystal Grotto, because I love a grotto; unfortunately, due to Covid, we weren’t allowed to go inside (nor could we climb the tower at the other end of the property), but I still enjoyed walking around the outside.

 

We also enjoyed discovering the hermit hut hidden in the woods, which we missed on our first visit (in the weird Georgian tradition popular in grand estates, Charles Hamilton tried to hire someone to live as a hermit in the hut and sit in quiet contemplation to add to the ambience for his visitors, but the hermit was apparently found in the local pub shortly after being hired, which put an end to the idea of a live-in hermit pretty quickly. However, assuming you could hook up some electricity, plumbing, and a supply of books, I think I’d be fine with holing up there for a while in the summer months, especially if I could visit the cafe for cake), and the waterwheel. Painshill is right next to a motorway, so you will be distracted by the roar of traffic if you’re at the outer limits of the property, but it’s so big that you can easily pretend to be in bucolic countryside for most of it, especially when you’re by the lake that runs alongside most of the property.

 

I have to confess that though I was of course keen on the idea of getting photos at Painshill because of all the follies and lovely fall foliage (I mean, I assume it has lovely foliage judging from some of the photos on their website, but I don’t actually know because it was still pretty summery when we were there), the thing that completely sold me was the cafe. We stopped to have a tea and cake after all that walking, and I selected the jaffa cake cake (not a typo). The woman working there immediately praised my choice, and I can see why. It was similar to the biscuit (or is it a cake?) but so much better, with a soft orange sponge, orange curd, and a dark chocolate glaze. I wanted more, and I thought if we had photos there, I could easily sneak in another piece (or two!).

 

It’s rare I enjoy a walk, but clearly follies (and nice weather and cake!) are the key, because I had a very nice time indeed on this visit. I’d definitely recommend if you fancy a walk and some cake, and I still think it would be a fab place for a photo shoot. 4/5.

Horsham, Sussex: Leonardslee Gardens

You will notice, via my posts over the coming weeks, that I have finally started to cautiously partake in some activities that I wouldn’t have considered even a month or so ago, such as visiting museums. However, I’m going to ease you (and myself) in with somewhere that was mainly gardens with a bit of museum, Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens, in West Sussex. As I mentioned in my last post, we recently rented a car for a week, and I knew I wanted to do something other than just sitting at home on my birthday, preferably something that featured animals in some capacity, so when I heard that Leonardslee had both wallabies AND a dolls’ house museum, I was there!

  

Since it was meant to rain that afternoon, we aimed to get there earlyish, so after a lovely birthday breakfast of pain au chocolat and hazelnut cinnamon buns from our local(ish) Swiss bakery, we headed out. Admission to the gardens is £12.50, and although they do encourage pre-booking to limit social contact, it’s not obligatory, presumably because the gardens are large, so they are more easily to accommodate people than a smaller location such as a museum would be able to. You do have to pass through the admissions desk and show your tickets even if you have pre-booked, so we ended up just paying when we arrived, since a contactless payment wasn’t any more contact than showing someone our booking on a phone would have been. Masks are required in the gift shop, though not in the gardens themselves, and I didn’t see anyone wearing them outside, but the gardens were empty enough that we didn’t have any trouble social distancing.

 

Leonardslee has both free range wallabies that we never ended up encountering, which were originally introduced to the gardens in 1889, and a separate enclosure for mothers and joeys, and the enclosure wallabies are fed every day at noon, which is right about when we arrived, so we headed directly there. I’m not sure exactly what their food is (some kind of grain, by the looks of it), but they didn’t seem super keen, or were maybe just a bit scared by the people outside the enclosure, as some of them hung back for quite a while, except for this one large white wallaby that seemed like kind of a jerk. She hopped to every bowl of food, pushing other wallabies out of the way to get in there, even though there was more than enough food to go around. Wallabies breed in January and February, and only have a 29 day gestation period, so the joeys were already pretty large by the time we saw them, but they were still cute. I love Australian marsupials, though I think wombats are still my favourite!

 

After we’d had our fill of the enclosure wallabies, we headed off to try to find some free range ones. However, we quickly had to put the kibosh on that idea when we found ourselves trapped behind a group of very, very slow moving people on a narrow trail. In the before times, we would have just gone around them, but in Covid times, there wasn’t enough space to do so safely, so after following them for a bit like Mr. Bean when he gets stuck behind the elderly people on the hotel staircase, I got too impatient to continue, so we turned around and took a different trail that led us to the lakes. These were quite picturesque, as I’m sure you can tell, but there wasn’t much to do other than walk around them, and as it was my birthday, I made the executive decision that I couldn’t be bothered to take the trail that led to the deer park (since I can see millions of deer in Richmond Park any time I want, and I don’t even particularly like them, as they seem scarily aggressive during rutting season. I don’t even feel like it’s safe for people to walk amongst them when they’re having their antler fights, but clearly the Queen doesn’t care as long as she gets her venison), so we headed back to the centre of the estate again.

