15 July 2016

The Great Broad Walk Borders: history and design

Assistant Archivist Louise Clarke takes a look into Kew’s archives to find out more about the origins of The Great Broad Walk Borders and the man behind the designs, William Andrews Nesfield.

By Louise Clarke

Great Broad Walk Borders with The Orangery in the background

Soldier, artist, landscape architect

William Andrews Nesfield, designer of Kew’s impressive Broad Walk, was a man of many talents. For over three decades he was the most sought-after landscape architect in the country, however prior to that he had successful careers in the army and as an artist.

Changes at Kew

Nesfield’s opportunity to work at Kew came under Kew’s first director William Hooker, who took on the task of managing the Gardens in 1841. When Hooker took on the role at Kew, he was managing a relatively small 11 acre botanic garden, but by 1846 Hooker was successfully managing over 650 acres of garden as more and more of the original royal gardens came under his control. With the increase in space, Hooker began implementing impressive additions to the Gardens, including the building of the Palm House and changes to the landscape.

William Nesfield and Kew

The Palm House was to become the focal point of the Gardens and Nesfield’s original plans and letters within the archive at Kew Gardens show how he engineered the Broad Walk to emphasise this. In a letter sent by Nesfield to William Hooker in 1844 Nesfield talks about Decimus Burton’s plans for the Palm House and his own agreement that a main walk should be installed as an approach it. This vision can then be seen in Nesfield’s original plans where we see the impressive walk taking visitors from Main Gate (now Elizabeth Gate) on Kew Green up to the Palm House Pond, via a right-angle turn at the Orangery. It is from these plans that we also see the original planting design, an avenue of cedars (Cedrus deodara) interspersed with an intricate arrangement of flower and shrub beds.

Contemporary opinion

Contemporary guidebooks give us a glimpse of just how impressive the original Broad Walk looked. One particular guidebook in the library collections, Jeff’s Handbook to Kew, published in 1847 gives a vivid and evocative description of Nesfield’s work:

"Leaving the Orangery, or (as it is now called) the Green-House, we once more emerge upon the broad path, on either side of which beds of luxuriant flowers perfume the air and charm the senses, whilst the taste manifested on all that meets the eye speaks loudly in praise of the present spirited manager of the royal gardens, Sir William Hooker, who has, indeed, done all that can be effected to captivate the public."

The Broad Walk today

As one of the few surviving examples of William Nesfield’s landscaping works in the country, the Broad Walk at Kew is of historical importance. In 2013 the Great Broad Walk Borders project was started in order to revitalise the neglected borders that were lacking colour in the summer months. 30,000 plants later, the double herbaceous borders are now the longest in the country. The Great Broad Walk Borders project has drawn upon Nesfield’s original landscaping designs for an ornamental promenade to the Palm House and has created a Broad Walk that is captivating the public once again.

- Louise Clarke -

Assistant Archivist

Further reading

Allan, Mea (1967). The Hookers of Kew, 1785-1911. London: Michael Joseph.

WilfordRichard (2016). The Great Broad Walk Borders at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Kew Publishing, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Desmond, Ray (2007). The History of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Kew Publishing, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

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