It was Queen Charlotte who first dressed the branches of a Christmas tree in Kew Palace in the 1790s and, drawing on that tradition, Kew Gardens is once again hosting a mile long winter light experience. Visitors can walk through ribbons of light, count the festooned Christmas trees and listen to a holly bush choir as well as see larger than life winter flora such as snowdrops and Christmas roses and pause at the scented Fire Garden for a moment of reflection. Santa and his elves are appearing on stage at the Princess of Wales Conservatory and a Victorian carousel and other rides are located at the White Peaks Cafe where visitors can sample goodies like mulled wine, spiced cider and roasted chestnuts. The after-dark event runs from 5pm to 10pm on select dates until 2nd January. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.kew.org. PICTURE: The Palm House at Kew Gardens lit up for Christmas. Courtesy Kew Gardens.
News this week that Historic Royal Palaces and the Royal Botanic Gardens are embarking on a two year project to restore eighty decorative dragons to the Kew Pagoda has led us to take a look at the history of the exotic tower set amid the trees.
Designed by architect Sir William Chambers (one of his drawings is depicted here), the pagoda was built in 1762 during the eighteenth century craze for Chinoiserie and was probably commissioned by Princess Augusta as part of the ongoing works she undertook in the gardens after the death of her husband Prince Frederick, eldest son of King George II and Queen Caroline.
Standing 163 feet (or almost 50 metres) high, the 10 storey pagoda was originally decorated with eighty golden dragons. It was designed to be the high point of a world tour through the gardens which also took in Roman ruins and Arabic mosques.
While the pagoda remains, the dragons were only on the structure for some 22 years before being removed in 1784 during roof repairs. Thanks to rumours they were made of solid gold, it was suggested they were sold off to pay the debts of the Prince Regent (the future King George IV), but experts say the wooden figures had simply rotted and so had to be removed.
Following their removal, the dragons subsequently disappeared and despite several attempts to find them – including one by Decimus Burton, architect of the famous Palm House (for more on that, see our earlier post), in 1843 – they have never been found.
Historic Royal Palaces and the Royal Botanic Gardens have now decided to replace them with new ones, drawing on contemporary accounts and drawings and using a team of specialist craftsmen to create them.
The restored pagoda – complete with new dragons – will be open to the public in 2017.
It is one of several ornamental buildings still located in the gardens. Others include a Japanese gateway and a Japanese wooden house called a minka.
WHERE: The Great Pagoda, Kew Gardens (nearest Tube station is Kew Gardens); WHEN: 10am daily (closing times vary – see websites for details); COST: £16.50 adults/£13 concessions/children £3.50 (discounts apply for online bookings); WEBSITE: www.kew.org.
PICTURES: RBG Kew