 

And this is where I found the dolls’ house museum, which was easily the best part of Leonardslee. It was created by a lady named Helen Holland in 1998, and it was amazing. I love miniature things and dolls’ houses so much, and this was a whole village! It filled an entire room, with a mansion and row of shops right in the middle. I was instantly captivated when I walked in the door and saw the miniature churchyard with adorable tiny graves (even an open grave!), but honestly there was so many highlights.

 

I could fill up the rest of this post with pictures of all the different rooms and buildings, but I guess I’ll spare those of you who aren’t as enamoured with this stuff as I am (though seriously, why not?). Helen clearly had a sense of humour, as there were a number of cheeky touches, like a dog stealing sausages, a man obliviously carrying on with his bath whilst a repairman fixed the toilet, a poor little boy in a dunce cap standing in the corner of the schoolroom, and a couple literally “rolling in the hay” in the hayloft of the barn.

 

There were even moving parts (though not on the hayloft couple, I hasten to add)! There was a tiny lift that went up and down with a woman riding in it, a maid dusting, and a butcher’s arm chopping meat. The dolls’ house was in an indoor area, but it was only us and one other woman who was on the opposite side of the exhibition when we came in, and we availed ourselves of the bottles of hand sanitizer that had been placed at the entrance and exit, so it felt OK being indoors with a stranger and helped give me the confidence to start visiting museums again later that week.

 

I probably could have spent most of the day in the dolls’ house museum, but a family came in as we were near the end, and I could tell the children were going to be running all around, so it hastened my departure somewhat. Leonardslee describes itself as the “Finest Woodland Gardens in England”, and there were still a few gardens we hadn’t seen, so we headed to those next. The rock garden was memorable mainly for the lion sculpture hidden in it, though it does look lovely in the pictures taken in the spring when more flowers are in bloom.

 

We also visited the oldest garden on the estate (not sure exactly how old it was, but most of the estate seemed to have been designed in the 1880s-90s, when Leonardslee was owned by the naturalist Sir Edmund Loder). It was described as “magical” and we did find a few fairy doors hidden around, but it was a bit smaller than we were expecting. I liked the sequoias and the massive Douglas fir though!

 

I also loved the tree fountain in front of the old manor house, which is now a restaurant amusingly named “Restaurant Interlude” that I think is serving afternoon tea again, but I knew I had ice cream cake waiting for me at home, besides still not being super keen to actually have a lengthy meal in a restaurant, so we didn’t investigate further. We did, however, visit the enclosure wallabies again before we left, where we very clearly heard a rooster crowing, so of course I had to wander around until we found the chickens, which were right at the end of the estate. The roosters were named Rodney, Idris, and Wesley, but I’m not sure which was which (we weren’t told the names of the hens, which is typical. Only the males were worthy of names, apparently).

 

By this point it was starting to rain a bit, and I was ready to go home and open some presents anyway, so we decided to head off (and made it just in time, as it started really pissing it down when we got in the car). It wasn’t the sort of place I would have normally visited, given the £12.50 admission fee just for gardens, but given the current circumstances, and how few places I had been in the past six months, I actually thought it was alright. I loved the dolls’ house museum and the wallabies, and the gardens themselves were undeniably attractive; I’m just always a bit meh on gardens. I prefer a stately home and gardens where you can actually go inside the house, which is probably why Leonardslee hadn’t been on my radar previously. 3/5, mainly just based on my love for the dolls’ village!

 

Columbus, OH: Franklin Park Conservatory

As I’ve said before, I like to try to make it down to Columbus whenever I’m in Ohio, and my last trip home over Christmas was no exception. Usually I just go with my brother and/or Marcus, but this time, my mom and aunt wanted to come too, so all five of us crammed into a car for the two hour drive south. My mother really wanted to see a Chinese lantern festival that was taking place there in the evening (more on that in the next post), but that left the day open. Knowing that certain members of our party had a limited tolerance for most museums (namely, my brother), I suggested that after stopping at the North Market for an early lunch (I got PB&J waffles!), we could head over to Franklin Park Conservatory to see their Christmas decorations since none of us had never been there, and most importantly, unlike many other botanical gardens, including the one in Cleveland, which feature live butterflies year round, Franklin Park only has them in the spring, so I would be perfectly safe visiting in winter (I can’t say that my lepidopterophobia limits my activities too much, otherwise I probably would have tried to get it treated, but botanical gardens can admittedly be a problem. I don’t get it – even if you like butterflies, do you really want hundreds of them flapping all over your body?! Ick!).

