The big trip. For years, it felt like it would always be one of those far-off dreams that would never actually happen. Now, it’s literally right around the corner, and our days in London are starting to feel rather numbered. Obviously, we’re trying to save our pennies in every way we can, but we recently had the opportunity to spend the day at Kew Gardens, and I’m so glad we managed to fit this in before we head off on our upcoming adventure.
My lovely friend Laurie (a fellow Capetonian and firm friend since our university days) is a member at Kew Gardens, and she very kindly offered us free tickets to join her for the day.
On the London Underground map, Kew Gardens, with its location on the far end of the District line, may look like a fairly out-of-the-way destination but, as you’ll soon see, the rewards far outweigh the journey time.
Firstly (and impressively), Kew Gardens is one of London’s four World Heritage Sites. Established in 1840 and home to over 30,000 species of plantlife, it’s considered to be one of the most important botanic gardens in the world. The gardens are set within 120 hectares of land and are composed of various sections and features. There’s plenty to see and do, and you’ll need to set aside a decent amount of time if you want to cover a lot of ground! Tickets cost £15 (although these are cheaper online); if you’re planning on visiting a few times in a year, it may well be worth checking out membership options.
Here are some of my favourite finds from our day in Kew Gardens.
Introducing The Hive
This is one of the latest additions to Kew Gardens and was a major driving factor behind our visit. Thanks to Instagram and The Hive’s photo-ready appearance, we had all seen the structure before. Seeing it in person, however, is an entirely different experience.
The Hive was originally designed by artist Wolfgang Buttress for the UK Pavilion at the 2015 Milan Expo; from June 2016 until November 2017, The Hive will be residing in Kew Gardens. As we followed the signs and approached The Hive’s entrance, we spotted the vast metallic structure. I could instantly see why this artwork is called The Hive, with the shape dotted with honeycomb-like pockets. As the name suggests, The Hive attempts to capture the story of the honeybee.
And this isn’t some art installation to admire from afar. The best thing about The Hive is that it’s interactive. On the lower level, there are features that ignite the senses (I won’t give anything away here) as well as information on the honeybee and its role in the environment. On the upper level, accessed by a bridge, other senses will be engaged. And, with the structure culminating in a finely woven dome with a window on the passing clouds above, I guarantee you’ll end up taking dozens of photos in this space.
The aluminium pieces capture different amounts of light, so I’ve heard that The Hive looks different depending on what time of day you visit. Whenever you do go, it’s bound to look otherworldly in the most spectacular way.
A different kind of travel at the greenhouses
I grew up within easy access to a botanic garden. There were many reasons why I would pester my parents to take us there, but the main one relates to travel. It may be a little different to the travel that involves stepping on a plane, but, to me, a botanic garden allows you to catch glimpses of other parts of the world without the hefty flight fare. As a teenager, I’d wander through sections divided by geographical location, reading that the plants all around me were common in destination X or Y. Even though I wasn’t physically transported anywhere, I could easily imagine myself being elsewhere, an elsewhere that had plants like these as a backdrop.
Kew Gardens is home to several greenhouses, some of which were built back in the 1800s. These contain all manner of greenery and flowers. Thanks to the controlled environments within, plantlife found in all sorts of climates around the world can thrive here too, including rare species. In one greenhouse, we chanced upon a pool filled with gigantic lily pads. In another, we were admiring a tropical display when we spotted an entirely unexpected feature, an iguana chilling on top of a waterfall. We saw delicate orchids and learned more about carnivorous plants, which get their nutrients from unfortunate insects caught in their clever traps.
In the Princess of Wales Conservatory, I was delighted to see a familiar vegetation type. Fynbos is common in the Western Cape, the part of South Africa where I grew up. It’s officially the longest time I’ve been away from my first home, so I loved seeing the plants that were a constant visual accompaniment to the hikes I took with my Dad, or the family visits we used to take to the beach.
If you love greenhouses as much as I do, then you’ll thoroughly enjoy visiting the ones at Kew Gardens. Unfortunately, the colossal Temperate House is undergoing renovations until 2018, but there are plenty of other greenhouses to visit within the gardens. Just a word of warning: if you happen to visit on a hot day like we did, the greenhouse interiors are even warmer than whatever’s happening outside!
