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Happy Birthday to Kew
ImagePeople still love Kew Gardens, 250 years after they first opened.  But once upon a time there was a world famous botanical garden  right in the heart of Hackney ....

When 19-year old Joachim Conrad Loddiges finished his apprenticeship as a gardener in Germany, and set off travelling to find a job, he had a very special reference to take with him:  Conrad (as he liked to be called) had spent three years working in the gardens owned by the Duke of Brunswick, and the head  gardener wrote a letter about what kind of apprentice Conrad  had been.  He was "loyal, industrious, and patiently persevering, as befits a God-fearing apprentice".   Maybe Alan Sugar would have hired him - if he had been around in 1757!
But when it came to job-hunting, there was something even more useful about that reference from Germany, because the Duke of Brunswick just happened to have another big job - as well as being a Duke in Germany he was King George II of Great Britain.  So people in England were sure to be impressed with a reference that had the name of the King of England and a picture of the famous Lion and Unicorn logo right at the top.   

When they were both visiting Holland  Conrad met up with a medical man called Dr. John Silvester, who had just bought a house with a  huge garden in a quiet English village called Hackney  - and he needed someone to help him sort out his garden.  Before long the two men had a deal , and  Conrad came over to work for Dr. Silvester,  just near to Mare Street in Hackney. 

Although he was very young, Conrad was learning to be a real expert in the science of of plants - he had contacts all over the world who were sending him seeds of plants never seen before in England - so he had more plants than most gardeners had even dreamed of,  he was fascinated by the science of plants, plus he was a brilliant landscape garden designer. 

Way back then, instead of traffic, Tescos and trains, the centre of Hackney was full of fields, with cows and horses, milk-maids and farmers at work.  Slowly, Conrad created a paradise for Dr. Silvester, with trees, flowers and shrubs of every perfume and colour;  bubbling water-features, grottos and greenhouses, orchards and weeping willows were all part of the gorgeous garden.

ImageMeanwhile, on the other side of London, another German was busy creating a botanical garden: Frederick, the Prince of Wales,  son of King George II  (who owned the gardens where Conrad had been an apprentice) had loads of land and cash, and started to design a garden at his home in Kew.  But before Frederick and his team of botanists, architects and gardeners could finish their work, Frederick (who should have been the next King of England) dropped dead, and his widow Princess Augusta took charge. She formally founded Kew Gardens exactly two hundred and fifty years ago, in 1759.   (There are tickets for Kew Gardens to be won in a TimeLine competition:  if you would like to enter, please click here to have a look).

When Conrad had finished the job for Dr. Silvester he started his own gardening business, just near Mare Street.  Gradually he bought more land for his botanical collections.  His plants were under perfect control, but his imagination was wild - he imported hundreds of plants never before seen in England, and soon people were desperate to have the  plants that he had brought to England for the first time - like the new mauve rhododendrons and delicious rhubarb - in their own gardens.    As his family and the business grew, Conrad made certain that people knew they could come to see their their plants or read about them in beautifully illustrated catalogues and magazines.   News of the flowers and trees available at Loddiges & Sons spread like wildfire. 

The  Hackney landscape was being transformed by collections of thousands of trees and flowers - all perfectly labelled - and soon they were a big attraction for local people and for tourists. It was a time in history that explorers were reaching into more parts of the world: way before telephones or e-mails or texts, scientists and museums were sharing their amazing discoveries about the world - and as places like the botanical gardens and the British Museum began, the public had the chance to learn about amazing things about their own planet. 

ImageThe Loddiges family - first Conrad, and then his son George (who you can see in the picture) -  put together collections of plants that became famous in countries from Russia to Brazil to Australia.  Bang in the middle of Hackney - just where the Hackney Free & Parochial School is now -  George built the biggest hothouse anywhere in the world, an indoor rainforest stuffed with palm and banana trees, with mists of water gently falling.  If you would like to read about a brilliant project that students did about the heritage of their school, please click here.

Even though he had just spent years examining and comparing thousands of species of plants and animals, Charles Darwin was amazed by what George Loddiges had on show: there were hundreds of trees that had never been seen growing together before in the arboretum, his collection of hundreds of different beautiful humming-birds - and over a thousand different varieties of roses.

And then there was George transforming the land where they made the brand new Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington in 1840 - by yet planting another amazing collection of trees. Some of those trees are still there today - but that is another story, and the best place to find out about it is at Abney Park Cemetery itself ....
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