A visit to Kew used to be a quiet affair, even contemplative. There was time for a word with the gatekeeper, who said he’d heard the camassias were looking good down in the oak collection by the river. Off to the left the camellias were getting on with their business; there were a few visitors, but nowhere anything like a crowd or a queue.
Yesterday, a Monday, the queue at the turnstiles reached far outside the gates, the shop, the little train, were packed, and everywhere you went there were couples, families, rugs and picnics; Kew has come alive. The main attraction, undoubtedly, is the new features – above all the Children’s Garden near Kew Palace. An area of several acres has been screened off with new hedges, but no one can doubt what goes on inside. The excited voices carry round the gardens. There is already a booking system for 75-minute slots, and a queue at the entrance. Next time I must take a grandchild with me to see all the ingenious dodges aimed at showing children that plants are fun.
Dale Chihuly’s glowing glass sculptures first appeared at Kew six or seven years ago their reception was rapturous. He is back with even more ambitious towers and chandeliers and plant-like creations scattered through the gardens and conservatories. Last month we watched some of them being built, a process involving scaffolding and a team of a dozen, unpacking the huge glass tubes and spikes and spirals, and fitting them with laborious care into their slots; hundreds of pieces in shining fruit-gum colours. They are particularly effective, in my view, in the Temperate House, where they mingle with the exotic plants in a glorious jungle, peering from undergrowth or floating on the ponds, plant-like enough to make you wonder. Four months ago, when it reopened in spring, the Temperate House looked rather bare. Today in places it already feels almost overgrown.
There is the restored pagoda, of course, with its Disney dragons, and there is the refreshed Pavilion Restaurant nearby. Most rewarding of all, for anyone botanically bent, is the new Agius Garden replacing the old Order Beds. It makes a start at explaining how DNA and other dark arts are making a macedoine of plant family relationships, to the confusion of the old Linnaean guard.