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Discover Kew’s Historic Botanical Gardens and Royal Palaces
Growing up in West London, the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew has long been one of my favourite haunts. Would it be indiscreet to recall the old turnstiles into which visitors deposited tuppence for entry?! Perhaps…
In any case, the beautiful gardens and a plethora of rare plants and flowers set across 326 acres of land are truly breathtaking. But apart from the stunning flora, there’s so much more to explore at Kew Gardens.
I was invited along to celebrate its 260th anniversary and find out more about its unique royal heritage – my tour included a visit to picturesque Kew Palace, the Palace Kitchens and Great Pagoda, the Tropical Nursery and the monumental Temperate House – an original Victorian glasshouse which presently has a spectacular display of glass sculptures by iconic artist Dale Chihuly.
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Kew Palace, Kew Gardens.
This was my first visit to Kew Palace, the smallest of all the royal palaces, nestled in the Royal Botanic Gardens – and what struck me immediately was the intimacy and domesticity of this royal abode. It feels like a genuine family home, beautifully restored, simple and elegant. Originally built as a fashionable mansion for wealthy London silk merchant Samuel Fortrey in 1631, it later became home to George II (r 1727-60) and Queen Caroline who considered it the perfect lodging for their three eldest daughters. After them, several generations of Georgian royalty used Kew and nearby Richmond Lodge as a weekend retreat from their intensely public itinerary in town.
When George became King, aged 22, he brought Charlotte over from Germany – at the tender age of 17 – and having never before met, they married and went on to have a successful, happy marriage – and an incredible 15 (!) children – spending many blissful summers together at Kew until their lives were changed and saddened by the King’s devastating mental illness.
It is thought that Charlotte brought her King here for rest and recuperation during this time. George was a cultured family man, but from 1788 he endured a period of severe, debilitating illness. He was treated at Kew but, eventually considered incurable, went on to live in isolation at Windsor. Nonetheless, Charlotte remained steadfast and loyal to her husband, later dying herself at Kew Palace in 1818.
The palace opened its doors in April 2019 to the public for the summer months (open until the end of September). This small, private place is steeped in history – and with a fascinating story to tell, it’s well worth a visit.
The Georgian Royal Kitchens
Just a stone’s throw from the palace the Royal Kitchens are kept in immaculate order, wonderfully preserved since they were last used in royal service in 1818, after the death of Queen Charlotte. These vast, atmospheric kitchens conjure up a vivid picture of the royal household in the 1730s. They were once full with about 30 staff who prepared food for Frederick, Prince of Wales (George III’s father), and of course, King George III himself. The Royal Family used the kitchens for almost eighty years whenever they were in residence in Kew.
Outside there’s a pretty kitchen garden whose neat vegetable beds are used by the team of chefs to prepare authentic dishes in the Royal Kitchens and provide cookery demonstrations of historic dishes and classes on weekends.
We met with the Royal Chef, Mark, who had prepared for us ‘An Excellent Cake’ – a traditional rich fruit cake with a hint of rose water, washed down with a fiery punch made of brandy, rum arak, lemon and orange zest, and palm body (from coconut), quite delicious, I must say, and potent!
Climbing The Great Pagoda at Kew Gardens.
The Great Pagoda rises regally above the trees of Kew’s green and pleasant land!
After languishing in disrepair for several decades the pagoda has undergone a complete refurbishment; now lovingly returned to its 18th-century splendour it is open once again to the public as a permanent exhibition.
This imposing, beautiful tower was completed in 1762 as a gift for Princess Augusta, the founder of the Gardens. It was one of several Chinese buildings designed for Kew by Sir William Chambers, who had been influenced by his travels and study of East Asian architecture. The structure is built in octagonal sections, each section with its own angled roof. Originally the roofs were elaborately tiled and the pagoda was brightly coloured; and each corner of every roof was adorned with a large golden dragon – 80 dragons in all! Unfortunately, the beasts were carved of wood, and time took its toll. They were permanently removed in 1784 for repair works, never to return…until now, restored to their original glory!
