#35: UNESCO World Heritage Sites – The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew started life as a royal retreat, a summer residence to escape the hustle and bustle of London. Initially just some parkland around Kew Palace, the now internationally significant gardens started life in 1759 as a small ‘Physick Garden’, founded by the parents of the future George III, to grow medicinal plants and herbs.
After a period of decline in the early 1800s, interest in Kew revived during the latter half of the 19th century when the scientific and botanical knowledge amongst the workers at Kew became critical to the development of the Empire through the provision of seeds, crops and advice to the colonies. During the great era of exploration, botanists collected seed and plant samples from all over the world and returned them to Kew for analysis and cultivation. It was during this period that the two Victorian glasshouses (the Temperate House and the Palm House) were built, to enable the cultivation of species which wouldn’t normally grow in the English climate.
The gardens continued to evolve over the course of the next century and in 2000 Kew’s sister estate in Sussex, Wakehurst Place, became the site for the Millenium Seed Bank which aims to collect and conserve seed from the world’s flowering plants. Kew’s importance as an international leading authority on botany, biodiversity and plant conservation continues today. For an excellent summary of Kew’s history, see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/8301243/A-history-of-Kew-Gardens.html
The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (to give them their proper title) were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003 for their landscapes and architecture (the designers of which, including Capability Brown, went on to have internationally significant careers), for the diversity of their plant collections and for the scientific advances in both botany and ecology which the work at Kew has made possible.
My day out at Kew started with a guided tour which explained a little about the history of the gardens and the work done there today plus visits to two of the glasshouses (the Palm House and the Princess of Wales Conservatory).
It was fascinating to learn that the scientists currently working at Kew are involved not only in conservation and preservation of species, but also contribute to things as diverse as developing the use of plants in industry and forensic work with police forces to help solve major crimes. After the tour, I enjoyed a day long amble round the gardens in the sunshine exploring the different habitats and different types of plants. I think my favourite part of the day however, was discovering the ‘Gin and Tonics’ bar in the Secluded Garden…
The gardens are beautiful and clearly well looked after, but I must confess this wasn’t my favourite of the English UNESCO sites I’ve visited so far. Sadly, there is only so much looking at plants I can do. I think for me the fascinating part of Kew’s story lies behind the scenes in the scientific contribution they make and I would have loved to have had the opportunity to learn more about this. Nevertheless, if you get some sunshine it’s a pleasant day out in a beautiful place with some lovely views to enjoy.