Nine Things to see in Kew

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The Pagoda

This week, The Post celebrates its ninth birthday. Well, Kew Gardens, Richmond, Surrey, also celebrates a birthday next year, along with Charles Darwin, at 250 and 200 years respectively, and Kew Gardens is celebrating both 'big time'. So here are nine things to see in Kew Gardens in 2009, some of which will feature special 250th-anniversary events throughout the year.

Here are nine permanent venues to see in Kew Gardens, starting from the Great Pagoda, and heading in a roughly clockwise direction:

1. The Great Pagoda

The nearest entry point is Lion Gate, Kew Road.

This structure is visible for miles and has two major vistas in the garden from which to view it: Cedar Vista to the north-east from the river Thames, and Pagoda Vista to the north from the Palm House. Its history stems from the point when chinoiserie became popular in Britain in 1757. In that year William Chambers was appointed as architect to Princess Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales, possibly coming to prominence having proposed a design for a mausoleum for her late husband. He was commissioned to design a Chinese-style aviary at one end of the flower garden to house the Princess's collection of native and oriental birds, which was a short walk from the menagerie, in the area where Queen Charlotte's Cottage is situated, taking inspiration from seeing the House of Confucius and a Chinese arch already in situ in that area.

Around the same time, Chambers oversaw the design and construction of the Great Pagoda which was erected and was completed in 1762. It is the only surviving structure from that period and was designed in orthodox classicism, rococo and Chinese architecture, soaring 163' (50m) in height, with ten octagonal storeys. Purists argue that it differs greatly from authentic pagodas, which have odd-numbered storeys. Each storey decreases by one foot in both diameter and height. Originally each corner held a sea horse with a bell in its mouth, which were replaced by aggressive dragons, poised for flight, without bells. These dragons were gilded with real gold. Each balcony railing was painted blue and red, the roofs were covered with lacquered iron plates, and the under-roofs painted red. The plates and dragons disappeared at some point, possibly to pay off some of George IV's many debts, but some say it was because of complaints from the residents of Richmond that the Pagoda was bright and brash and ruined the skyline. The Pagoda still awaits full restoration, first mooted by Hooker in 1844, then again in 1856, and raised again as late as 1979.

During WWII it survived the explosion of a stick of bombs dropped close by. The Pagoda was itself used for the war effort, with holes drilled through each floor for British bomb designers to test and observe their latest developments as they fell through each storey. The Pagoda is closed to the public, although in 2006 it was opened briefly for the general public to ascend the 253 steps to the top and get a fantastic panorama of Richmond, the Thames, the City of London etc. There is now a weather cam at the top used on occasion by the BBC for its weather broadcasts.

2. Chokushi-Mon and the Japanese Garden

Due west from the Pagoda, just off to the left of the Cedar Vista, is the 'traditional' Japanese garden, containing the Chokushi-Mon, zen-garden and Haiku stone.

The Chokushi-Mon is the finest example of a traditional Japanese building in Europe, in the style of the Momoyama period (late 16th Century). The woodwork has stylised carvings of animals and plants, with the central panels based on an ancient legend of a pupil's devotion to his Master. The Chokushi-Mon was offered to Kew in 1910, after the Japan-British exhibition at White City in London. The bamboo garden, to the west, was originally considered, but the Kyoto-Exhibitors Association felt that the 'Mossy' Hill close to the Pagoda was a more fitting site. Mossy Hill was so named as it had once been the site of William Chambers' 'Mosque' - Mossy being a corruption of Mosque - and so was viewed as particularly apt for the site and was re-erected in 1911. It is a very delicate structure, with extensive restoration having taken place by master Japanese woodcarver St Kumajiro Torii in 1936 and 1957. It had again severely deteriorated by 1988 and a major restoration took place, finishing in November 1995, with the cedar-bark shingles being replaced with the more traditional copper tiles. It is now regularly maintained, particularly as many throw money at it, believing it will bring good luck. Looking towards the Temperate House, the Haiku stone is to the right.