I was thrilled to climb 253 steps to the top, for the chance to marvel at the spectacular views across London. The pagoda is elegant and simply furnished, with beautiful hand-carved benches and a subtle colour palette. You can learn all about why it was built and how the royal family used this unique building in the 18th century. Apparently, King George took Lord North all the way to the top – only to give him a royal dressing down.
For the first time in living memory, visitors can come and explore the Great Pagoda, opened just a year ago by Prince Charles. It’s well worth the visit – and do, if you can, climb to all the way to the top.
The Tropical Nursery – a private tour at Kew.
The Tropical Nursery is not generally open to the public, but we were lucky enough to be given a tour by expert Botanical Horticulturalist, Carlos Magdalena, who talked passionately about the fascinating work done there. Both internal and external scientists come here for research, and its main purposes are education, display, conservation and science.
Of the 21 different climate zones, 10,000 species of plants (some of which are the last specimens in the world, including the rarest of orchids), and the most splendid collection of cactus I have ever seen, I was most tickled by the huge prickly ‘cushion’ which in Spanish is better know as the ‘Mother in Law Seat’! Here too were giant water lilies, big enough to lie on, and also the smallest ones in the world…
The Temperate House at Kew Gardens.
Following a major five-year £41m renovation, the iconic Temperate House finally re-opened in 2018 to showcase the splendours of the world’s temperate zones. The largest Victorian glasshouse in the world (only the Crystal Palace was bigger) it is nothing short of magnificent and currently houses an exhibition of dramatic glass sculptures by renowned artist Dale Chihuly, which nestle sympathetically, like strange creatures amongst the greenery.
The Temperate House tells the story of how Kew and partners all around the world are working to rescue plants that are rare or already extinct in the wild.
As temperate plants, all the species contained within its glass walls need to conditions above 10oC to survive. Despite being the foundation of much life on Earth, many of these plants are under threat.
Since 1863 the Temperate House has been home to some of the world’s rarest and most endangered plants, comprising some 1,500 species from temperate regions around the globe – the Mediterranean, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, South and Central America, Asia, and island floras.
It’s a triumph of Victorian engineering – and the perfect place for young and not-so-young to while away the hours discovering a little more about our natural world. Spending time here amongst so many beautiful plants really inspired me and made me reflect on nature’s bounty – and the care we owe this fantastic, unique world that is our home.
Kew the Music – Summer Music Festival.
To round off our wonderful tour we celebrated together in the Palace gardens with glasses of fizz and delicate sandwiches, before joining the crowds as they arrived picnic baskets in hand to enjoy an evening of entertainment ‘al-fresco’ at Kew Music Summer Festival. Kew the Music runs for just a week in July and is hotly anticipated each year as one of London’s hottest picnic concert series.
Shadows lengthened on green grass beneath a deep blue sky, blankets were spread, picnics laid out and corks popped, with a happy crowd buzzing in anticipation and the midsummer vibes, Kew Gardens style…
Craig David didn’t fail to get the crowd going with his natural charm, silky vocal skills and confident hip hop flow. He played s selection of old and new material along with his new single, which showcased on the popular show of the moment Love Island this summer ‘When You Know What Love Is’.
A perfect end to my day at Kew, I’m bookmarking the Festival website now so I can make sure I don’t miss out next year.
Visiting Kew – Useful Information.
It’s cheaper to buy tickets for Kew Gardens online before you travel. You can book on the Kew website. Tickets start at £16.50 for adults and £4.50 for children.
Kew Richmond, London, TW9 3AE
OPEN AT 10AM Closing times vary
Historic Royal Palaces
Kew Palace & The Royal Kitchens
10:30–17:30 (Last admission – 17:00)
Queen Charlotte’s Cottage
Weekends and summer Bank Holidays 11:00–16:00 (Last admission – 15:50)
The Great Pagoda
10:30-17:30 (Last admission: 17:00)
Kew Gardens are around half an hour from Central London by tube or overground rail. You can also reach the gardens by bus or even by river, travelling along the Thames from Central London or from Hampton Court! There is very limited parking around the gardens. There are special concessions for disabled visitors and limited free blue badge parking in the Kew Gardens Car Park. There are also mobility scooters and wheelchairs to borrow.
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