Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities (Richmond and Brixton)

Monday was cool and windy, but with no rain in the forecast, it seemed a better day to do something outdoors, so Emily, Curtis, and I took the Tube out to Richmond to visit Kew Gardens.  I had already been to Kew twice since we moved to London, but I was looking forward to going back and seeing it at a different time of year.
The Palm House
We arrived in time to take the free 11 am tour, so we met a docent named Dorothy in the visitor center.  She started out by telling us about this wooden mural, commemorating the time in 1987 when a heavy storm knocked down hundreds of trees.  The mural is carved from the wood of at least two dozen different species of trees that were casualties of that storm.  You can see one of the stone lions and the Palm House depicted in the mural in the photo above.  Dorothy seemed to like to rest her hand on the wind's bottom...
Wooden mural in visitor center
We learned a little history about how 300 acres of prime real estate on the banks of the Thames came to be a Royal Botanical Garden.  It has a long and complex history, dating back to when Henry VII build Richmond Palace in the 16th century, setting a precedent for a royal presence in Richmond.  The property has passed through the hands of several subsequent monarchs, including King George III.  It was originally established as a botanic garden by Princess Augusta in 1759, and was opened to the public by Queen Victoria.  It is still a Royal Garden, and is occasionally visited by members of the current royal family -- Queen Elizabeth celebrated her 80th birthday there.  But it's much more than just a pretty garden, it's also a prestigious research institution with the world's largest collection of living plants.

Despite being there in the off-season, there was plenty to see...
I don't know what this is, but it's gorgeous!
Our tour took us through the rock garden to the Alpine House, full of tiny plants that thrive in cold climates.
Alpine house
Since these plants often have a very short window of opportunity to attract pollinating insects, they pull out all the stops with beautiful, sweet-scented blooms.  They are all in pots so they can be easily swapped out with other blooming plants when the flowers are spent.
Blooms galore in the Alpine House
We also saw some amazing trees, several of which are over 250 years old.  This pagoda tree is believed to have been one of the original specimens planted in 1760, and has been given a little extra help over the years after it nearly fell over.
Japanese Pagoda Tree
This Weeping Beech was planted in 1846, and has spread substantially over the past 150 years.  There are several places where the weeping limbs reach all the way back into the ground and re-emerge as new tree trunks.  In another 150 years, there could be an entire beech forest here!
Weeping Beech
After our tour, we headed back to the tropical Palm House to get out of the cold wind and warm up.
Daffodils and Palm House
After a light lunch in one of the many cafes, we headed off in a different direction and encountered something I hadn't seen on my first two visits.  A PEACOCK!
Yes, a peacock!
I don't think I even knew that they had peacocks at Kew, and I certainly didn't expect to see one in London in the winter, let alone half a dozen.  It seemed like we were surrounded by them!  They are clearly used to having people around, as they casually strolled right past us without so much as a "hey, what's up?" 
A peacock strolls past Curtis and I by the lily pond
Being half Indian, I am quite fond of peacocks and peacock-themed decor, and have sort of adopted the peacock as a talisman or totem (wrong kind of Indian...), but it's been a long time since I've seen one in the flesh. 
OK, I took a lot of peacock photos
After the novelty of seeing peacocks casually strolling around finally wore off, we decided it was time to bid adieu to Kew and move on to our second destination for the day.  So we headed back to the Tube station and left the posh, verdant neighborhood in Richmond for a very different part of SW London: Brixton.
Yes, we went to Richmond and Brixton in the same day!
Now Brixton is not a part of London that most people would think to visit when they are here on vacation.  I've lived here for almost a year and hadn't even been there myself -- nor did I have any plans to visit.  But cousin Emily was interested in seeing some of the ethnic neighborhoods of London, and Brixton has a large Afro-Caribbean population as well as an interesting history and a bustling market, so after a bit of waffling on my part, I decided to join them.

Brixton was a middle-class suburb of London in the latter half of the 19th century, and was home to the first street in the UK to have electricity: Electric Avenue. But after being heavily bombed during WWII, the single-family homes were replaced with council flats (public housing).  Many immigrants from the West Indies settled in Brixton, and in the early 1980s it was the center of a series of race riots, inspiring the song "Electric Avenue" by Eddy Grant.
Yes, THAT Electric Avenue
Today Brixton has immigrants from all over the world, and Electric Avenue hosts a bustling outdoor market reflecting the international population, with vendors selling fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, clothing, and other goods.  The neighborhood also has a covered market, which has an interesting mix of kitchy shops, ethnic restaurants, and hipster coffee bars.
Brixton Market
The local markets sell products from many different parts of the world. 
Holy Mackerel!
There were also several kiosks and food trucks selling a range of exotic street food.
Emily & Curtis check out the local flavors
This building has the date 1904 in the arch above the clock.  Guess what it is today... 
Walton Lodge
It's STILL a laundry!  100 years and counting...  There were several other interesting buildings in the town center.
The Ritzy Cinema, ca 1911
The Town Hall, ca 1908
Tate Library, ca 1892
The Tate library was built by sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate.  If that name rings a bell, he also donated the funds and his significant art collection to build the Tate Gallery.

Before heading home, we had dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant.  It's been a while since I've had good Ethiopian food, so that was a nice treat. 

Quite a contrast between the royal gardens in Richmond and graffiti-lined streets of Brixton, but I'm glad we were able to get to both places, and I think Emily and Curtis enjoyed them both equally.  They're not your typical London tourists, but then neither am I.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't know anything about Brixton--thanks for the introduction!


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