diamond geezer

 Monday, January 18, 2010

Random borough (24): Richmond (part 2)

Somewhere famous: Kew Gardens
Only four London boroughs boast a World Heritage Site, and the largest of these (covering 300 acres) is Kew Gardens. Kew's a gorgeous and very varied place to visit, from rolling parkland to modern glasshouses, and plays an important role in preserving the world's plantlife for future generations. It also changes greatly with the seasons, bursting with bloom in spring and summer, and flaming with colour in the autumn. Winter, however, is another matter, with only the hothouses at their very best. I really couldn't justify spending £13 to pop inside on Saturday, not for a brief nip round, so instead I attempted the cheap option. I wondered how much of Kew Gardens I could see from the outside, for nothing, so I took a walk all the way around the perimeter to find out.

I started at the Lion Gate on the Kew Road, at the southeastern corner of the site. It was immediately obvious that Kew's owners didn't really want the general public looking inside. A ten-foot-high brick wall ran all the way up the road, with barely a clue to the horticultural delights on the other side. The tip of the Great Pagoda was barely visible above the treetops (dammit, evergreens, opaque even in January), and an iron gate afforded a distant glimpse of only half of the glass-paned Temperate House. The exterior of the newly-stocked Marianne North Gallery failed to reveal the plant-y paintings crammed within, while at the main entrance only a few trees and grasses poked out beyond the queueless ticket booths. Nothing to see here, not for free.

Kew Green was very villagey, so long as I ignored the main road across the middle, with the odd cottage around the edge and a church (plus field sports) in the middle. Up at the far end was the Main Gate to Kew Gardens, designed for horses and carriages in the 1840s, and now used to load and unload coach parties. A single member of staff guards the ticket booth at this time of year, rarely troubled by cash or plastic. I remember entering here in the 1970s when admission cost a single penny. The coin-operated turnstiles still remain, but used now only for exit after a £13 horticultural day out. [photo]

Time to cut through to the river, past the Herbarium, and to walk back down the other side of the gardens along the Thames. There were fine views across the river towards Brentford and the start of the Grand Union Canal, whilst on the nearside I was treated to the rear façade of Kew Palace and a slew of greenhouses. This is the back route to the pay and display car park, which at 11am on a Saturday morning contained a mere three vehicles. The towpath was busier (mostly with joggers), and also the river (on which rowing eights were being shouted at by floating coaches with megaphones).

Any hopes of a good view over the fence into the Gardens were thwarted by a long screen of trees, and even when that thinned out the woodland on show was nothing special. Only once did the trees part fully, creating a grassy expanse at the top of a long arboreal avenue. This was Syon Vista, looking out towards Syon House on the opposite bank, and it was littered with umpteen memorial benches. Visitors to the Gardens sit here and unscrew their thermos and eat their sandwiches, taking their pick of the seating available. There may only have been a single bench along the towpath, on the free exterior, but it gave me the finest view of all. [photo]

Ah, and then a slight problem. How to get back to reality from this distant outpost? After passing the edge of the Gardens the towpath continued for a full mile along the Thames before reconnecting with civilisation at Richmond Lock [photo]. I couldn't cross the river, and I couldn't cut through the Old Deer Park because there was a watery channel in the way. I did at least get to see a heron, and the pretty side of Isleworth, and the Kew Meridian (for another post, I think). But really, the lengthy walk around the edge of the Gardens can't beat the view from within. Later in the year, when there's more view to see.
by tube: Kew Gardens   by bus: 65, 391

Somewhere random: Queen's Ride, Barnes
On 16th September 1977, two weeks before his 30th birthday, T Rex singer Marc Bolan was being driven home from a night out drinking in a Mayfair club. At the wheel of the Mini Clubman was his current partner, Gloria Jones, she of 'Tainted Love' Northern Soul fame. She misjudged a humpbacked bridge over the railway at Barnes and crashed the car into a sycamore tree, seriously injuring herself and killing Marc outright. The music world mourned, and the tree became a place of pilgrimage for thousands of devoted fans. [photo] [photo]

It's a very random spot, at the top of a low embankment along the edge of a narrow lane. A row of upmarket detached houses runs behind a muddy track, and steps have been installed in front of number 10 so that visitors to the tree don't have to risk their lives standing beside a safety barrier in the middle of the traffic. Quite a sizeable shrine has grown up over the years, endearingly random in places, of questionable taste in others. At the foot of the steps is a fake tombstone "in respectful memory", on which (at present, and highly appropriately) is a ceramic white swan. Opposite there's a bronze bust of Marc, unveiled by his son, complete with metallic flowing 70s tresses. And up top, by the infamous unfortunate tree, are two noticeboards plastered with photos poems and messages left by fans. They're all either laminated or in plastic pouches, which is just as well given the driving rain at the time I visited. Someone's pinned up an old 45 of Telegram Sam at the centre, while hanging above are necklaces and lanterns and beads and an assortment of flowers of the mostly artificial kind. It's all very genuine, and rather endearing, not least because of its incongruous location up an otherwise insignificant suburban lane. A very 20th century boy departed here.
by train: Barnes   by bus: 337, 430

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