Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

 

There's a lot to be said about London's Kew Gardens—much too much to say it all here, just as it's much too much to see all in one day. For me, the best thing to say about it is that it's one of the most pleasant places to be I can think of.

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I'm a fan of botanical gardens for that reason; I'm not a plant expert, and can get bored with labels if a garden seems too focused on that. That's on me, of course: science, and especially botany, is what they are there for.

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And while Kew's 300 acres certainly include a depth of knowledge that put it among the world's most important gardens, there is so much space, and so many spaces, that it is possible to just enjoy the beauty, and the quiet moments, and the noisy children in their glee (which never seems too loud in big spaces).

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For those more tuned to the research and preservation aspect, of course, there is that library of 750,000 volumes and its illustration collection of over 175,000 botanical prints. The herbarium has 7 million preserved specimens. There are 750 people working there in the collections and research. And the gardens include over 30,000 kinds of living plants.

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The New York Times used to have a slogan: "You don't have to read it all, but it's nice to know it's all there." That certainly applies to Kew Gardens, and nearly 1.4 million people drop by each year to appreciate it. Our visit in June was both a garden ramble and family gathering.

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Kew is also one of the world's oldest botanical gardens. Officially, it was founded in 1840, but that's just when it formally took on the role. Before that, the grounds were connected to several 18th-century royal residences, and the 'exotic garden' started by Lord Henry Capell. 

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The Garden's grounds vary from relatively formal and cultivated to seemingly 'natural' park-like lands. And of course, there are the buildings.

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Over the years, it's gained numbers of significant buildings, including important glasshouses and more. The largest, the Temperate House, reopened after a long rebuilding just before we visited, and it's already become a busy center of activitiy. Altogether, Kew has 4 Grade I-listed buildings and 36 Grade II; the whole park is a Unesco World Heritage site. 

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The Kew buildings have some history of their own. The Palm House was the world's first large-scale building to use wrought iron structurally; the Temperate House is the largest surviving Victorian glasshouse. One of the glasshouses saw the first successful propagation of rubber trees outside South America. And the Tea House was burned to the ground by suffragettes in 1913, leaving Kew with another history, but no building.

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An acrobat performs at upper level of The Temperate House

One of the newer attractions of the Gardens is a treetop walk, opened in 2008. It's a 200-metre trail 18 metres above the ground that allows visitors to walk through the top of the tree canopy. Its slightly swaying motion adds to the impression of walking through the trees. 

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Visiting from London is easy (actually, Kew is in the London borough of Richmond, but that's a technicality.) There are several cafes and restaurants, so lunch or refreshments aren't a problem...but picnics are allowed; just no cooking.

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The Richmond station that serves the District Line tube service and London Overground is a short walk from one of the main gates, and the Kew Bridge station that serves commuter railroads is a slightly longer walk from the other. There is an admission charge; rates vary by age and concessions.

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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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