Covering an area of 5,000m2 are four Japanese gardens: the dry stone garden, the 'Garden of Activity', the 'Garden of Harmony' and the 'Garden of Peace'. On the south side of the Chokushi-Mon is the dry stone garden, showing a classic 'Zen' stone-raked garden, in front of a terraced rock garden. To the right is the 'Garden of Activity', styled on water-based landscapes, including the sea, hills and waterfalls, with features of gravel, stone and rock reflecting the movements of water. To the north-east is the 'Garden of Harmony', linking the Gardens of 'Activity' and 'Peace'. This symbolises the mountainous regions of Japan, reflected in the shrubs and trees planted in the carefully crafted and positioned rock outcrops and stones. The 'Garden of Peace' represents a traditional tea-garden or roji, using stone lanterns or toro and a basin with dripping water or tsukubai, divided by traditional stone paths, nobedan and tobi-ishi. This should create a relaxing, tranquil and calming atmosphere, notwithstanding the ever-present, raucous parakeets. Keep an eye open for the Hinoki, False cypress, Japanese cypress or Chamaecyparis obtusa. The Chokushi-Mon was constructed from this wood which is of the trees of Kiso that were protected under a special conservation scheme set up in Japan in the 18th Century to protect the five most valuable timber species in Japan. It is sacred to the Shinto faith, confirming its importance, and has many uses including as building material for palaces, temples, shrines and theatres. This specimen was planted by the then Prince and Princess, now Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko upon their visit in 1976.

3. Rhizotron and Xstrata walkway

New to Kew Gardens in 2008 is the Rhizatron and Xstrata walkway. It was designed by Marks Barfield Architects and supported by the Hanson Environment Fund. The Xstrata walkway has had over 300,000 visitors to date and this 400 tonne, 200m long walkway transports visitors 18m (59') high into the canopy of a little visited area of Kew Gardens, originally landscaped by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown. It was opened in May 2008 and is manufactured from Corus weathered steel, with the supports extending the same distance into the ground as the support arms extend above. The walkway is reached via a series of 122 steps from the Rhizotron, an underground walkway which has long strips of different woods showing grain and texture before being amongst the 'roots' of trees, and also showing the story of the growth and ecosystems of trees as well as a looped film of the history and construction.

The walkway supports use Fibonacci numerical sequencing depicting plant structures. The principle was discovered by Leonardo Fibonacci around the 12th Century. The concept is based on 0 and 1, the next number being the sum of the two previous, as shown by 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 etc. Each truss, or support, is 12m long, supporting a circular node secured by pylons. The concept was to be sympathetic to the surrounding but not to directly imitate nature. The handrail, made from sweet chestnut, one of the dominant trees in this area, was the starting point and the only natural product, and everything else followed.

The idea of the walkway came from Tony Kirkham, head of the arboretum at Kew. He wanted to give people an insight into the ecology and bio-diversity of trees from a perspective rarely seen. A lift facility is being incorporated into the structure solely for those who cannot gain access via the steps. Be warned: the walkway is open-mesh steel...

4. Queen Charlotte's Cottage and Menagerie Garden

Heading west, towards the Thames and through the native woodland and conservation area, is Queen Charlotte's Cottage and the original 'Menagerie'.

The first cottage was built in agricultural land somewhere between the mid-1750s and 1771 as part of the New Menagerie, and was probably a single storey dwelling for the menagerie's keeper. Queen Charlotte was given the building upon her marriage to George III. She extended it, added an upper floor and had it furnished. Princess Elizabeth, the third daughter of Queen Charlotte, may have made further alterations between 1790 and 1805. Its prime use was as a shelter as well as being used for picnics, and it was decorated with Hogarth prints. The picnic room on the upper floor is reached by a circular staircase, and the room is primarily decorated in the Chinoiserie style of the day, with images of convolvulus and nasturtium climbing the walls. The wooden surrounds,such as pelmets and door surrounds, have bamboo motifs. It is believed Princess Elizabeth, a skilled artist, may have painted them herself. It has a discreet commode and China closet included upstairs.

