Earl Grey or Assam?

Elder Daughter gave me a pedometer one birthday and I was a little surprised to find that in the course of a normal day, I cover around 8km. When I come to London, I am deeply grateful that I am used to being on my feet. It prepares me in some way for the great distances I end up walking.

With a few days before London daughter and I brave Ryan Air (even more budget than EasyJet) for a flight to Sicily, I decided to follow up some of the private gardens open under the National Gardens Scheme. We have followed this with interest on the Living Channel, where the programme Open Gardens charts the process of assessment, selection and open day.

There is real status in being accepted by the NGS, even though it is entirely charitable and garden owners may open for as little as three hours on one particular day of the year. On Sunday afternoon, I braved pouring rain and shoes that leaked to find my way to Chiswick on the banks of the Thames where there was a cluster of four gardens open for the afternoon. I think this enclave of antique real estate is referred to as a mews. Highly valued terrace houses. Terraced housing means that the only access to the rear garden is … through the house. Fortunately the rain stopped. It certainly gives opening one’s garden to the public a new dimension, having a few score of people tramping through your home. This being London, the gardens are the width of the house – in other words, as little as one room and a passageway wide or maybe five to seven metres. One garden was serving teas in a miniscule back plot where six people were a crowd. But old style. Nobody asked here if you wanted gumboot tea or Earl Grey. No, in a line which I must store away for future use, I was offered Earl Grey or Assam.

Earl Grey or Assam?

I was interested in the whole process of assessment and selection of the NGS gardens (it can be a bit of a thorny issue, that one, as some of us know well in Taranaki) and also to set benchmarks and establish points of comparison for our festival gardens, both on that Sunday and the following day when I travelled to another small garden which opened by appointment. As a garden visitor, I certainly felt privileged to gain entry to private gardens which would otherwise be closed to me. These are domestic gardens which don’t even pretend to sit up alongside the renowned top end UK gardens of private origin, such as Sissinghurst and Great Dixter. And what can I say? It was a privilege. They are different to gardens at home. Our Rhododendron Festival gardens can hold their heads up high. I will say no more.

I had planned to finally make my pilgrimage to Wisley, the Royal Horticultural Gardens south of London. Their website showed much improved public transport links but once here, I realised that even so a day visit was going to involve five hours of travel and multiple changes. I was not that determined after all. Fortune may favour the bold but I am not suicidal so I won’t drive in London and from the tranquillity of home in Tikorangi, I tend to underestimate the effort it takes to travel across and through this city, let alone heading out to farther reaches. So I compromised with a return visit to Kew, the Royal Botanic Gardens which are easily reached by public transport.

I doubt that Kew could ever disappoint. They are botanic gardens on a grand scale. The British were great collectors and while I feel uncomfortable at some of the museums which represent acquisition and at times pillaging and theft from around the world on a scale which defies comprehension, the plant collecting and botanical classification work is much safer territory.

Walking in the tree tops at Kew

There is something for everyone at Kew. On an early summer’s day when the forecast was for temperatures around 25 degrees, it was in fact closer to about 12 degrees but the place was still teaming with people, including many children (it is mid term here) most of whom seemed to be called names like Oscar, Imogen and Henry and who were extremely well behaved. However, Kew is very spacious and can accommodate large numbers of people, although I probably met a goodly proportion of them on the newly opened treetop walkway. Treetop walkways are remarkable feats of engineering and Kew’s one has apparently been installed with minimal damage to the environment, avoiding even the visually polluting oversized pylons which seem to be a feature in others. For mild sufferers of vertigo such as me, they lose a little impact because one avoids looking straight down, preferring instead the safety of long views, and they are perhaps more novelty than revelation. But Kew must be leading the way in making public gardens and parks educative and everywhere the drive to inform and to conserve is threaded through the garden visitor experience. I can understand the use of some novelty and gimmickry if the outcome is positive. The importance of places such as Kew, set in incredibly overcrowded and hyped cities, can not be overstated, let alone the contribution to global conservation through the botanical research and collections.

The Kew experience

I was most delighted by the woodland plantings of herbaceous material, by the alpine gardens and, surprisingly, by an open air photographic exhibition. The International Garden Photographer of the Year is available at www.igpoty.com if you want to see some lovely imagery. The alpine gardens are interesting because our climate at home is just too warm and humid to manage this restrained style of display but the woodland and herbaceous plantings are an area where I gathered ideas and learned from established practice.

And nothing to do with gardening, but I was amused to see Harter and Loveless Solicitors on Caledonian Road. I wonder if Mr Harter does matrimonials while Mr Loveless is forever destined to do neutral conveyancing?

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