Hidden Kew Gardens

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Kew Gardens is a living, breathing attraction full of hidden nooks that even regulars may not have explored. Here's our guide to the lesser-known corners of Kew

  • Hidden Kew Gardens

    The badger sett at Kew Gardens © A McRobb/RBG Kew

  • The pagoda
    Kew’s not just about glorious garden vistas. It’s home to four Grade I-listed buildings and a further 36 Grade II-listed structures. Completed in 1762 as a surprise for Princess Augusta, the mother of George III, the pagoda is probably the most iconic. Less well known is the fact that during World War II, bomb designers used it as a testing ground (holes were made in each of the pagoda’s floors so they could drop models of their latest designs from top to bottom in order to study their flight). In the 1870s the building was opened to the public, but structural problems mean it's seldom open these days, so you'll have settle for admiring it from outside.

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    Compost heap
    The horses from the stables of the Royal Horse Artillery at Windsor augment the vast quantities of waste plant matter produced at Kew, and the result is Europe’s largest compost heap (that won’t thrill everyone, we know, but serious gardeners can get pretty excited at the thought of an unlimited supply of well-rotted manure). It’s in an area restricted to Kew’s staff, but you can admire it from a viewing platform west of the treetop walkway, if you feel so inclined.

    Sleepovers
    There’s huge demand for Kew’s occasional sleepovers in the excellent Climbers and Creepers indoor botanical play centre. The Midnight Rambler sessions for accompanied children aged eight to 11 involve plenty of time outdoors searching for local wildlife such as owls and badgers. Toasting marshmallows over a campfire and a communal singsong are part of the mix, along with activities such as botanical treasure hunts and a desert and rainforest expedition to the Princess of Wales Conservatory. Everyone beds down in their sleeping bags in the giant bramble tangle or under the dormouse nests; then after what tends to be a limited stretch of shuteye there’s an early breakfast and an awards ceremony before it’s time for home. The sleepover costs £40 a head and groups should include one adult to every four or five children. The remaining date for 2009 is Saturday October 3. For details email sleepovers@kew.org.

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    The Minka House
    Until the middle of the twentieth century, most ordinary Japanese people lived in wooden minka houses adapted to accommodate the long snowy winters in the north of the country or the typhoons of the hotter south. When they fell out of fashion, many were demolished and replaced with modern houses with a life of less than 30 years. In 1997, the Japan Re-Use and Recycle Association was established to promote the benefits of the more ecologically sound minka houses, whose components were easily reconstructed or used as fuel. Situated in the Bamboo Garden, Kew’s Minka House was originally a farmhouse, built around 1900 in a suburb of Okazaki City near the southern coast of central Japan. It was donated to Kew as part of the 2001 Japan Festival, and once the framework was in place, a team of British builders who had worked on the construction of Shakespeare's Globe theatre assembled the mud wall panels and thatched the roof.

    Museum No 1
    Museum No 1, across the pond from the Palm House, was actually the second museum to be built at Kew. The first was instigated in 1841 by Kew’s first director, Sir William Hooker, as a museum of economic botany to illustrate the importance of plants to mankind. It was soon filled to overflowing with contributions from the great Exhibition of 1851 and the Paris Exhibition of 1855, and the need for something much bigger became apparent. When the new museum was opened in 1857, the original was demoted to become Museum No 2. These days it houses the school of the School of Horticulture.

    Tiny plots planted by horticulture students
    More than 600 people work at Kew and some of them study there too. The highly regarded three-year Kew Diploma offers academic and hands-on training in amenity and botanical horticulture. Interestingly, students are paid employees of Kew – so they don’t need to take out student loans or pay top-up fees (not a fact that many careers advisors see fit to share with their students). In the first year, students get their own plots, in which they put into practice what they’re learning. The results are charming little gardens tucked away on the north-east side of the gardens by the Davies Alpine glasshouse.

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    Seed sculptures
    Kew has a reputation for outdoor exhibitions that create a major impact, and huge willow sculptures by Tom Hare (who trained as a ceramicist but, self-taught, has been working in willow for a decade) currently line the mini-Broadwalk at the Main Gate. A giant star anise, horse chestnut, devil’s claw and banksia are already in situ, and during the course of the summer visitors of all ages are being invited to help Hare create five more seeds.

    The badger sett
    Kew’s scaled-up sett, with its warren of metre-high underground foodstores, sleeping chambers, scratching posts and nursing nests, is a great way to show kids how badgers live, sustained by a tempting seasonal diet of crunchy insects, small animals and honey.

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    Marianne North Gallery
    The gallery is quite extraordinary, lined with botanical paintings made in the field all over the world during the nineteenth century by the remarkably intrepid Marianne North. After a successful London exhibition in 1879, North came up with the idea of donating her paintings to the Royal Botanic gardens – and she threw in a purpose-built building in which to exhibit them while she was at it. The gallery walls are lined with more than 800 paintings of flowers, landscapes, animals and birds made in America, Canada, Jamaica, Brazil, Tenerife, Japan, Singapore, Sarawak, Java, Sri Lanka, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile.

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Kathleen Duffy
Kathleen Duffy

Just to let you know the Marianne North Gallery is now open.