Since I last saw you I’ve been back in Kew Gardens – and synchronistically a childhood friend of my son’s contacted me to ask me about an event that occurred 33 years ago, which he has now published a video about. I was sitting in the same place as I was when the event occurred 33 years ago. How odd is that? Utterly insignificant but strange. Age gives you the pleasure of seeing patterns. You have more hindsight. Your tummy may be getting bigger, but your hindsight is too.
I had lived for 17 years right by Kew Gardens, but because I was raising two children and working hard I never had the luxury of the time to fully explore the Gardens – 350 acres on my doorstep.
So this week I’ve been catching up, giving myself the time to do what I feel I should have done 30 years ago – truly appreciate this outstanding place.
And one of the characters who stands out in the creation of the paradise that is Kew Gardens is the Princess of Wales, Augusta, (mother of King George III) whom William Stukeley named Veleda, Archdruidess of Kew. Ronald Hutton and Stuart Piggott in their books tell us the basis of this title – a half-hour chat Stukeley had with her about some bronze age axes found at Kew in October 1754, and then a few weeks later at another meeting. Him calling her Archdruidess was fanciful, but I want to make a connection to her work for the plant world, a truly Druidic endeavour. Thanks to this it became one of the world’s most significant gardens.
Her husband Frederick, the Prince of Wales, had begun a collection of exotic plants at Kew and once he died, the Princess developed and extended the gardens at Kew. Lord Bute and Rev Stephen Hales, well-known botanists, helped Augusta. Bute introduced William Chambers to her and he was commissioned to design a Pagoda in the grounds, whose 80 dragons were restored last year. Here is one of them:
Augusta began the Physic and Exotic Garden in 9 acres in 1759. Exotic plants and trees were sent from abroad and by 1768 the herbaceous collection had over 2,700 species. Later, her son George III, with the help of Joseph Banks, enlarged the garden by joining the gardens of Richmond and Kew estate, and Kew Gardens as we know it now was formed. Banks was a British botanist who had just returned to England from the expedition led by Captain Cook. Traveling the world, Banks had collected many exotic plants and brought them to Kew Gardens. He was the first to enlarge the collection of plants, which would continue to grow over the years, today numbering approximately 50,000 different plant species.
What a legacy Veleda, Archdruidess of Kew, and those who helped her and followed on from her, has left us!