12 February 2021
A writer's love affair with Kew
Writer Sophie Shillito reveals the inspirations she finds in every path she treads at Kew Gardens.
I remember so clearly the first time we met – a bright, spring morning filled with promise.
Kew got under my skin and enchanted me from my very first visit. I was hooked, compulsively and zealously.
The Gardens, with their deep green woods, dappled riverside glades and infinite vistas, possess a peculiarity of place that cannot be replicated. It was love at first sight.
But the gorgeous landscape was just the beginning.
As I walked through the Gardens more regularly, I began to know them. To pass over the same piece of land repeatedly is to learn it.
When I returned, over and over, to track past the same bushes, along the same winding pathways, I bore witness to tiny changes: tree buds bursting from shiny cases that were closed the day before; goslings appearing, hatched overnight on the islands in the Lake.
Knowing a place is like knowing a person. There is an intimacy, an understanding. We recognise small changes: a haircut, clipped hedges, a suntan, lawns bleached flaxen by the heat. Cracks in the paving are the creases on the face of a lover, the smell of the land is a familiar perfume. Kew is the embrace of an old friend, it is the sanctuary of home.
I am not alone in feeling this. For hundreds of years, people just like me – and maybe just like you – have visited Kew and loved it too.
I wanted to know more about them.
So, I began searching, and quickly realised that old postcards might be my portal to people from the past. I bought one old Kew postcard, then another, and soon, almost without realising, I had a small collection of musty old cardboard rectangles… and a postbag full of stories.
I have collected these postcards together in my book Love From Kew, which is in fact not a book about postcards, but a book about people and their relationship with Kew, and about their relationships with each other told through the prism of the Gardens.
Kew has bewitched me with its cornucopia of tales, and the narratives of the postcard writers preoccupy me just as much.
Postcards let us look into lives: their scribbled messages are cryptic, funny and poignant. The everyday is captured in inky missives about birthdays, snow, exams, dancing… and love. A couple of my favourite postcards tell stories about love which is perhaps just beginning:
This postcard was sent in August 1907 and features the Rock Garden, built in 1882 to showcase mountain plants.
‘I had meant coming to see you yesterday but on way out met a friend who begged of me to come to the music hall and I couldn’t say no to such an offer.’
He waits across the street, under a plane tree, looking up at her window for hours. Smoking, fiddling with his pocket watch, trying to keep his nerve.
This postcard shows the Duke’s Garden behind Cambridge Cottage, the former residence of the Duke of Cambridge.
‘Lady Mullaly is going to ask Hugh’s brother, Dick, to look you up. He is on leave – a Malay Tea Planter – A.1. dancer’
He couldn’t leave without her. They made a new life in the cool Malaysian mountains, shrouded in mist and green camellia. Every Saturday night his new wife clips her hair into a wooden clasp shaped like an orchid. She smiles at him as they sway across the dancehall floor to records scratching through a golden gramophone trumpet.
In Love From Kew I have woven personal stories together with Kew’s secrets – the lives of the postcard writers were entwined with the Gardens, tangled as a vine.
I have tried to capture the Gardens’ spirit as much as it captured them. If you like, you can think of what I have made as a love song to Kew.