The one place in West London I seem to go to quite a lot is the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, mainly because half the office seems to be on their mailing list and every time they issue a press release I get multiple emails of the same release tagged with the words `Something for the Diary, Dave?' Mostly, I ignore them, but I got one a couple of weeks ago that tickled my curiosity, and to find out about it you'll have to look behind the cut because
The press release was about the recently-refurbished Marianne North Gallery, a building I'd walked past on previous visits to Kew without even noticing it. It looks like this
`Marianne who?' I hear you cry. Well, Marianne North was one of those extraordinary women Britain produces every once in a while - and we ought to be thankful it's only once in a while because if they were all around at the same time they'd take over the world. Marianne came from a landowning family in Norfolk, descended from the lawyer Roger North, himself the sixth son of Baron North. She was born in 1830, daughter of Frederick North, who was Liberal MP for Hastings. She trained as a vocalist, but her voice failed and she took to painting flowers. She seems to have been utterly devoted to her father, and after her mother's death in 1855 she constantly travelled with him.
His death in 1869 seems to have had a seismic effect on her, because a couple of years later, aged 40, she set out on an extraordinary odyssey.
God only knows it's not the biggest fun being a woman in today's society, but try to imagine what it was like in 1869. And then try to imagine what Marianne did next, because between 1871 and 1885 she visited America, Canada, Jamaica, Brazil, Tenerife, Japan, Singapore, Sarawak, Java, Sri Lanka, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile, painting their native flora.
Some of the plants she painted were new to science, and one genus and four species were named in her honour.
Between 1881 and 1882 - seven years before Jack The Ripper galvanised London - Marianne came home and gave her paintings to Kew, arranged in a gallery built at her own expense. And then she was off again. She died in Gloucestershire in 1890. There's stuff about her floating about the internet. Look it up. Tell your friends about this utterly remarkable woman.
The Gallery has, as I said, been having a refurbishment. Kew have tried to bring it back to a state as close to that when it originally opened, but with modern-day climate control to protect Marianne's paintings. It looks like this now.
Apart from a hundred or so of Marianne's paintings which remain in private hands - and I got the impression, talking to one of the archivists, that they're eager to remedy that - every painting she ever did is here, hung cheek-by-jowl as they were when the Gallery first opened. I should point out that all the paintings in these pics are facsimiles. The originals are still undergoing painstaking and nitpicking restoration and won't be rehung until next year. The funny-coloured plaques under the paintings are actually samples of wood from trees in the countries Marianne visited, which were an education for me, anyway. I finally found out what burr maple looks like.
It's a lovely gallery, it really is, and Kew have installed reasonably discreet interactive stuff that enhances the experience of being there without swamping it, and if anyone's ever at Kew I urge them to stop in at this unprepossessing little building and look at the wonders inside. Marianne North seems to have dropped off History's radar, and that seems a shame. She was utterly brilliant, and I hate the idea that she's just a botanical footnote.
Anyway, it was a nice morning and I had my camera and nobody at the office knew how long the press do at the Gallery was going to take, so after the speeches and stuff I had a wander around a very, very small part of Kew as I made my way back to the entrance at the Underground, and I took some pictures of some trees.
Now, I'm afraid I'm not wise in the ways of the Green Fuse, and most of these trees are just...trees as far as I'm concerned. But there were not a lot of people about at that time of the morning and Kew was rather lovely.
This is the Temperate House, where I can only assume everyone is really calm.
For a very long time, Kew must have been one of the most peaceful places in London. But these days it's on the flightpath into Heathrow, which means that every minute or so the peace is interrupted by the booming wings of intercontinental jets on final approach.
This is my favourite tree at Kew, the only one I know by name. The mighty Chusan Palm, a tree which appears to be chiefly covered with pubic hair.
As I wandered about, I was approached by a lady - either American or Canadian, I'm afraid I couldn't tell - who asked me if I knew anything about birds. That's her, lurking on the terrace.
I told her I didn't know anything about birds, but that I was prepared to give it a whirl, and she said, "What are those black and white birds I've seen flying about?"
"Ach, that's easy," I said. "Those are magpies."
"And those green birds?"
Which is where I made a liar of myself and said, "That'll be the parakeets," and launched into the story of why there are African parakeets in London.
Nobody knows how they got here, exactly. Some say a breeding pair escaped from an aviary somewhere. Others say - and this is my favourite story - that they were in a consignment of birds passing through Heathrow and a few got out somehow. But however it happened, parakeets are everywhere these days. I first heard of them in Blackheath - which is a long way from Heathrow and seems to buttress the aviary theory - but nowadays they're everywhere. I've seen them in Hyde Park and St James's Park, and I've heard of them as far west as Richmond and, now, Kew. They're becoming so prevalent that they're starting to drive out native species, and from next year it will be legal to trap or shoot them if they're found to be doing damage.
I told all this to the American/Canadian lady, and she looked away across the trees and lawns of Kew, and a little scrap of bright green flew between a couple of trees, and she said, "I think that's a shame."
"Yes," I said, watching the parakeet fly away. "Me too."