One of the finest times of the year to visit the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew is Autumn. Before the temperature drops sufficiently to denude the trees but reduces enough to change their colour. On Tuesday, although the leaves had only just begun to turn, it was beautiful. There were sculptural seed heads and grasses among late flowering perennials such as rudbeckia and asters amidst the borders beneath a clear blue sky (well, at least until clouds appeared at about two o’clock).
The famous Temperate House (opened in 1863) has been closed for some time to enable refurbishment and will not open again until May 2018, but Decimus Burton’s equally famous Palm House (1844) is still going strong, full, yesterday, of junior school parties wondering at the giant banana palms and betel trees. We wandered in at watering time and climbed the elaborate iron spiral staircase to the higher central walkway so as to claim some cooler air. But it was too sultry for us to stay for any but the most cursory of visits.
Not so the Princess of Wales Conservatory which commemorates Princess Augusta, founder of the Gardens, (not Diana, Princess of Wales, as many imagine). This has ten environments, from the driest desert to the steamy tropics. If one felt too sweaty in the wet, tropical section one could always nip next door into the cool temperate environment. This glasshouse is, in its way, as wonderful a construction as Burton’s Palm House with its ability to control ten different climates ( visitors should read the signs, however, as some of the environments include ‘rain’ at set times ).
One joy of re-visiting Kew is to reacquaint oneself with the older trees, the so-called Japanese Pagoda Tree which is actually from China and is shored up by a brick casing; the magnificent old weeping beech which, like some fabulous baobab has spawned a host of child trees within its massive dome and the Ginkgo, or maidenhair tree, which stands beside the equally feathery wisteria walk.
The Hive is a new attraction. An immersive sculpture by Wolfgang Buttress it is set in a wildflower meadow and one can stand beneath it looking up into it, or walk around the walkway on to the first level to go inside it. Made of aluminium it reproduces the architecture of a beehive and LED lights in the interstices of the metal pieces flicker on and off, linked to the activity of bees in a nearby beehive. An accelerometer within the beehive senses the vibrations of the bees and transmits them to the lights in the sculpture. It’s an interesting work, a remarkable piece of engineering, though I wonder if it justifies the, quite substantial, hype generated by the RBG.
Nonetheless Kew Gardens are worth a visit at any time of year. Entry for adults is £15.50, but one can stay all day ( indeed, were it allowed, several days, there is so much to see and enjoy ). Concessions are available. See the web-site for details. The nearest rail station is Kew Bridge, SW Trains from Waterloo (15 minutes), just over the river, though Richmond is the nearest tube ( District line and London Overground ) and it isn’t that much further to walk to. Local people are pleasant and helpful – thank you to the kind cyclist who stopped to help us when we were confused by two, apparently conflicting, signs and the generous man who goes every day to the Gardens for his breakfast who led us through the gates.