With the Chelsea Flower Show and Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival, as well as Arundel Castle’s Tulip Festival and Allium Extravaganza all victims of COVID-19, until recently, my floral fix this year had amounted to just a single trip to West Dean Gardens a week after it reopened from lockdown.
Plans for a long-overdue visit to Kew in June were delayed when I learned most of its big features would be closed. The world-famous glasshouses reopened on 4 July so I booked my slot. Like all major attractions, you can’t just turn up right now, you need to reserve your place online and arrive within your allocated time slot.
Following two days of glorious weather, it turned overcast for the day of my visit, my first to Kew for many years. Entering through the Brentford Gate after a socially-distanced queue, the first thing that greeted me was the mass of colourful planting along the Broad Walk Borders. Although Kew claims it to be the longest herbaceous borders in the country, as a first impression, apart from its scale, it’s really nothing special.
The same, it has to be said, applies to the first structure you see: the Hive. Now I’d seen photos of it and thought it looked intriguing, but in person it’s surprisingly underwhelming. And at 17m-tall, it’s nowhere as grand as I expected it to be.
This dull grey geometric installation was originally created for the 2015 Milan Expo by UK based artist Wolfgang Buttress. As its name suggests, it’s all about bees, with the aluminium structure itself consisting of thousands of hexagonal shapes.
Now I’m sure it’s more impressive at night when its multitude of lights are on, but beyond its loose connection to bees, it really didn’t seem to serve any real purpose being located at Kew. Had it not been ‘gifted’, I don’t think it’s something they would have commissioned. As an installation, it neither impresses nor leaves much of an impression.
Sadly, The Hive was far from being the only disappointment at Kew. Walking around, it quickly became evident things weren’t up to muster.
There was a palpable feeling of a garden that’s somewhat down at heel. And frankly that really surprised me. After all, for more than 250 years, since it was founded as a Royal Garden in 1759, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to give it its full name, has been the world’s leader in botanical research and few would argue it is the most famous, most renowned garden in the world. It’s even a UNESCO World Heritage site. What’s more, as recently as 2016, Kew won top spot as London’s best attraction.
Now I know COVID-19 and the protracted lockdown has taken its toll on so many attractions, gardens included and that reduced staffing clearly results in less ability to get things done, but this is Kew, a place where one expects the attention to detail to be exemplary. It wasn’t.
Maybe I’m spoilt. Being a regular at Chelsea and Hampton Court, I’m used to getting up close and personal with the very best show gardens in the world and seeing planting that aims for perfection. By those high standards, I seriously doubt anything I saw at Kew would merit an RHS medal, even a lowly bronze. And that, I have to say, is astonishing. So what’s going on?
Well, you only have to look at Kew’s current homepage for a clue. The first words you read are stark:
“We are facing a significant financial crisis that threatens to close our gardens for good.”
There’s no attempt at sugarcoating it, Kew are admitting they have serious problems. And its impact is felt wherever one looks, with so much being untended: whether it’s the numerous bald patches of grass, many of the flowers themselves and especially the glasshouses: Kew’s pride and joy. Peeling paint, rusting metalwork and algae-covered windows, sadly, all were very much in evidence.
What wasn’t noticeable was too many people tending to the plants. Indeed, the vast majority of staff were otherwise occupied, required to man the entrances, keep people distanced and reminding them to sanitize. With restrictions on capacity, wherever you were in the glasshouses and grounds, there weren’t that many visitors to be seen.
All of which begs the question: Was Kew right to reopen? Of course one can understand the need to bring in much-needed revenue, but when the place is looking well below par, some may say it’s a mistake, that those who visit won’t be impressed and will pass that message to friends. My own view, based on my visit, is I think they reopened too soon.
Whilst the lockdown and the economic climate have clearly had an impact of Kew’s purse, one only has to look back a few years to learn its finances have been an issue for quite a while.
Back in 2015, it was reported that Kew was facing an annual financial black hole of £5.5m. This was due to the a funding cut of £2m a year combined with a loss of funds from its main charity supporter and rising overheads. At the time, the Government’s Science and Technology Select Committee was warning that Kew’s future was uncertain.
The most recent figures show Kew attracted almost two million visitors. However, the numbers published in the 2018/2019 Annual Report are hard to determine because they only give a combined visitor total to both Kew and its sister garden Wakehurst in West Sussex. That being said, they reveal the combined target for 2018/2019 was 2,338,000 and the actual admissions was 2,360,681, an increase of 1%.
