Set along the Thames, the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens are the largest collection of living plants in the world, not to mention one of the most historic, having been founded in the mid 1700s. Its 14,000 trees and exotic flower collections are interspersed with elegant domed temples, a striking 19th century glasshouse, a treetop walkway and hidden forest paths that weave around the lake.
It was Henry VIII who, in the 16th century, was crucial in making Kew a desirable place to be.
Following his victory over Richard III at Bosworth Field (the last significant battle of the Wars of the Roses), Henry Tudor Earl of Richmond became Henry VII and the first English monarch of the Tudor dynasty. He took over the royal residence of Richard III, and rebuilt it after a fire destroyed the mainly wooden palace in 1497. The manor of Sheen had recently been renamed as “Richmond” and the palace became Richmond Palace.
Henry VII moved his court there for the summer months and changed people’s perceptions of the area. Henry VIII liked to stay at Richmond Palace but grew jealous of Thomas Wolsey’s new residence at Hampton Court and at the start of Wolsey’s fall from power forced him to swap homes. Henry VIII reacquired the palace following the death of Wolsey and gave it to his fourth wife Ann of Cleeves as part of their divorce settlement. Both Mary I and Elizabeth I liked to spend time in Richmond Palace.
The presence of the court drew nobles and influential courtiers to the area, and the nearby village of Kew grew rapidly over the next 100 years. By the 17th century Kew’s place as a hub of power and political intrigue was firmly established.
For London, the early 18th century was a time for blossoming culture, with writers, artists and musicians being drawn to the capital for access to aristocratic patronage and a growing commercial market. Some of the aristocracy moved out of the teeming city and Kew became a popular enclave. The Royal Family used Kew Palace, purchased from a wealthy merchant, as their summer residence. Prince Frederick and Princess Augusta, parents of the future George III, started a garden around Kew Palace, adjacent to the Royal Park.
The first botanic garden at Kew was founded in 1759, when William Aiton was recruited from Chelsea Physic Garden to manage the small “Physick Garden” at Kew.
From the 18th to the early 19th century, the property was a place of retreat for the Royal Family. Internationally renowned landscape architects Charles Bridgeman, William Kent, William Chambers and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (appointed Master Gardener at Hampton Court by George III in 1764) re-modelled the earlier baroque gardens in the 18th century to make a pastoral landscape in the English style.
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was known as the father of landscape architecture. He was the creative force behind more than 170 of the UK’s most spectacular gardens, including Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, Blenheim Palace and Sheffield Park and Garden. Instead of using masonry and other obvious manmade touches in his designs, he focused on keeping landscapes as natural as possible, employing elements like rolling hills, stands of trees and serene lakes that appeared never to be touched by human hands. His gift was to develop gardens and landscapes that looked natural and in harmony with the surrounding countryside. He got his nickname from his ability to point out “great capabilities” in any landscape. Reportedly he refused to work in Ireland as he had not yet finished England. 2016 sees the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Shakespeare of English garden design, Lancelot Brown.
Kew Gardens became the centre for study of native and exotic plants for economic purposes with plant researchers bringing back species from around the world. It was to Kew that Joseph Banks brought all his botanical samples after traveling around the world with Captain Cook and it was Banks who helped establish Kew’s reputation for plant research.
Kew Gardens are also very large, covering 120 hectares, and cannot be fully appreciated in one day. In fact it would take around four days to properly explore the entire site! Little bears explored part of the gardens.
The Hive is a new feature of the gardens, an abstract construction from around 170,000 pieces of aluminium which catch the changing sunlight. There are 1,000 LED lights dotted around its core which glow and fade, while a unique soundtrack hums in response to the activity of real bees in a beehive behind the scenes at Kew. It is immersive, very impressive and really highlights how important bees are to life on earth.
The Hive is the design of UK based artist Wolfgang Buttress. It was originally created as the centrepiece of the UK Pavilion at the 2015 Milan Expo.
The Tree-Top Walkway is a feature that transports you to that special world only normally inhabited by birds and insects.
The Treetop Walkway stands in the Arboretum, between the Temperate House and the lake. It was designed by Marks Barfield Architects, who also designed the London Eye. The 18-metre high, 200-metre walkway enables visitors to walk around the crowns of lime, sweet chestnut and oak trees. Supported by rusted steel columns that blend in with the natural environment, it provides opportunities for inspecting birds, insects, lichen and fungi at close quarters, as well as seeing blossom emerging and seed pods bursting open in spring. The walkway’s structure is based on a Fibonacci numerical sequence, which is often present in nature’s growth patterns.
The Rock Garden displays a collection of Mediterranean plants, mountain plants and moisture-loving species from all over the world.
Kew dabbled in creating small rock features in the mid 19th century but only constructed a substantial rock garden in 1882. The decision to build the Rock Garden was hastened by a donation of 3,000 alpine plants, one of the largest collections in the country at the time.
Director William Thistleton-Dyer, wanting to avoid creating something ‘uncouth and obtrusive’, opted to design a 150-metre valley, akin to a Pyrenean mountain habitat. At its centre was a winding path, simulating a natural watercourse. It was fashioned from blocks of cheddar limestone, Bath oolite (also a type of limestone) and rocks salvaged from ruins of former buildings at Kew.
Experts consider Kew’s Palm House to be the most important surviving Victorian iron and glass structure in the world. It was designed by Decimus Burton and engineered by Richard Turner to accommodate the exotic palms being collected and introduced to Europe in early Victorian times. This pioneering project was the first time engineers used wrought iron to span such large widths without supporting columns. This technique was borrowed from the shipbuilding industry and from a distance the glasshouse resembles an upturned hull. The result is a vast, light, lofty space that can easily accommodate the crowns of large palms, while boasting 16,000 panes of glass and the amazing tropical palms.
In the middle of the pond is a statue of Hercules fighting Achelous in the guise of a snake, by Francois Joseph Bosio. The Queen gave the statue to the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in 1963. It originally stood on the East Terrace at Windsor Castle. This statue was acquired by King George IV in 1826.
Paolozzi’s sculpture, “A Maximis Ad Minima” is located at the southern end of the Princess of Wales Conservatory, in front of the Woodland Garden. The sculpture’s title means “From the Greatest to the Least”. Sir Eduardo Luigi Paolozzi was a Scottish sculptor and artist, widely considered to be one of the pioneers of pop art.
Little bears plan to visit the gardens again in springtime, when the Rhododendron, Magnolia and Cherry Blossoms are apparently breathtaking!