Almost every weekend this summer a trip to Kew Gardens has been on the cards, and finally we made it happen. We managed to pick a great day for it too – even wearing sunscreen for only about the second time this year. Having heard so much about the wonders of Kew we were really looking forward to it, but could it possibly live up to our expectations?

Getting There

Round the M25 and in on the M4 was easy enough but the signage ran out just when we got close and we spent twenty minutes trying to find the official parking. The pay and display machines in the long, slender car park mischievously require £5 in change, which means a long walk to the main ticket booth and back to the car, then back to the booth to actually enter the gardens if you’re unlucky. Nice.

And We’re In!

Once in, I had to reset my expectations a bit. The gardens consist mostly of flat lawns with trees and bushes and buildings scattered about. Not to mention so much goose poo that it was a struggle to sit down and eat our sandwiches. Ultimately it’s more of a park than a garden. I’d expected clever planting to supply riots of colourful flowers even at the tail end of a bad summer but the palette is mostly green and brown throughout . I’d also expected meticulous and dense themed gardens like those at Butchart, which overwhelm the senses with their majesty and detail, each turn revealing endless new delights. But all I found was a couple of rather weak attempts at Alpine and Japanese gardens. I think Kew is hampered by its topology – being on the banks of the Thames it’s pretty much entirely flat and there’s little artificial landscaping to make it more interesting.


Glass Houses

It’s just a whole different type of gardens to those that burst with exaggerated splendour from every angle. The best of the plants are kept indoors, under the panes of the still impressively huge old glasshouses. That said, they could do with a lick of paint – there’s a whiff of fading grandeur about them and it’d be a shame to see them gradually crumble away for lack of funds or effort. The hot and sweaty palm house and its temperate brother were nice, but lacking a certain something. I’ve certainly seen better, or maybe I’ve been spoiled elsewhere. The modern Princess Diana building is huge and has some quality sections (who doesn’t like a massive cactus) but you’ll have to put the effort in to see it all as the path endlessly diverges and there are several ways in and out. I’d much prefer a single path that leads me neatly through everything there is to see, but then I’m a simple sort. It was more than a little surprising to see a large iguana basking at the edge of the water-lily pond, apparently free to come and go as it pleased with no staff anywhere to be seen. Strange.

And Now, Your Main Feature…

I understand that the ten storey pagoda used to be a major feature and it looks striking from a distance, but up close it’s really very plain and peeling badly. The new hotness at Kew is the treetop walkway and its small underground atrium, or the “Rhizotron and Xstrata Treetop walkway” to use the proper and more than slightly over the top names. This is the new roller coaster in the theme park that is Kew Gardens, but the only sweat I broke was climbing the stairs. There is a lift, but it’s exclusively for the disabled. Except it was broken so they were sat at the bottom not knowing what they were missing. Lucky them.

I’ve never known something so expensive and so hyped to be so disappointingly dull. [Insert your own gag about the Millennium Dome here, but I never went.] The implementation is clinical but boring – all bare concrete and rusting, sorry ‘weathered’ steel. You climb the stairs, you walk the loop, looking at some sweet chestnut branches relatively close up and you come back down again. The only information up there is presented via small sculptural metal plaques that convey only about ten words each. Perhaps they didn’t want people to stop for long, so they can shepherd everyone through at speed and keep throughput up.

The only point of interest I remember from being up there was that it wobbled more than it looked like it should and the thin flooring flexed worryingly underfoot. In fact I’d stay a good distance away from any 40 stone leviathans that you might encounter up there (might being the operative word – it’s a long way up the staircase) lest the whole thing give way. I’m sure it’s structurally sound really, but if the majority of my interest is occupied by the feeling of uncertainty beneath my shoes then the whole expensive installation is a bit of a failure.


In Summary

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve griped endlessly here but I had a great day out and I’m glad I went. It’s just that it wasn’t what I expected and many of the star attractions fell frustratingly short of where they could and should have been. The place is huge and we saw a vast number of different things – many of them quite good, but very few excellent. I’d recommend it, but I’d want to set your expectations first.

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