The menagerie gardens were created in 1760 by William Chambers (as mentioned earlier) and now contain sculptures of animals known to have been in the menagerie, including wallabies, quaggas (now extinct), bears, peacocks and other exotics. The cottage and 37 acres of grounds, which contain the oldest continuous woodland in Kew, at 300 years, were granted to Kew in 1898 by Queen Victoria on the proviso that they were maintained in their natural state, having remained under Royal ownership prior to that. Parts of the grounds had been landscaped by Capability Brown and Charles Bridgeman. The cottage is maintained by the Historic Royal Palaces organisation, who also maintain Kew Palace, and it is open each weekend from June to September.

5. Minka House

This is an original Japanese farm house from around 1900, and was sited near Okazaki City near the southern coast of central Japan. The majority of ordinary Japanese people would have lived in something similar until around the mid-20th Century, as wood was plentiful and inexpensive as a building resource, Japan being largely forested. It was also readily replaceable in the event of an earthquake, prevalent in this area. It is built around a packed earth floor, with a raised-floor living area. The main structure is a wooden framework, built without nails, with mud walls and a thatched roof. It has a gabled roof with entry via the non-gabled sides. The interior is heavily timbered and open plan with the outside having a raised roofed terrace. The Minka House was donated to Kew by the Japan Minka Reuse and Recycle Association after the Japan 2001 Festival. It was reconstructed in the Bamboo Garden in May 2001, where Japanese carpenters reassembled the many timbers and joints using traditional techniques, with a team of specialists who worked on London's Globe Theatre forming the daub walls and Norfolk reed thatch. Inside is a display of traditional Japanese use of plants and living, including bamboo, mulberry, rice etc. The structure itself is a must-see.

6. Princess of Wales and Alpine Conservatories

The Princess of Wales Conservatory is due east-north-east of the Minka House, at the opposite end of Kew Gardens. It is not, as many assume, named after the famous Princess Diana but in fact after Princess Augusta, mother of King George III. It was rededicated to Diana, Princess of Wales, when she officially opened it on
26 July, 1987.

It was constructed close to the 'Great Stove', which was a special building close to this site, used to display new acquisitions of exotics. Close by is also the ice house, used to store ice retrieved from the lake for chilling jellies, blancmanges and suchlike when entertaining in the Palace during the summer. Just follow the strong, pungent smell, which is probably the curry plant, and it will be hard to miss.

The conservatory has an overall floor space of 4,490m2 under a special single multi-span roof, containing ten different environmental zones. It had its formation in 1976, when the previous glass houses were seen to be deteriorating rapidly. Construction started in 1984, with the first plants being planted in 1986. The main prerequisite was energy conservation. This was created by the majority of the planting being below ground level and no side walls, with hot zones positioned centrally, and cooler zones to the outside. It also has a low roof with incorporated heating, misting, ventilation and lighting systems. In the centre is a large pond, fed by a waterfall, containing a number of fish which can be viewed from the subterranean walkway, with other animals and fish on display, including 'dragons' –keep your eyes open, they are also loose in the conservatory as a pest-control experiment – poison dart frogs (elusive but at least three present), and piranha.

The well-hidden surprise is near the steps leading to the passion flowers and the slope to the subterranean exhibit. Look and listen for water, part the plants and, if you are lucky you may see a white gilled 'lizard' or newt - actually an axolotl that few visitors know is there. In the same area, if the timing is right, you may see the famous 'stinky' Titan Arum - Amorphophallus titanum, the biggest flower in the world, rising to around 3m. The main zones are:

  • Arid, including cacti and agaves, aloes and euphorbia, living stones and acacias.

  • Wet tropics, including begonia, water lilies, assorted 'food' plants like cocoa, banana, pineapple and ginger.

  • Carnivorous, including sundew, venus fly-trap and pitcher plants.

  • There is also an extensive collection of bryophytes and orchids.