Confusingly, this month, Horticultural Week reported that according to ALVA figures, Kew in fact recorded a 23% increase in visitors during 2019.
Whatever the actual increase may be, whilst visitors numbers have risen over past years, Kew does admit that more visitors puts pressure on its visitor facilities which they acknowledge require significant investment.
But it’s not as if nothing has been spent. In fact, in recent years a huge amount of money has been found to complete several major projects. The most impressive of them being the restoration of the magnificent Temperate House.
Designed and built by Decimus Burton in 1860, this Grade I listed building is the largest surviving Victorian glasshouse in the world and houses some 10,000 rare and endangered temperate plants.
It was clearly a huge undertaking. More than 1,000 craftsmen were involved in the five year restoration which saw 15,000 panes of glass replaced as well as improvements to its lighting and ventilation.
Reportedly, this one project alone cost a whopping £41 million, for which Kew relied on the generosity of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Defra and other benefactors.
It was reopened in May 2018 by Sir David Attenborough.
That same year, following another extensive restoration, Kew’s iconic Great Pagoda also reopened, although it remained closed at the time of my visit.
The garden’s most recent new addition is the Pavilion restaurant. This opened in May 2019 and was only serving food for outdoor consumption when I was there.
Whilst penned prior to the pandemic, in their plan for the future, Kew highlight 26 priorities for 2019/2020. The first of these is for their collections to be curated “to excellent standards.” As I’ve already mentioned, judging by what I saw, they are a long way off reaching that level.
If Kew really is as hard up as it appears, then it needs to be creative. Like almost all attractions these days, it should be seeking sponsorship of its various constituents: a title sponsor for Kew itself and individual sponsors for things like the Palm House or the Orchid House.
That being said, the two features I saw that were financed by benefactors failed to impress. The first of these, the Davies Alpine House, the first new glasshouse to be constructed at Kew in over 20 years, is way too small in ambition and size. And frankly its contents are as uninteresting as its design.
The second is the Sackler Crossing, a curvaceous footbridge spanning a koi-filled lake. Visually, it’s not that imaginative and its metal uprights were clearly in need of a polish.
Another tired design is the Princess of Wales Conservatory. It may have been a a state of the art creation back in the 80s, but today it looks extremely dated and in need of a long-overdue facelift. Its glazing especially could do with a deep clean.
Even so, I think this 4,500 square metre glasshouse contains the most interesting selection of plants of any at Kew, including many exotic desert and tropical varieties.
A little known fact: Although Princess Diana opened the conservatory in 1987, the glasshouse is actually named after Princess Augusta, the mother of George III, who founded the gardens.
If one thing left the biggest impression on me, it was the trees. Where else are you able to see so many established specimens from all around the world?
The variety and the sheer number are a sight to behold, especially the giant redwoods in Redwood Grove which includes Kew’s tallest tree, a 40m coastal redwood (sequoia sempervirens).
In fact, there are more than 14,000 trees, representing all shapes, sizes, species and ages, with the oldest dating back to the 1700s.
The Japanese Landscape was another area that caught my eye, but as nice as it was, compared with the stunning creations Kazuyuki Ishihara regularly puts on at Chelsea, it lacks both drama and imaginative planting.
But where I think Kew really struggles is in its storytelling. Although they recognise their plants and trees all have their unique stories to tell, most visitors have no ‘engagement’ with what they’re seeing apart from whether they like the look of it or not.
Whilst there are name tags on most of the plants and trees, there is little by way of explanation. Signs are problematical because they can be so invasive, but some kind of bar code system whereby more information on what you’re seeing could be accessed via your smartphone would bring things to life and give visitors a better understanding of exactly what they are looking at.
Admittedly, the visitor experience right now is hampered by health and safety concerns, with one way systems in place and many areas temporarily closed off. The upside is with fewer people, everywhere is less crowded and it’s easier to see things.
It was the same story food-wise as, operating under Covid conditions, not everything was open. Even so, the selection and prices were memorable for all the wrong reasons. My cheeseburger and fries at the Pavilion was average at best, but at £14 a pop, steep in price. And whilst I’m not a vegan, I was more than surprised that there wasn’t a plant-based restaurant at Kew — surely that’s such an obvious thing to do.
But Kew’s concerns go beyond its financial position: amid changing views on the past, it’s also having to grapple with its dark history. Indeed, Richard Deverell, director of Kew Gardens, has gone so far as to say that the attraction has a “shameful” history with “deep roots in colonialism and racism”.
