The most English place in the world – Royal Botanic Gardens, United Kingdom

Property 1084 – Royal Botanic Gardens, United Kingdom

A short westbound ride on the overground from central London will place the visitor in the vicinity of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. This is a large park containing a number of plant conservatories and botanical research facilities from various periods.  It was added to the World Heritage list due to the contribution to botany from researchers at the site, but I feel that this is slightly missing the point.

The Kew Gardens are a monument to all that is most English. Is there anything more quintessentially English than the concept of pottering around in the garden? Digging something up, planting something, fretting about some kind of insect – it’s more English than tea. And what are the Royal Botanic Gardens other than this horticultural instinct writ large?

DSC_0279This is not to downplay Kew’s contribution to botany. That other great English stereotype, the batty eccentric aristocrat, had a major part to play here. During the great age of Victorian empire-building, these horticulture nerds sent samples of plants from all over the world back to Kew. There they were propagated, and then often re-exported to other realms of the empire. This explains why Nepalese rhododendrons thrive in parts of Australia and why Australian Eucalypts are considered to be a pest in South Africa.

My knowledge of non-food plants is rather limited, so my visit to the Kew Gardens tended to focus on the buildings there. The Palm House is the most prominent and is often featured on publicity stills of the sites. It has an overwrought Victorian look about it and is constructed largely of cast iron and gigantic panes of tinted glass.  It’s an echo of the Crystal Palace which was constructed in London for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and was later destroyed by fire. 

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The interior houses tropical plants and is fantastically verdant. It couldn’t be more Victorian – massive iron struts and glass, with exotic plants from the furthest reaches of the Empire and the hint of a tiger.  I felt like I needed a pith helmet to even enter the place. This dramatic structure is also the half-way point of some of Britain’s attempts to secure the biological needs of the Empire, in particular the transplantation of rubber trees from South America to India via Kew.

The Princess of Wales conservatory is far less exotic by comparison. Designed to be as energy-efficient as possible it has a number of cunningly designed windows and sealed passageways between different microclimates.  I found the desert-dwelling cacti to be the most interesting, especially since exquisite care has clearly been taken to arrange them in a visually pleasing way. It feels modern and scientific, but every so slightly eccentric, a little like an early 1980s episode of Doctor Who.

Despite its name the Orangerie no longer houses citrus plants, and is instead a slightly overpriced cafe.  However if you take your cup of tea to the lawn outside, you can find a transplanted Wollemi Pine, the recently rediscovered Australian conifer which was presumed to have died out in the Cretaceous period. Indeed, it does appear to be the kind of tree that dinosaurs would be excited to eat.

DSC_0288The Gardens also contain a number of historical or ornamental structures which don’t contain plants.  The standout among these is clearly the Kew Palace, apparently still an official royal residence, despite being stuck within a park.  It was first purchased by George III and is made out of bricks which are a lurid shade of orange. The palace is a distinctly odd building, resembling a giant toy or an Amsterdam townhouse which has been teleported to England.

For the visitor to London without much of an interest in plants, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to give Kew a miss. But if you’re interested in British culture, this is in many ways a perfect distillation. The British Empire may be long gone, but it’s likely that its echoes live on in the gardens and parks of your home.

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