Kew's leafy paradise wins a place in the Taj Mahal set

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The Independent Online

It's officially up there now with the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon, the Great Wall of China and the Acropolis in Athens. Kew Gardens is a location of importance to the whole world, the UN has decided.

The 300-acre former royal pleasure ground next to the Thames in south-west London, with its leafy walks and giant Victorian conservatories, has been awarded World Heritage Site status by Unesco, the UN's cultural arm. The honour has been given in recognition of its scientific work on plants, its remarkable botanical collections and its importance in the history and development of garden landscapes.

The Royal Botanic Gardens joins the elite group of the 754 most celebrated places in the world. The sites range from Stonehenge to the Old City in Jerusalem, from Timbuktu in Mali to the Statue of Liberty, from the medieval centre of Florence to the Great Barrier Reef. The sites' cultural and social significance is judged to be such that they are important not only to their own countries, but to the whole international community.

Kew has been for many decades a world centre of excellence in botany, a science that is increasingly important as rainforests and their resources disappear, and more and more crops are needed to feed the burgeoning world population.

But the World Heritage Site award may recognise something more: Kew is also a deeply loved plot of ground, evidenced not least by the million or so people a year who visit it, including more than 100,000 children. Some, the Japanese especially, come back repeatedly.

Its attraction lies perhaps in its varied layers of interest and beauty. Founded by Princess Augusta, the mother of King George III, in 1759, it originally covered just nine acres. The site has since expanded to include 40 listed buildings, including Kew Palace - which was home to George III during his madness - and includes some of the great monuments of neo-classical and Victorian architecture, such as the Greek temples of Sir William Chambers and Decimus Burton's glass and cast-iron Palm House, a greenhouse with 16,000 panes of glass.

It now houses the largest collection of living plants in the world, with more than 30,000 species, and has a herbarium with seven million dried specimens of plants and fungi.

There are orchids in profusion, whole lawns full of crocuses and an oak wood full of bluebells. It is a stone's throw from a main road but is astonishingly tranquil; it is large enough to lose yourself in but small enough to seem intimate.

Now, under its director, Professor Peter Crane, it is also being recognised as a valuable reservoir of British wildlife, with badgers and beetles, owls and woodpeckers, butterflies and fungi. Kew's 2003 summer festival, named Go Wild, is celebrating British biodiversity.

Professor Crane said: "Being awarded World Heritage Site status is hugely exciting for us. It is a stamp of approval that puts us in the company of the best of the best, and it brings with it increased prestige and public awareness. But most importantly, it embodies a commitment to maintain an organisation and place that is truly special - and world class."

When Kew was first nominated for inclusion in the list in January last year, Nigel Taylor, the curator of Kew, explained the advantages of World Heritage status. He said: "We would be even better known than we are already worldwide, as a place for foreign visitors to the UK to come to. It would also give us increased national recognition, which increases the pressure on the public purse to support us."

On the World Heritage website, it says of Kew: "The historic landscape garden features elements that illustrate significant periods of the art of gardens from the 18th to the 20th centuries. The gardens house botanic collections (conserved plants, living plants and documents) which have been considerably enriched through the centuries. Since their creation in 1759, the gardens have made a significant and uninterrupted contribution to the study of plant diversity and botanic economics."

Kew Gardens is the UK's 25th World Heritage Site.

Outback's geological gem listed only 21 years after being 'found'

By Kathy Marks

The Bungle Bungles, a spectacular range of dome-like rock formations in Western Australia, have become the country's 15th natural wonder to be given World Heritage listing.

Purnululu National Park, which contains the Bungle Bungles, was listed because of its geological significance. Unesco's World Heritage Committee, which met in Paris on Wednesday, also noted the area's Aboriginal heritage, which spans 20,000 years. The Western Australian government hopes Purnululu will also receive a listing as a place of outstanding cultural value.

The park, in the remote East Kimberley region, now ranks alongside national treasures such as the Great Barrier Reef and Uluru (Ayers Rock). Yet its gorges, waterfalls and sandstone pinnacles were known only to farmers, scientists and Aborigines until 1982, when aerial photographs were first circulated. Since then it has become a tourist attraction, although twice as many people still see the massif by air than visit by road.

The committee said that the area's natural features represented major stages of the earth's evolution, and it also contained "superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty".

David Kemp, the Australian Environment Minister, described it yesterday as "one of the scenic jewels of Outback Australia". He said: "These beehive, sandstone pinnacles and the sandstone towers surrounding them are quite exceptional." He added that the park also "provides exceptional testimony to this hunter-gather tradition, which has survived to the present day despite the impact of colonisation".

The unusual beehive structures of the Bungle Bungles, which rise more than 500 metres above sea level, are a breathtaking sight. Despite being made of soft sandstone, they have been preserved for about 20 million years. Orange stripes that run around the rock formations have been formed by silica deposits while lichen creates black layers. Green fan palms growing out of crevices provide a striking contrast to the red hills.

Bungle Bungle is believed to be a corruption of "bundle bundle", a grass common to the Kimberley region. Purnululu is sandstone in the Aboriginal Kija language.