Close to the Princess of Wales conservatory, in the Alpine Garden, is the newest conservatory, the Davies Alpine House. This was opened in 2006, and is specially designed to keep plants cool rather than warm. It is based on two arches, in a north-south aspect to minimise the intense effect of the midday sun, leaning toward each other at the top, with vented glass panels between. Each side is made of curved glass panels, all glass being very low on iron content to maximise light transmission, typically 90%, on each side. It is 10m tall with a constant throughput of air through both entrances. Due to the upper venting the roof acts like a chimney drawing warm air up with cooler air entering by strategic vents placed in the rockeries, supporting the plants. The vents close when rain is imminent, to maintain the cold arid environment. This cold air is pumped through a concrete labyrinth situated below the floor of the Alpine House, such cooling the air, before being vented through stainless steel adjustable vents. On hot summer days, fanlike blinds automatically open or close as required.

7. Palm and Water-Lily House

The siting of the Palm House was dictated by Decimus Burton, who insisted it must stand by the George III lake to benefit from its reflection in the water. Due to the huge iron structure and the large concentration of green-tinted glass, the swampy area was not ideal. As a compromise to Burton's heavy cast-iron arches, Richard Turner proposed using wrought iron beams, as used in ship building, to span large areas unsupported. Beneath the floor of the Palm house were situated the large furnaces (no longer used) to provide hot air that was pumped into the conservatory via the grated flooring, which still is in use. The smoke from the furnaces was released via a tunnel leading to the Italianate Campanile, 150m away, that can be seen to the left of the Plaza. This tunnel had a small railway that carried fuel to, and ashes away from, the furnaces. As stressed at the time, the problems of the swampy area bedevilled the furnaces, and engines were installed to pump out the water. In 1961, the furnaces were removed and boilers insisted in the Shaft yard behind the Campanile, with the tunnel being used to carry the insulated heat pipes, while the Campanile still serves as a chimney.

In 1952 a major inspection took place, which recommended the complete replacement of the building, causing the conservatory to be closed. Replacement was out of the question, so the closure was maintained while all the ironwork was checked, cleaned and repositioned as necessary, and completely re-glazed. All the beds were rebuilt and all other remedial work undertaken. All this time all the plants were kept in the Palm House, being moved, protected and maintained by the gardeners of Kew. The renewed Palm House was reopened in June 1959.

The story, unfortunately, did not stop there. In the early 1980s parts of the structure were found to be giving way, and in 1984 the entire collection of plants was removed. Those that could be were relocated, whereas those too large were cut down to become specimens for the Kew collection. The restoration started in 1985 with an almost complete dismantling and rebuilding of the building. Due to the building being Grade I listed, as much of the old building as possible needed to be re-used and, where that was not possible, to be replaced like with like. Mild steel strengthened the main arches, with stainless steel for the glazing bars. The layout was changed to incorporate beds rather than containers, and fungicidal glass was installed. Where the furnaces were, a marine display was installed. This restoration was completed in 1988, with the grand re-opening on 6 November, 1990 by HM the Queen Mother. Most plants were re-instated, including the Encephalartos altensteinii, the oldest potted plant in the world.

The Water Lily house was designed and built at the same time and was the widest single-span greenhouse in the world, with a span of 36' (11m). It was built to house the giant Amazonian water lily, Victoria amazonica, the pride of Kew for Victorian society. It was built in 1852 and is square in design, with wrought iron supports mounted on masonry plinths, and a large circular waist-deep pond full of around 12 types of Nymphaea water lilies, and a Victoria cruziana replacing the Victoria amazonica, which never thrived.

8. Temperate House

This conservatory, is the size of the Palm House at 4,480m2. There are four main entrances (plus two disabled entrances on the west side) with the main entrance to the east, where the famous ice rink is situated during November and December.

