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A Botanical London Adventure

The end of August beckons the return of chilly, near Autumnal, mornings in the UK – yes, it’s still Summer, but the stereotype of unreliable weather here isn’t just a myth. Peeking out the blinds to check whether the weather might catch me out, I quickly staggered out of bed, got my gear together and jumped on a train to London’s famous Kew Gardens to enjoy what was left of the British Summer.

London is truly massive, so it’s kind of a trek for a wee South-East gal like me to get to the far-West (thanks, TFL for your frequent services). Kew Gardens is pretty much right at the end of the District Tube line, right by the village-esque area of Richmond. So upon exiting the tube, one can find themselves almost in a whole other world; used to the concrete jungle of central London and the rough-around-the-edges nature of the South-East, it felt like I was in the countryside, surrounded by tiny garden shops, cafes and arty stores. From Kew Gardens station, it’s only a few minutes walking to the main entrance, at which point you have the most impressive gardens at your fingertips.

My arms wrapped desperately around my body for warmth, I speed-walked to the first giant greenhouse-structure my eyes laid eyes upon; Kew Garden’s ‘Palm House’. This Victorian glasshouse is home to a collection of, you guessed it, palms and other tropical and exotic plants from some of the most threatened environments in the world. The giant, basically, greenhouse re-creates a rainforest climate, composed of winding tiny paths through canopies of luscious green foliage and leaves, palms and trees.

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Upon entry, it’s like walking into a steam room at the gym – watch out glasses-wearers. It’s safe to say my camera lens suffered for some time, unable to acclimatise to the incredible humidity of the Palm House. I had to pause and strip, removing my layers, almost ready for the beach, and I was not the only sufferer; I looked up amidst my own struggle and saw several others with cameras gawp in confusion at their foggy images, using their sweaty shirts to rub the moisture from their camera lens. Most glasses-wearers, however, seemed unfazed and walked around looking through their steamy specs regardless. Desperately trying to wipe my steamed-up lens, I strolled around the glasshouse in awe. My journey to Brazil last year came to mind, especially in secluded forest-type areas in Rio.

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The plants and trees in the Palm house simulate a multi-layered habitat found in the rainforest, with canopying palms at the top and climbers reaching down to the shorter understory parts, featuring tiny shrubs, palms and plants. This place is also a living laboratory, researchers at the gardens studying the exotic plants here, also for the production of medicines.

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After my lens had finally acclimatised to the humidity, I managed to capture the Palm House’s beauty, weaving in between the foliage, getting smacked in the face more than enough times by stray and damp gigantic palm leaves. The hiss of steam-machines overhead echoed, filling the ceiling with a white cloud of hot air, falling on and nourishing the rich green leaves and trees. In the middle of the house are two opposing white spiralled stairwells, which you can climb to reach the top balcony level to view the beautiful palms from above; this is as close to a wild adventurer as you’ll ever feel in urban London.

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Once I had had enough of the heat, I ventured back out into the cold, the moisture on my brow freezing almost instantly. I bumbled to the next glass house nearby – the Waterlily House. Stunningly beautiful, this glass house is like something out of trippy dreams. Spiralling tiny leaves and green cords cascade from above and as you walk around the house there are plenty of exotic looking plants and flowers you can’t help but want to poke and touch. Water lilies sit atop lily pads that sit atop the stunning pond in the centre of the glasshouse, all the plants around the centre and creeping up the sides of the house looking inwards.

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Further into the garden is another stunning Glasshouse, The Princess of Wales Conservatory, featuring more exotic plants, notably the incredible array of cacti at one entrance.

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My stomach began grumbling at this point, so I headed to the Orangerie where on offer was an incredible array of cakes, pastries and biscuits (alongside normal lunch-food too). I paused for some courgette cake and a cup of tea before heading to the next main attraction I had looked forward to for months: The Hive.

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Atop a slight hill in the gardens, this immersive sound and visual experience is incredibly impressive. Designed by UK based artist Wolfgang Buttress, this structure’s lights and sounds are triggered by bee activity in a real beehive at Kew Gardens. The outside is visibly “hive” shaped, and inside is an amazing experience as you’re surrounded by an incessant vibrating “buzz” and standing on top of a transparent floor. You can stand inside for a fairly long time, getting lost in the immersion, feeling almost like a bee (kind-of).

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After, I strolled around the rest of the garden, wandering through the trees and plants, across Sackler Crossing ( a long bridge across a tiny lake) and stopped to climb up the Treetop Walkway – a very wobbly tree-top experience; large metal ‘trunk’ style pillars support a large round walkway high up in the air, taking you through the treetops with other stumbling visitors.

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Before departing, I visited the amazing Palm House again for some last photos and to get a little warmer before visiting Richmond’s town centre. Having heard of an amazing garden and restaurant called Petersham Nurseries in the area, I thought to visit, however, my lowly budget decided against staying there for too long (think sky-high restaurant prices). But my brief time there says it’s well worth a visit if you have the time (and cash…) Well, at least I got some photos of the plant nursery for free.

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