Mum, you’re going to love this and be very mad at me.
When my family was here over New Year’s, I immediately dragged them to Stanford in Covent Garden so that they could ogle the maps and travel books with me. It’s where I got almost all of their Christmas presents, and I think all four of us came away with a little something extra that day.
My dad gravitated to the pub guides and anything Bill Bryson or Paul Theroux, while my mom wandered up to the top level to admire the huge framed photographs of locales all over the world. She picked out her favorite print from across the room: an extra-long photo hanging right near the ceiling of a garden bursting with red and yellow tulips. If she were a Liz Lemon fan, she would’ve said “I want to go to there.”
Upon closer inspection, we discovered it was a photo of Kew Gardens, also known as the Royal Botanic Gardens, in west London. Sadly, it didn’t make it on to the agenda during their visit, but when Amity’s parents were here last month, they planned a day there and I tagged along.
Before we properly start, Mom, just remember that the gardens would NOT have looked the same during the first week of January as they did in the middle of April… so since we couldn’t have enjoyed them like this anyway, I thought you would appreciate the pictures.
To get to the gardens, we took the train out towards Richmond and hopped off in the cutest little village I’ve ever seen. We walked through the square and down a wide shady street, and for a minute I was convinced I’d somehow wound up back on Park Ave in Rochester. It was weirdly identical.
Just inside the brick walls is a nursery and a few tiny greenhouses where you can buy a little piece of the gardens to take home with you.
Next to the nursery there’s a big old pond with a handful of swans paddling around – and also there’s Pemberley. I know I’ve said it before, but I think this was really it – I’m pretty sure I saw Mr. Darcy duck away from one of the windows.
I don’t actually know what the pseudo-Pemberley was, but I don’t think we were allowed in. Instead, we decided to check out Palm House, a tropical greenhouse that looked like the galactic space fortress from a sci-fi special.
Inside, it was warm and muggy and full of the rustling of palm leaves. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can climb up the spiraling wrought iron staircases to take in the canopy view.
The curved roof, and the moss and mildew that was everywhere because of the warm temps and constant misting sprays, made the place look like an abandoned & overgrown railway station.
You might spot some wildlife, if you’re lucky! This is my favorite specimen:
As an aspiring nature photographer, I was particularly pleased with this double-subject shot.
The plants and palm trees were organised in huge beds according to world region, so you could wander between continents in a matter of steps.
Having explored the majority of the flora, I ducked behind the giant bamboo and descended the stairs to the little underground aquarium. Unfortunately, it was a little cement room with ceilings barely taller than I am, and honestly a bit depressing.
I did think these little garden eels were pretty cool – and I don’t think I’ve ever had anything positive to say about eels before.
We were all ready to head back in to the fresh air & sunshine after sweating it out in the gigantic greenhouse (and that wasn’t even the biggest one in the park!).
London has been bursting at the seams with cherry blossoms lately, and Kew was no exception.
I really liked the Asian-inspired rock garden, which was full of desert flowers, little waterfalls, and aquatic plants.
While Amity’s mom and I were standing by this little pond, a man came over, knelt down, and dropped something in to the water. When he saw us watching him, he said, “They’re newts! N-E-W-T! Newts!” Apparently, the little buggers kept getting sucked down the water circulation pipes, so this kindly worker spent his afternoon ferrying them back upstream by the handful. I didn’t read his nametag, but I’m pretty sure if I’d gotten close enough to check it would’ve said “Gussie Finknottle.”
We’d already resigned ourselves to the fact that there was no way we’d see everything in a day – the gardens are just too big – so we just kept meandering around the perimeter and choosing paths as we went. It made it much more pleasant, I think.
Are all botanic gardens required to have one tree that looks like Rafiki’s home? I think probably.
This is a gingko tree (it’s not the Rafiki’s home one). I’ve always liked that name.
However, in terms of trees, this weirdo takes the cake. It’s called monkey puzzle, and from afar it looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book (actually, come to think of it, it would be good pals with Geneseo’s Seuss Spruce!).
Get a little closer, and you can see where it gets its name. Even a clever little monkey couldn’t figure out how to climb these spiky suckers! It was pretty, but also a bit sinister-looking.
Monkey puzzle is endangered, and native to South America. I’ve also since found out that there’s a pub in London called The Monkey Puzzle. I’m planning to visit it and wow the bartenders with my impressive knowledge of botany.
We made a midday pit stop for lunch in this charmingly-housed café. Mom, this is where your tulips were!
We took a team approach to dessert and sampled just about everything they had. The carrot cake was the unanimous winner (eat it, chocolate ganache! <—food joke) while the sad hazelnut cookie was all but forgotten.
After lunch, we visited the park’s main event: Kew Palace. Kew is another of the Historic Royal Palaces, and even though Amity & I originally had high ambitions, we hadn’t made use of our joint membership since October. It was high time to whip out that card again.
The palace is really more like a big house, set back along the river behind more beds of colorful blossoms.
These yellow double tulips may have been my favorite of the entire day!
I loved the vibrant burnt red brick color of the house against the blue sky. Kew Palace has been rebuilt several times following fires or demolitions, and only recently underwent a ten-year period of refurbishment and historic preservation work, so it was looking especially spiffy.
Inside, they’d left the old original brick and wooden framing exposed, which I thought looked so neat. It was more minimal in terms of furnishings and exhibits than other palaces and historic royal sites, but I actually preferred it that way. It felt easier to just enjoy at your own pace and appreciate it for its actual history instead of its modern staging.
I only had about twenty minutes in the palace itself before I had to rush home to conduct a phone interview for my dissertation research. I made my quick goodbyes before scampering outside and finding my way back through the park (I’d gotten almost as far from the entrance as possible).
I did stop to have a quick twirl around these larger-than-life thatched mushrooms, though. It made me feel like I was Alice in Wonderland!
Finally I made it back to the train station and cast a last, longing glance around, wishing I could stay. I mean, look at this place. That guy on the left under the green umbrella was wearing a straw hat and pushing an ice cream cart around.
Kew Gardens are well worth a visit if you’re in London. You might be able to see it all in one go if you make a very full day of it, but otherwise, just plan to go back – like me. I hear Elvis Costello is playing there this summer…
And Mum, I promise I’ll take you next time!