Racing back through time

Wisley Library normally receives lots of questions but a more unusual request recently from a horticultural student sparked a race back through time

The Kew-Wisley race is a twenty mile (32km) long relay race between the two world-famous gardens. The race was traditionally held between competing teams of horticultural students from Kew and Wisley, although teams from other horticultural institutions also entered from time to time. 

The first race was in spring 1951 and every year for twenty years after Kew and Wisley met to compete, even in March 1965 when snow fell to a covering of over 10cm (4in).

Who's counting anyway?

The race was revived after a long gap and Kew has got the better of Wisley in the two most recent races. Indeed, across the whole history of the race, Kew students are in the lead with the most wins. It was a long-standing joke that Wisley students were better at running away from Wisley rather than running to it, as their results tended to be better when the race finished at Kew. 

Runners compete for a silver trophy, looked after by the Library. Early accounts of the race say that the runners-up were awarded a carved Maori baton but this has not turned up yet, though we are keeping our eyes peeled when we visit the attics and storerooms at Wisley.

It is great to see the race has been revived, along with a more sedate Wisley to Kew walk organised by Wisley garden staff. The race was always a great excuse for horticultural students to meet in friendly competition and an after-race drink was always a popular feature. In 1957 Wisley students celebrated their victory with a party where ‘a local band and a skiffle group were engaged for the evening’ and ‘a very good dance was thoroughly enjoyed.’ 

Going back through the archives

You can find out more about the Kew-Wisley race in the pages of the Gardens Club Journal. The Gardens Club was set up in 1908 as a way of helping students and employees, who had left employment with the RHS, keep in touch with each other. Every year the club produces a journal, written by its members. Throughout its history, its writers have always given us a snapshot of the year that has passed through the eyes of the workers and students based in the garden. These entries provide masses of information about how the gardens have changed through the years, which can be useful if we have an enquiry about an historical aspect of Wisley’s design.

All of our libraries hold a complete run of the RHS Garden’s Club Journal, which are available to browse if you’d like to find out more.

Get involved

The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.