Views from up high at the Treetop Walkway
One of the very first things I do when I get to a new travel destination is to find the highest vantage point. After all, there’s no better way to grasp the full scale of a city or place than taking in the views from up high. At Kew Gardens, you can embrace the same concept by paying a visit to the Treetop Walkway.
Accessed by lift or stairs, the Treetop Walkway reaches a height of 18 metres. It was designed by the same architects behind the London Eye and the 200-metre walkway provides an excellent platform from which to take in the full expanse of Kew Gardens below. You’re basically walking among tree canopies, the species of which include oak and chestnut, and you’ll be treated to 360-degree views of the surroundings.
As we made our way along the circular loop, we found information boards that shared facts and figures about trees, like how long they can live for and how new trees come to life. Granted, it may be a little terrifying for anyone scared of heights, as the structure does sway a fair bit depending on how busy the walkway is. If you can put that aside, then definitely do make your way up here – it’s only from atop the walkway that you can appreciate just how large Kew Gardens really is.
A tranquil space in the Japanese Garden
Out of all of the places we’re going to on our upcoming trip, Japan is one of the countries I’m most excited to experience. I can’t wait to visit beautiful temple complexes, relax in gorgeous gardens and, of course, eat my weight in sushi and other Japanese cuisine. Luckily, in Kew Gardens, you can find a physical pocket of Japan.
The Japanese Garden was a highlight of our visit because, in an obvious sense, it’s simply stunning. With pretty flowers and shrubs arranged around a perfectly raked stone garden, this spot also feels extremely peaceful. They were absent on our visit, but apparently there are resident peacocks who frequent the garden (and who like to ignore the ‘do not walk on the stones’ signs).
To add an extra touch of authenticity, you can see a Japanese karamon – or gateway – overlooking the garden. It was built for the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910 and found its permanent home in Kew Gardens a year later. It’s a slightly smaller than lifesize replica of the karamon found in Kyoto’s Nishi Hongan-ji temple; I’ll keep my eye out for the original when we get to this part of Japan in November! I do recommend taking a closer look at this gateway, as it’s covered with intricate wooden carvings and embellishments.
If you’ve brought a picnic along for your visit to Kew Gardens, this is a lovely spot in which to relax for a while.
See where your feet take you
Exploring with a map may guarantee that you’re ticking off Kew Gardens’ major attractions but I loved our more spontaneous approach. More often than not, we’d pick a direction and see what we could discover. Admittedly, we didn’t get to see some of the big sights by the end of our visit, but we did see a lot of other gems along the way.
Just a few steps away from the Japanese Garden, there’s the 50-metre-tall multi-storey Chinese Pagoda. It was built in 1762 and it sadly hasn’t always been lovingly cared for over the years. In fact, during World War Two, holes were created on all the floors so that the Pagoda could be used as a drop-testing site for model bombs! It’s currently undergoing renovations, with the re-opening set for 2017.
The Pagoda, however, was only one of several follies created for the gardens (if you’re keen on follies, consider taking a day trip out to Painshill Park). As a quick definition, follies are structures created for decorative purposes, and they were all the rage a few hundred years ago. Considering my love for all things Roman, my favourite Kew Gardens folly has to be a gateway designed to look like crumbling Roman ruins.
Spotting water from afar, our wandering led us to one of Kew’s more recent attractions. The Sackler Crossing Bridge (opened in 2006) is a photogenic spot, with its curved bridge allowing views of the lake on both sides. If your visit coincides with spring, you may just spot a large quantity of baby swans and geese as well. Apart from being another good viewpoint, the bridge is also practical, providing a shortcut between greenhouses and the art galleries.
While we planned on seeing the Japanese Garden, we found my other favourite garden area by complete chance. Behind the minuscule Alpine House, you can wander on pathways leading through a spectacular landscape garden. Complete with water features and vegetation divided according to geographical region, I’m so glad we stumbled upon this part of Kew.
We had a wonderful day exploring the many wonders of Kew Gardens this summer. And, since I live in South West London, I feel really silly for not venturing out here more often. We’ll definitely make a return visit on the other side of our adventure – I feel like there is still so much more to discover in Kew Gardens!
I’ll end this with a big thank you to Laurie for inviting Chris and I along for this amazing day out – and for being the best unofficial Kew Gardens tour guide we could’ve asked for!
Have you been to Kew Gardens? Or do you have a favourite botanic garden in your part of the world? Let me know in the comments below.
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