In the early 1980s the price of admission to London’s Kew Gardens was two pence (2p). I remember hearing low, dark rumblings at the time about how terrible this was. Apparently admission to Kew had been just a penny, so the hundred percent price hike was seen as pretty staggering. Those with a mind to, blamed decimalisation – though this was ten years earlier. My guess is that ‘a penny’ in pre-decimal currency became a 1p in 1970 (one-pee is how you had to say it so as not to confuse it with ‘a penny’, two-pee rather than tuppence) which was already slightly more than a hundred percent rise. ‘Old money’ consciousness was still going strong in the 1980s and people still translated back into ‘half-a-crown’ and ‘ten-bob’ and such like (20p – you mean four shillings for that!).
I used to go regularly to the gardens and more particularly to the hot houses which looked like versions of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace. In the depth of winter, living in houses that were only heated with smelly old paraffin heaters, or noisy fan heaters, Kew was one of the few places where you could get properly warm in winter. In the palm houses warmth would find its way into your bones and you could feel thoroughly tropical even though it was freezing outside. In the houses I lived in none had central heating: these were houses that had been purchased by housing associations and local councils that were waiting for modernisation. They would, eventually, when a new spending budget had been found, become centrally heated, double-glazed, newly wired and plumbed. Some would have their Victorian scale thoroughly diminished as rooms would be carved up into multiple smaller spaces. But by that time we were long gone.
I used to think of the Palm Houses at Kew as these strangely opulent, sensual worlds that were also slightly lascivious. I could imagine prim Victorian couples blushing slightly at the over-ripe state of some of the tropical plants. Years later I went and the cost of admission had reached something staggering like £2 (it is now £14.50). They had added a new hot house, this one dedicated to dry heat. It was filled with all sorts of spiky plants and the occasional one that gobbled bugs. In amongst all this was the most humorous tree I have seen. It looked like a normal tree as seen by a tiny insect sitting at its base. It was ludicrously foreshortened and had a large tree trunk base (about six foot in diameter) but from this it extended towards a miniscule tree top with four weeny leaves. It looked like the plant equivalent of the Eiffel Tower topped off with a little cluster of leaves. You could imagine a massive root system trying to find water in the desert while its tiny leaves photosynthesize the gruelling sunlight.