Sir William Hooker wanted a semi-hardy glasshouse to be erected to the south of the Palm House, set amongst the hardy trees and shrubs. As with the Palm House, it was designed as a result of the collaboration of Decimus Burton and Richard Turner, the former being an architect, the latter an iron founder. Work began in 1860, but the building differed greatly from the Palm House, as the plants needed less heating but good ventilation, so a series of octagons, in a straight line, were erected on a raised 2m mound, spoil from the newly excavated lake. The materials also differed, with glazing bars being wooden (for financial reasons as well as ease of replacement), and also being decorative à la mode. Brick was also used instead of stone, as could be seen with the recent renovation of the main entrance steps (November, 2008) which were a stone-covered void lined with bricks, rather than the more usual solid stone, no grand staircase or gallery (as in the Palm House) and a solid floor. Hooker gained approval in 1859.

The building of the Temperate House was placed in the hands of William Cubitt and Company who had submitted the lowest estimate. Even here economy came into the equation, with cast iron palisades supporting elliptical wrought iron arches instead of the semi-circular, arched ribs extending from the ground, as suggested by Burton. Another change was to have the adjustable upper storey and adjustable window slides to be positioned on the lower level. The boilers were to be installed in the smaller Octagons north and south of the main conservatory, and a gallery was installed 30' above ground after all. As was usual during this period, funding came from the Board of Works, ie the Treasury, and there were delays in funding, so plants were moved in despite it being only two-thirds complete, much to Sir William Hooker's dismay. It was to be a further 30 years before completion. The first plants to be installed were those from the New Zealand House situated by the Great Stove (as mentioned earlier), followed by Australian plants from the Orangery and suitable palms from the already overcrowded Palm House.

A full restoration of the Temperate House was undertaken in 1977. Top grade aluminium and neoprene glazing was used, maintaining the design and rhythm of the original plans. The original boilers are no longer used, with the heating being maintained by modern heat exchangers where the boilers were, and intense heat from the main boiler house being pumped underground through insulated pipes.

9. Marianne North and Shirley Sherwood Galleries

Head directly east and you reach the spot were the old meets the new. Here are two of the three main permanent art galleries in Kew Gardens, the other being Cambridge Cottage, near the Princess of Wales conservatory. There are also occasional galleries at the Nash conservatory and Museum No. 1, which houses the Plants and People exhibition.
Much about the Marianne North Gallery can be read here, but a couple of interesting snippets:

As stated, Marianne North bequeathed all her paintings to Kew after a successful exhibition at a London Gallery in 1879, on the proviso she had a purpose-built gallery built, where she herself would hang the artwork. She commissioned architect James Fergusson, a friend, who designed a building of Grecian concept, to satisfy his ideas, with an external veranda of Indian style, to satisfy Marianne North. The paintings are hung according to geographical area suspended over a dado supporting 246 vertical strips of different timbers. Even after its completion she continued to travel and paint, visiting South Africa and the Seychelles. In 1884 she continued to Chile, despite failing health. These paintings were subsequently added, making a total of 832 today. The gallery is currently closed for major renovation. As it never had any environmental controls, and the roof leaks and the walls are not weatherproof, damp and mould are taking their toll. The renovation work will continue until autumn 2009.

Immediately to the north (coincidentally?) is the new Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art. This purpose-built gallery is a world's first, being the only solely botanical art gallery open all year around, so currently unique to Kew. (Kew prides itself on its uniqueness factors!!!) It was opened in spring 2008.

Dr. Shirley Sherwood, wife of James Sherwood, owner of the Orient Express and President of Sea Containers, is, amongst other things, a botanist, photographer, research scientist, garden consultant, magazine editor and, thankfully, a collector of botanical plants. She also was a trustee of Kew Gardens for ten years and is now vice-chair of the Royal Horticultural Society's picture committee, and owns, to date, over 500 contemporary botanical works of art.

The art shown is drawn from Kew's own unique (See... told you!) historic collections of over 200,000 items. Much of its artwork is by masters of botanical art and this gallery will have rolling themed exhibitions to allow visitors a glimpse at a small selection of Kew's and Shirley Sherwood's combined vast collection.

I hope you enjoyed that walk around Kew Gardens.

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