• Jessica Bellef

The Palm House, Kew Gardens

Overseas travel is off the cards for most Australian's foreseeable future due to the pandemic. In the absence of any actual travel, I am revisiting old holiday snapshots and dreaming of visiting faraway places. The wanderlust is very real!

In 2016 I travelled to the UK for the London Design Festival. This post about my visit to Kew Gardens first appeared in the now-defunct Transcontinental Affair blog in the same year of my trip... so many moons ago (insert big sad face here).

When I was young I would spend time fossicking in my grandparent's rambling backyard and the jam-packed garden shed. I would sketch different leaf shapes, poke around in pot plants and note down the bugs I spied, like a botanist on a grand tour of the world in the 1800s. It was no surprise that when I visited the stunning Palm House in London’s Kew Gardens, that feeling of wide-eyed wonderment and discovery came flooding back. I was like a kid in a candy store, except I was an adult in a conservatory, dealing with the jet lag of a 24-hour flight.

The Palm House was built in 1848 when botanical and scientific pursuits were a national focus. It is an ornate jewel of a greenhouse, made up of 16 000 panels of glass and an elaborate wrought-iron framework, with a central dome that reaches 19m and a viewing promenade that lets you look down into the canopy of lush tropical trees and climbers. Walking along the catwalk, I felt like a character in a BBC Victorian period drama, regardless of the fact that I was holding an iPhone instead of a parasol and I was chatting with my buddy about Snapchat and Trump instead of discussing topics of refined sensibility.

It was a rainy, overcast London day when I visited, so two things hit me as soon as I walked in. Firstly, the steamy, humid temperature in the space instantly fogged up my camera lens and forced me to take off my layers. The air was thick and moist but smelt clean and wholesome. My head started to pound a bit with jet lag but I tried to push it aside. Then, my eyes adjusted to the incredible shades of green that covered the ground and reached right up to the glass ceiling. So many lush, velvety leaves to take in. Banana palms stretched to the heights of three-story buildings and stag horns spread the width of a Suzuki hatchback. Even though the Palm House has been emptied in the past for restoration, the growth I saw was so established and majestic I felt like I was looking at the original plants from the 1800s.

My favourite part of the Palm House had to be the two incredible spiral staircases that took you up to the viewing promenade and down to the underground aquarium. Ornate and quaint, they made me feel like we were in a secret garden. Chatter about Snapchat ceased, the jet lag was forgotten for a moment and I was a kid again.

All images by Jessica Bellef

A version of this post appeared on The Transcontinental Affair in 2016.