Twice, in summer once and now spring, and even allowing for seasonal change we’ve managed little more than a glimpse at what Kew offers. This time at least we saw grass where previously every lawn had been baked dry and appeared lifeless. There were buildings closed that we had visited before, but to compensate there was a small and exquisite – also vital – display of the Brazilian drawings and watercolours of Margaret Mee. It was inspiring to see that her legacy enables Brazilian botanical artists to study at Kew.
Before the gates opened we had time to walk around one of the most quintessential English village greens and admire aspects of the private Kew Green gardens that will be open for charity this Sunday (22 May).
Our first walk was around the exotic trees near the Orangery, where we found what must be the most exquisite summerhouse in the country – an ancient wisteria trained into a dome beneath a huge gingko biloba. If Coleridge hadn’t been near Porlock and taking opium he could easily have been sent into a trance imagining Kubla Khan’s stately pleasure dome at Kew.
As spell-binding in its different way is the Princess of Wales Conservatory. Previously we had been enthralled by its butterflies: too early this year but the varied plants from warm dry zones (though because there isn’t the day-night temperature variation they live with in the wild there is need to water them).
The temperature was rising outside as well as in so we were glad of fresh air through the woodland garden and a view across water before entering the Palm House. It is a wonder of engineering as well as natural display: huge tropical trees and ferns with relief from humid heat in the aquarium beneath. This seems an ingenious way of producing the warmth above ground and within the tropical tanks below.
As ever, the water lilies from the tropics are amazing; the rose garden was no more than a promise in May however. To compensate there were lilacs, not only the familiar kind but a finely bloomed and leaved variety.
After lunch we decided to see the Sackler Crossing of the lake, beyond which we also managed to walk through the rhododendron dell. First, though, was the Mediterranean Garden including cork trees. We had hoped that David Nash’s cork sculpture would still be visible, as we had witnessed the cork being loaded for the UK during an April holiday in Alentejo, Portugal. No sign, however: it had been meant to illustrate transience and the fragility of the environment.
The curved crossing was a very attractive feature to compensate us, and enhances the water by reflection. No problem either for people with limited mobility, as perhaps the Millennium Bridge to Tate Modern might be. The rhododendrons and azaleas were brilliant, all the more so for us, who don’t have appropriate soil for them.
Looking at the map of Kew Gardens we guessed we had walked around half but had seen perhaps less than a quarter. For those who live in London it really isn’t far and a membership would certainly pay dividends. Nonetheless, concluding with the work of Margaret Mee, we felt we had really gained from this special London lung and will certainly return before very long.