Remember, in the 19th century, a lot of what the Royal Botanical Gardens was focusing on was moving plants around the British Empire, therefore showcasing its strong links with colonialism.
For Kew, this means re-examining all its collections to acknowledge racist or exploitative legacies and broaden the diversity of stories told about its history.
All of which means Kew has to grapple with two big issues: its past and its future. For me, of the two, the far more pressing issue is looking forwards. It certainly needs to raise its standards, but to do that it of course needs to raise more income.
I wasn’t looking for souvenirs, but if I had been, Kew don’t make it easy to buy any. Although I’m not advocating a Disney-approach to relieving visitors of their money around every corner, it was surprising how few opportunities there are at Kew to buy something. One would have thought there would be souvenir opportunities at every entrance and exit.
For an organisation in the weeds financially, it seems odd that they appear to be so commercially inept. Or perhaps, it’s because of it that they find themselves in the trouble they are in. I may be mistaken, but the overriding impression is there is a dearth of creativity at Kew.
One obvious way to attract more people and increase revenue would be to offer a series of highly personalised visitor experiences: specialist tours of different parts of Kew to small groups prepared to pay for the privilege of being shown round by experts and getting to see some of the behind the scenes. These could be themed by plant type, by geographical location and the like, as well as to specific interest groups: photography, painting, flower arranging, flower pressing, to name just a few.
One size fits all solutions are no longer sufficient, people increasingly want more unique experiences. To that end, I’d also have welcomed some tailored suggestions for getting around Kew’s 326-acres: different routes depending on how much time you have, what specifically you’re interested in. For example, by geographic location, by type of plant species or by architectural or historical feature. This would work well as an app. If something like it exists, I’m not aware of it.
At present, Kew like other outdoor garden attractions are having to adhere to strict guidelines on how they ‘safely’ operate. With visitors having to book slots, rather than just turn up, it has inevitably produced a high level of “no-shows”.
But just like The National Trust and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), Kew’s problem is further exacerbated when it’s their own members who are booking slots and then either cancelling or not turning up.
Although attractions like Kew are free for members, they are reliant on those visitors eating and drinking on site, or buying something in the shops.
Paul Guthrie from Kew Gardens said “We’re sympathetic to why it happens, plans change, weather changes, but in these times we’re particularly asking people to cancel their bookings wherever possible as members’ tickets cannot be reallocated when they fail to turn up.” It’s been reported that as many as 40% of those member booking were no-shows.
Currently, Kew Gardens is restricted to 8,000 visitors daily. That’s around two-thirds of its usual number. Before social distancing, a busy summer’s day would have seen between 10,000 to 12,000 people pass through its doors. The problems caused by the thirty-minute slot pre-booking system probably means that it rarely reaches its daily quota. As a result, the gardens are already facing a £15m shortfall compared to last year.
But the biggest shortcoming Kew has to grapple with is the gap between expectations and reality. While I appreciate I am far more critical than the average visitor, a visit to Kew should be as close to floral perfection as one can witness in a public garden. Right now, whatever the reason, it’s simply nowhere near.
As someone on TripAdvisor recently commented: “Chelsea for the flowers, Kew for the science.”
Behind the image: Despite my chagrin with much of what I saw at Kew, I’m really pleased with the shots I came away with. I tried to avoid the usual tourist snaps, instead focusing my efforts on tight shots, especially my recent penchant for photographing interesting leaves. Not for the first time, I have to admit taking a scattergun approach. With hindsight, I wished I’d gone with more of a plan of what I wanted to shoot and, as is often the case, I rue not taking more shots of each subject. The sheer scale of the place means you simply cannot explore everything in just a few hours.
All these shots were taken with the iPhone 8 Plus. After years of shooting flowers and gardens, first using a Canon SLR and more recently with my Olympus OM-D E-M1 — and this may surprise some people — I’ve concluded I get better images with the iPhone. Indeed, nowadays I find it amusing to see photographers with huge cameras and tripods taking shots of gardens. Of course, a great photograph starts with a great subject, and there is an abundance of photo opportunities at Kew, but for me, it’s all about the edit. For this series, I took two different directions. Depending on the subject matter and composition, for some I went with my usual vivid look, but on others I preferred a much more bleached out, painterly style. Whatever the image, my aim was to create something that was out of the ordinary.
About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s finest flowers and gardens.