London has four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but one – the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew – is less visited than the others. Each of the others – the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, and the Greenwich Museums – attracted more than 2.5m visitors in 2017. Plus countless more who just stood outside to admire the buildings and take selfies. Yet Kew Gardens only had 1.8m visitors last year. It’s still an impressive number, but why so many fewer than London’s other UNESCO sites?
Why is Kew Gardens a UNESCO World Heritage Site?
The Royal Botanic Gardens are much more than “just another botanic garden”. There are several strands to the UNESCO listing, starting with the fact that Kew Gardens has been at the forefront of scientific research since it was established in 1759. Its collections of living and conserved plants are still central to international research in botany and ecology. Secondly, several landscape architects, including the great Capability Brown, contributed to the gardens, making it a sort of living museum of garden design through the centuries. In addition, the gardens are home to 44 historic buildings, including the famous Pagoda and the Victorian greenhouses.
Then there are the gardens themselves, which became an inspiration for similar gardens around the world. Set in 326 acres and incorporating a number of former royal estates, they take you on a journey through different parts of the plant kingdom. There are avenues devoted to single trees, like holly or cherry; areas planted with bamboo or rhododendrons; and lilies in the ornamental ponds. The surroundings are important too, with the River Thames on one side and Richmond Park on another. And if you walk along the central Syon Vista you will have an uninterrupted view across the river to Syon House, a grand manor house from the 16th century.
Exploring the Royal Botanic Gardens
I was initially disappointed, as some parts of the garden were closed when we visited. We couldn’t see the Pagoda or the Temperate House (the largest Victorian greenhouse in the world) as both were in the process of renovation. But there is more here than you could see in a day, and we enjoyed a walk past the Japanese Gateway, through the Woodland Glade and along the riverside. The spring flowers had started to bloom and we were surrounded by the chatter of birds (I was surprised to hear parrots and woodpeckers among the more common species).
I was particularly interested in the buildings. There are several of the “temples” that were so popular in 18th century gardens, and in a far corner is Queen Charlotte’s Cottage (this former royal hideaway is only open in the summer but we were able to admire the outside and to walk into the bluebell woods behind the cottage). But, apart from the Pagoda, the most spectacular buildings are probably the greenhouses, Victorian confections of wrought iron and glass. Although the Temperate House was closed, we were able to go into the Palm House, and into the contrasting modern Princess of Wales Conservatory. Then there was the 19th century museum building opposite the Palm House which is now home to the Botanical restaurant: we enjoyed an excellent lunch here!
Something for Everyone at Kew Gardens
It was quiet when we visited at the end of March: just us and a few lively school groups. I can imagine it would get a lot more crowded in the summer, but the gardens are large enough to accommodate large numbers, and you could always find a peaceful corner. There is something for everyone here, from the serious plant enthusiast to those who simply enjoy strolling through gardens. There are places specially designed for children, including the Log Trail and the Giant Badger Sett. And, for those who don’t want a long walk, a little train connects the highlights of the garden.
Which brings me back to the original question: why is Kew less visited than London’s other UNESCO sites? I don’t know the answer, but perhaps it is the wrong question. Perhaps the visitor numbers are just right for this tranquil corner of London.
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