I was five years old the first time I went to London. Needless to say, I was terribly excited. In my befuddled, five-year-old head I thought it was some kind of rite of passage – visiting the capital of one’s country. After the visit I would be much more clever and sophisticated…….I didn’t think in those words, of course – I didn’t know those words then – but that’s the emotion I remember.What I remember about the vacation itself are the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, and being forced to eat my chips in Lyons Corner House (it was only 6 years after the end of WW2 and seeing food wasted was still hard for my parents to accept.)
The next time I went I was in my teens…….and London was Swinging (capital S intended). It was THE place on the planet to be. It was colorful and vibrant, and intimidating to a provincial lass chasing coolness and sophistication (oh, there’s that word again, but I understood it by then). There were several visits in those years, I remember riverside pubs, Swedish saunas, seeing imposing signs like “Scotland Yard” or “BBC” – this was real life. There were also the Tower of London, Portobello Road Market, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral (not to be confused), St Paul’s, the Changing of the Guard – the usual tourist stuff in other words.
In my 20s and early 30s going to London was about posh weekends; theater, shopping in Harrods, the latest movies, foreign foods you couldn’t get at home, dressing up, the 007 Bar in the Hilton Hotel (my idea of sophistication then – Ouch!)
Having transplanted my kids to a foreign land at tender ages, there came the point where a visit to London was a “must-do” on a lot of levels. By this time there were, to my horror, queues to get into the main attractions. Still living in a sort of hicksville, I hadn’t realized just how big tourism had become back home. So there was quite a bit we missed – it wasn’t really queuing weather. It was a chill late October. We lapped up movies in English (there were none available here then), we saw a couple of shows, and I discovered that museums were now entire entertainment centers, not just showcases of old stuff. I think we went twice to the Imperial War Museum (still a favorite of mine), and, of course, the Natural History Museum. The thing which really sticks in my memory, though, is the parks, which were breathtaking panoramas of golds, ambers and reds. It was crisp and dry, and the leaves were piled up in colorful clumps, just the way I remembered them from my childhood, and we kicked them about, we scooped up armfuls and threw them into the air, we fell dramatically into the heaps and we jumped on them, listening to the crackling sounds. It was one of those things you do as a child which you want to do with your own kids, a postcard from childhood.
In more recent years London has been about the London Eye, Camden Market, the London Marathon, Springtime in the parks, and it’s still about foreign foods (only the last time it was Cinnabon – well, it is foreign!) I can’t get at home and the latest movies. My Autumn trip this year, however, held a new experience, and one I can’t believe I’ve never had before. I went to Kew Gardens.
Guy took me as a surprise, so I didn’t know anything about it except that it is home to the largest collection of plants in the world, and some very attractive greenhouses, which I’d glimpsed from the air a couple of times, when my flight had been stacked, waiting to land at a London airport. I knew that it was an authority to be reckoned with – one absorbs a certain amount of information during one’s life without knowing it! It turns out that it’s a World Heritage Site, and covers over 300 acres, and it a world leader in scientific research into plant life, its consequences, history and future. They have a pretty impressive mission statement.
Knowing very little of this, I enjoyed the outing simply as a beautiful, mellow, autumnal day. We marveled at the beauty of orchids and waterlilies; we laughed about how plants in the Palm House, termed exotic, were perfectly normal roadside plants to us; we kicked up a few leaves too, but honestly this park is so neat and tidy there weren’t that many, although, as you can see the trees were quite spectacularly showing off their seasonal glory. We defended our picnic lunch from the very persistent Canada Geese, and
we I kept a sensible distance from carnivorous flora!
I’m a sucker for history, so afterwards I read up about Kew, about how evidence from pre-history shows that there was almost certainly a settlement there, on the rich, alluvial soil by the banks of the River Thames; about how the first records of the area show it to be a huge field, which was then, over time broken down into smaller units; about how one owner, Sir Henry Capel was a fanatical gardener and began the transformations which have resulted in what we see today; and about how much of what we now see is owed to Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales in the 18th century. That was a century which brought much exotic, new flora and fauna to Europe’s shores, as explorers and conquistadors spread out over the globe in search of society’s next talking point. In fact, the idea of botanical gardens was born then. The Botanical Gardens here in the Canary Islands, in Puerto de la Cruz, were established as a kind of stopping off point, so that plants could be studied and acclimatized before being taken to the mainland.
There are so many sides to Kew that it must surely take more than one day to see it all, and our day was a short one – October, remember. What struck me was how good a thing it is that folk want to spend a day looking at, essentially, beauty, in this often drab and chaotic world. I suppose only a fraction of the people there that day were interested in the history, or in the science of what they saw, and it isn’t necessary. Just seeing, experiencing nature is enough, words aren’t always needed.
Oh, and they have a great sense of humor there too!
I can’t finish without mentioning that there was there a photographic exhibition entitled “Hard Rain” which is quite extraordinary and very moving. It’s all the more moving for being outdoors, surrounded by trees. Hard Rain began as a project to set images to Bob Dylan’s iconic song. No doubt even Dylan didn’t realize the full impact of his words. What we were doing to each other and the environment back then seems little compared with the problems we now know we face, and the lack of concern. Because I have the book I didn’t take pictures of the exhibit, which was a bit silly, but there is a picture on the website.
One thing I know. Kew Gardens is high on my list of places to revisit the next time I go to London. I will go armed with information about the aspects I want to see, and I have penciled it in for springtime too – it must look astounding in the spring!