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Kew Gardens are on the outskirts of London in Surrey, but are the most extensive gardens of their type in the London area. It is famous for its glasshouses and my favourite is the Princess of Wales Conservatory which has many different climate zones. Whilst it is hot in here, it is great seeing the different variety of plants - including lots of cacti (and some frogs and tropical fish). There is also The Palm House (the Temperate House is closed for restoration). There is a small aquarium below the Palm House.
There is also a pagoda (you can't always go up it, but worth booking a slot when you arrive if it is open) and a number of buildings such as Kew Palace and Queen Charlotte's Cottage. Also a few galleries covering botanical art and a treetop walkway. Usually there are 'themed' events going on with different and relevant activities each time which encompass the entire family. There is a lot to do here and can be a full day out. There are a number of places to buy food and drink, or you can bring a picnic as admission isn't cheap. There are enough things to do undercover that occasional rain-showers need not be an obstacle (although if it is a full day of chucking it down, then best left for another day - the gardens are too nice to not be appreciated).
Obviously a lot of the garden is seasonal, I like it if I am early enough to catch the sunflowers, but also like to see the water-lilies. I often spend a lot of time by the lake watching the ducks and dragonflies, and sometimes a peacock will show his tail to you in all his glory. In winter they do lit-up walks around part of the gardens in the evenings.
My partner is an avid fan of walking around, thus I often have the delight of walking around all of the national trust locations in and around Bedfordshire. At the weekend however she decided she wanted to go to the Royal Botanic Gardens, otherwise known as Kew Gardens. The gardens are located between Richmond and Kew in Southwest London. The site Director is Professor Stephen D. Hopper, it is considered an International important botanical research and education institute. The gardens employ around 700 staff and have an annual income of £44 million; they are also sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural affairs.
The site is a leading centre in botanical research, it is a hive for visitors, artists and professional gardeners and in 2005 around 1.48 million people visited them. There are numerous attractions within the gardens such as Kew palace, a treetop walkway, an art exhibition, museums, shops, restaurants, a huge pagoda, Queen Charlotte cottage and waterlily house, this is however just a selection. There are also a huge collection of plants such as the arboretum (trees), cacti collection, alpine collection, bonsai collection, grass collection and a bamboo garden.
My experience -
I had personally never been to Kew gardens before, my partner however had; luckily for me she knew where to find the car park. It is possible to find a parking space for free outside the gardens if you get there at the crack of dawn, we however arrived at around 11, by which time all the free spaces had gone. In order to reach the actual car park you need to go down a small alleyway, which only one car can fit through. Unfortunately it isn't signed; the only visible sign read 'maintenance and repairs', not much help. Upon entering the car park you will notice various signs thanking you for your contribution, what for I thought, I hadn't done anything, turns out you have to pay £5 for parking however long you are there, so make sure you have plenty of change.
We however didn't have any change, so once we parked up in one of the many spaces we trundled off to the ticket booth to get some change. As it turned out we could pay for the parking ticket with our regular tickets, when we looked at the prices we were shocked, £13 for adults, apparently only a year ago it was £10, a 30% increase, slightly above inflation wouldn't you say?...If you are elderly, disabled or a student you can get a reduction and young children go free, but still. Wait for it though, here's the bombshell, after asking for the £31 the young gentlemen had the audacity to ask if we would like to pay an extra £1.30 so they could claim the tax back, with a swift response of "No, you've already charged me £5 for parking" we set off into the gardens (I would also like to point out that there wasn't a queue, which was good).
The gardens themselves are vast and beautiful; we decided to visit the treetop walk and Rhizotron first. The treetop walk has been designed to blend in with the background; the huge supports have been painted brown and have branches like trees to support the walk. It sits around 18m off the ground just above the tree canopy. The view is amazing, unless you look right down, at which point you may feel a bit of vertigo, the floor is mesh so partly see through. The lift was out of service when we went so if you are disabled or struggle with steps, be warned, it may not be open. The Rhizotron sounded exciting in the map we were given, it said explore the routes and creepy crawlies under the ground, turns out you simply go a little underground where they have fake insects made of wood and a few short videos, more suited to 5 year olds and a bit of a let down.
After this we visited the various green houses which hold all the various different types of plants, bushed and trees, some of the plants are amazing. I would like to mention however that the tropical greenhouses are very warm, so don't wear anything too warm that cannot be easily removed. In some of the greenhouses are fish tanks which have various types of fish and other sea life, my favourite was in the palm greenhouse where there was a funny worm thing in one of the tanks that was half under the ground and half out, it was very strange but interesting at the same time.
The gardens are extremely well maintained, I didn't see a single piece of litter the whole day which helps make the day a little bit better. The trees also looked amazing with their vibrant colours, autumn is without doubt one of the better months to visit, even if the weather isn't quite so hot. In some ways this is better though because you won't melt walking around both outside or in the greenhouses. As well as plant life there is a diverse range of animal life, you will find the usual collection of squirrels and pigeons, but we were lucky enough to see some guinea fowl, a golden pheasant and many other varieties of birds.
Unfortunately there is one problem which for me ruined the entire day, and destroyed the tranquility of the gardens. The gardens are located very near to Heathrow, you will find that every two minutes without fail a jumbo jet will fly over your head about 300 meters off the ground, the noise is tremendous and cannot be ignored. Although the gardens are vast you cannot escape the noise or sight of the planes anywhere, even inside the restaurants and shops they can still be heard, a big let down in my opinion, unfortunately it is out of their control, therefore they cannot be blamed, but the problem still exists.
We didn't actually eat in the restaurants so I cannot comment on the food; we did however browse around the shops. Many of the items are for children, particularly in the shop nearest the entrance, all you will pretty much find is toys. The shop however by the Palm green house does contain more grown up items such as plants, books, ornaments etc at reasonable prices.
Wind down -
There are plenty of benches to sit on within the gardens incase you need a quick rest, it will take you around 5-6 hours to do a complete tour, my favourite area was the treetop walk, mainly because it was a bit different. Even at the weekend the gardens aren't so full that you can't get a bit of privacy, we often found ourselves alone...until a 747 from Thailand flew overhead. I would advise the gardens to families with small children, they will find the attractions far more interesting than perhaps teenagers, and you can get children in for free. You can easily spend a whole day there and in the summer you could quite easily have a picnic if you wanted to save a few pennies on food. The price for adults in my opinion is a bit steep and asking for the extra £1.30 ridiculous, why don't they just lower the ticket price and include it in that?
Overall I would suggest visiting once just to say you have been but I wont be going again for a long time, I am much happier using my national trust membership that cost me £15 for a year and visiting equally beautiful places much closer to where I live.