  

I realise that trying to look at Christmas decorations, which of course included lights, during the day wasn’t the brightest idea (ha!), but if we were going to see the lantern festival in the evening, visiting the conservatory at midday was the only way we’d be able to get back home at a decent hour (and sorry for doing a Christmassy post after Christmas, but I didn’t have time to write this post until after I got back to London). I also assumed it would be much less crowded in the daytime, and though I don’t know how crowded it gets at night, it certainly wasn’t too bad during the day. Admission to the conservatory was $14 each, which is another reason why I haven’t been to many botanical gardens – they’re expensive!

  

The first thing we went to look at was the small art gallery, which housed equally tiny pieces of art. My favourite thing was undoubtedly the very derpy middle chipmunk (though I also love the fat horse above the previous paragraph. Actually, a lot of the stuff in here was pretty great), and I’m only just now noticing that I could have bought him for $40! Life is full of regrets.

  

There was also a display of gingerbread houses of widely varying degrees of quality (to be fair, some were done by professionals, and others by children) which were evidently part of a competition (though voting had ended by the time of our visit). They were all charming though; in fact, the amateur versions were probably more charming than the polished professional displays, and certainly looked more edible (though I’m not entirely sure edibleness is the end goal of a gingerbread house. I’ve never actually built one out of gingerbread, just the crappy graham cracker kind which I could never get to stand up straight and thus ate pretty much immediately).

  

Franklin Park Conservatory also had (has?) Dale Chihuly as an artist in residence, so there was a special display of his pieces, as well as examples of his glass work throughout the gardens (including one piece that looked unfortunately like a collection of very fragile sex toys). I am not the biggest Chihuly fan, mainly because my alma mater wasted like a million dollars on a stupid giant rock candy sculpture that he made, and I guess I’m still not keen, but I did like how the colours popped because of the way the display was lit, especially the collection of vases that are identical to the one that Frasier had in his apartment to replace the frog thing by the fireplace (I’ve watched far too much Frasier, especially considering that I hate Kelsey Grammer because of his awful political beliefs. I do really like Martin and Niles though, so I watch it for them. And Eddie).

  

Anyway, onto the gardens themselves. They extended out from the central building in two separate wings, which was fine, except for it meant that you had to walk through everything twice to get back to the other side. The first garden we entered was meant to be Himalayan, and it was cold because they leave the windows open even in winter! None of us lingered here – not with nice warm deserts and rain forest awaiting us!

  

I felt quite bad for the poor macaws in a cage in one of the gardens, though apparently they get to stretch their wings in the garden when the conservatory is closed.  It still is a long time for a couple of birds that big to be stuck in a cage that small though, and they seemed kind of agitated as the one kept squawking impressively loudly.

 

My favourite garden was one of the tropical ones, because it had a look out point you could climb up to and survey the rest of the garden, and also a koi pond full of grossly overfed koi (there were signs warning people not to throw anything in the water, because the fish will eat it, and I suspect some visitors have not been obeying the sign). And a nice cold waterfall, which I definitely stuck my hand into, because it was hot in there (especially since we were bundled up for winter)!

  

After passing through a very noisy interactive area for children (with miniature versions of some of the gardens!), we emerged into the tranquility of the Palm House, which was lovely. I reckon I’d have a palm house if I had a giant yard, and you know, loads of money. That way, I could sort of be outside, but keep all the butterflies and other horrible bugs away.

 

The last garden we passed through was the one with the most elaborate Christmas decorations, including a neat model railroad with all sorts of fairy buildings around it, some retro silver trees, and some trees made of poinsettias. It could have been because we visited during the day, and because the Christmas display is specifically called “Gardens Aglow,” which would seem to indicate that most of the event takes place at night, but other than this section, I only noticed a handful of Christmas decorations in the actual gardens, which was a little disappointing. I feel like they could have made more use of ornaments and things for a display that would work during the day as well.

  

I’m not the biggest fan of gardens generally (the exhibition of tiny art and the gingerbread houses were my favourite parts of the conservatory), and I definitely think the admission fee was super steep for what we got, but I didn’t pay for it (my aunt treated us all), so I can’t complain too much. It was perfectly pleasant, I just think I was expecting more (I am grateful there were no butterflies though, don’t get me wrong!).  Marcus snapped this photo of me and my brother which really captures how over this place we were early on, when everyone else was still busy looking around, and I think it encapsulates my feelings better than words could. I probably wouldn’t return, but I guess it was nice to see it once. 2.5/5.

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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