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A look at Kew Gardens and its world-famous glasshouses

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

One of the most famous botanic gardens in the world, and one of the largest tourist attractions in the UK, Kew Gardens is home to the planet’s largest collection of living plants.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was formally established in 1759, and is now one of the few gardens placed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Within its 300 acres there are no less than 36 Grade II listed structures, as well as four Grade I listed buildings – including the Temperate and Palm glasshouses.

History of Kew Gardens

Kew is situated in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, and the origins of the gardens can be traced back to 1299, when Edward I, otherwise known as “Longshanks”, moved his court to a manor house in Richmond (then named Sheen) as residences and gardens began being built in the area.

The first reference to a settlement can be found in the year 1313, and by 1483, the hamlet of Kew was large enough to pay taxes. Although the manor house built by Longshanks was to be abandoned for many years, Henry V later built Sheen Palace in 1501, which then became the permanent royal residence for Henry VII, when it became known as Richmond Palace.

In 1600, after an array of developments concerning a multitude of royal occupancies, the land that would later become the gardens was formed into a large field. Known as Kew Field, it operated as a strip field system for private estates and local residences.

It would be the merging of royal estates between Kew and Richmond in 1772, however, which would be the earliest and most significant beginnings for the gardens, as several structures were already built by 1761, including the Chinese pagoda, which remains a favourite attraction to this day.

A forming of land

Indeed, 1772 was an important year for the gardens, as not only did George III invite Sir Joseph Banks (a naturalist, botanist patron of the natural sciences and participant of Captain James Cook’s first great voyage) to be its head gardener, but he also sent Francis Masson to the Cape, tasked with the discovery of new plants for ‘the improvement of Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew’.

Masson sailed on the HMS Resolution with Captain James Cook and landed in South Africa in October of the same year. He would return home in 1775, having sent over more than 500 species of plant back to England and the gardens.

Interestingly, around the same time, Lancelot “Capability” Brown, who would one day become one of the most renowned and celebrated landscape architects in history, applied for the position of master gardener – and was subsequently rejected. He would later take responsibility for what would become some of the finest gardens in England, including Croome Court, Warwick Castle, Harewood House and Milton Abbey.

The incarceration of a King

In 1788 the gardens were to find a new and altogether unorthodox purpose – to incarcerate the King of Great Britain and Ireland, George III, in the building known as The White House.

George, or as some called him – ‘the mad king who lost America’ – who at that time took a vital role in the affairs of the government, was found to be too unstable to properly carry out his duties.

His illness, which most historians put down to the genetic blood disorder, porphyria, caused him to withdraw from daily business, and George was then forced to seclude himself in the gardens – well out of the way of the public eye.

Here he was said to be constrained with strait-jackets, and treated with leeches and emetics – though historians now debate as to whether he actually suffered from a genetic disorder at all, with arsenic poisoning or mania now being the champion theories behind his sickness.

Despite the severity of his condition, the King’s health soon improved, however he showed no or very little enthusiasm for improving Kew and Richmond. In 1800, he hired James Wyatt (architect of Magdalen and Balliol Colleges, Oxford), to create a large gothic palace, which was to be built next to The White House – where the King would find himself incarcerated again in 1801 and 1804.

Soon afterward, almost as if to banish evil memories, the palaces were torn down and with that, the gardens, almost simultaneously with the popularity of the Royal Family, began to wane.

Decline of the Gardens

The King would pay his last visit to the gardens in 1806, when he attended a lunch appointment, some months before falling permanently ill. After being left blind for a decade, and having suffered from painful rheumatism for a long period, George III died in 1820, having had The Prince of Wales act as Regent since 1811.

From 1818 onwards, after the Queen was left to lie in state at the gardens, the area was largely ignored by the royal family, and George IV, known as “the first gentleman of England”, later considered its demolition.

Back in touch

In 1840, thanks to great efforts by the Royal Horticultural Society (founded in 1838) and its president (William Cavendish, 7th Duke of Devonshire), the gardens were adopted as a national botanical garden. Before long, they were increased by 75 acres, and the pleasure grounds extended to 270 acres.

Alongside this, between 1831 and 1855, the Palm and the Temperate houses were built, while the new Arboretum was laid out and the Herbarium collection was founded.

Aside from the burning down of the Tea House in 1813, and a mass felling of trees during the Great Storm of 1987, the gardens have enjoyed a largely stable and profitable life ever since.

In 2009, Kew Gardens celebrated its 205th anniversary – an event that was attended by the Queen. As well as this, the Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank partnership was able to celebrate the collection and preservation of seeds from 10% of the world’s wild flowering plants (circa 24,2000 species), with the aim of collecting 25% by 2020.

The Temperate House

Kew Glasshouse
Temperate House (otherwise known as the Kew Glasshouse)

As one of the most well-known glasshouses in the world, the Temperate House (otherwise known as the Kew Glasshouse) is one of the few precious original Victorian glasshouses left worldwide.

The house was designed by Decimus Burton, a protégé of John Nash. Burton had a 30 year association with the gardens, having designed many of its features and paths, before moving on to the designing of some of its larger buildings.

Working with iron founder, Richard Turner (builder of the Winter Gardens in Regent’s Park), Burton designed the Palm House, which was built between 1844 and 1848, and at the time was the largest in the world, measuring 363 feet in length, 100 feet in width and 66 feet in height.

It wasn’t long of course before he designed the even larger Temperate House, but as fate would have it, Burton did not live to see the project completed, dying two years before its opening in 1898.

Burton also designed the Main Gate (now known as the Elizabeth Gate) and Waterlily House at the gardens.

Complex and ornate in design, The Temperate House was immediately put to use to store the gardens’ ever-growing collection of semi-hardy and temperate plants. Due to the fact that building costs had soared to unimaginable levels during its construction, the building was unfinished upon opening, and it would take a further four decades for it to be fully complete.

The plants

As you can imagine, there are a wealth of plants from all around the world living within the house, including plants from Africa, Australia, Asia and the Pacific.

Numbering more than 1,200 species, a large proportion of the plants have been brought into the house for medical, scientific and intrinsic value – with many of them having been researched for great periods of time.

Some of the more interesting species include exotics such as Encephalartos woodii, which is extinct in nature – having only ever been found in a small area of the Ngoya Forest in South Africa.

Current restoration

Famous for its size, elegance, and the vast wealth of tropical and rare plants, the Temperate House is currently undergoing a £34 million restoration, and is not due to open to the public again while 2018.

The restoration is considered a major overhaul and involves the replacement of every single glass panel and the repainting of all its struts.