The first time I went to Kew Gardens it cost a penny to get in. Yesterday it cost less. Entrance to the gardens is free for twelve days over Christmas, but only if you booked in advance, and if you didn't you're too late. A fine day out at any time, but finer still for nothing.
The trick to visiting Kew Gardens is to come early. I arrived shortly after half past nine, and the parkland was almost entirely empty. Even better the sky was almost completely cloudless, which wasn't going to last, so I had a short time to enjoy the gardens at their best. I headed for somewhere that hadn't been built the last time I was here, the Treetop Walkway - an elevated circuit eighteen metres above the ground. It's not for those without a head for heights, as a few of the day's first visitors discovered. As they slunk down in the lift, nerves aquiver, I strode off round the upper level unhindered. Being winter the view stretched to the horizon, beyond the tower blocks of Brentford to the distant Wembley arch, but in spring the surrounding branches will burst into obstructive leaf... which is entirely the point.
Close by is the Lake, recently crossed by an S-shaped span called the Sackler Crossing. This low granite walkway hugs close to the water, and is edged by a series of vertical bronze posts forming a semi-transparent barrier. It's also very pretty, especially when nobody's standing on it (which is another good reason to arrive at Kew early). Various waterfowl waddle along the banks, and glide like limbo dancers beneath the bridge, so best mind where you stand. Indeed boots are recommended over trainers at this time of year, especially if you want to explore the muddier, squishier paths towards the riverside.
The predominant colours at Kew, at present, are green and brown. That's grass and branches, mostly, which is great if you like trees and shrubs but not much cop if you prefer flowers. Blooms are in short supply, obviously, apart from a few formal transplanted beds of winter pansies and some resilient blue irises in the Japanese garden. Various magnolia trees appear to be budding, which is impressive given it's not even next year yet, but apart from that the glories of spring remain some distance off.
Even indoors, inside the famous glasshouses, proper flowers are in short supply. The leaves may be grand, and the tallest fronds reach to the roof, but not many of the plants can be tricked into thinking it's summer. The Temperate House is full to bursting, as you can see if you step up the spiral staircase to walk around the inside of the glass roof. The Palm House is warmer, which is ideal if your visit comes on a cold or rainswept day, and don't forget to shut the door on your way in. So many plants from around the tropics are here, scientifically labelled for the experts and educationally described for the rest of us. Expect mostly algae in the marine gallery underneath, but I'm sure most visitors are looking only at the fish.
For Christmas the team at Kew have got a carousel in, a proper one, except the pipe organ plays Sir Duke by Stevie Wonder and a selection of other semi-modern tunes. There's also a 12 Days of Christmas scratchcard quiz for younger members of the family, with clues hidden around the gardens, for a 20% discount at the shop on your way out. There were plenty of children in attendance on Sunday, some being led around the gardens by enthusiastic parents, others dropped off at the adventure playground after staring at plants got all too much.
One of the treats at Kew at the moment is a series of artworks byDavid Nash. He specialises in wooden sculpture, naturalistic rather than figurative, and has carved a number of pieces in situ over the summer. Pillars and globes of charred black timber, towers of bark, all scattered around the gardens for you to enjoy. There's also a Nash exhibition in Kew's new art gallery, where I was absorbed by the 25-year downstream tale of 'Wooden Boulder'. Nextdoor is the amazing Marianne North gallery, its walls hung deep with 800 oil paintings bequeathed by a Victorian world traveller, recently restored to awesome effect.
To be frank, this isn't the best time of year to enjoy Kew Gardens. Nature's in hibernation, there's minimal colour and it gets dark by far too early in the afternoon. But I still managed to spend six hours wandering and exploring, and even then I got home and looked at the map properly and realised I'd missed things. The normal entrance price is steep (£16, sheesh), but you almost certainly know a member of the family who'd adore a trip here, to one of the jewels of London.