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£5million facelift for the Kew Gardens pagoda which was built for George III and used to test bombs in the Second World War

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23.07.2018

Of all Britain’s royal buildings, this has to be the most exotic — and one of the tallest, too. By royal standards, it is also a very tight squeeze.

At the weekend, for example, Buckingham Palace threw open its doors for its annual summer opening — with a special exhibition devoted to the artistic tastes of the Prince of Wales — and more than 550,000 people are expected to troop through between now and September.

The biggest draw is always the Tower of London, with an average of 2.8 million visitors each year, though Windsor Castle is enjoying a bumper summer thanks to the Royal Wedding, welcoming nearly 10,000 people a day.

Compare those figures with the place where I am standing. For numbers are restricted to precisely 35 at any one time inside the Great Pagoda at Kew Gardens.

Nor is this for the faint-hearted or phobic — the top is a daunting 160ft up. Anyone wanting to see the small room at the top where King George III came to enjoy one of the finest views in his kingdom must walk up the very same spiral staircase — and 253 steps — that have been here since the 18th century.

The Great Pagoda was Britain’s first skyscraper. It was a building so radical and unusual in its design that many people refused to believe it could remain standing.

Guarded by 80 ornamental dragons, it was also a bewildering thing of wonder to Georgian Britain.

Over more than two and a half centuries, the Great Pagoda has served as a royal retreat, a famous landmark, a top-secret World War II testing site and, latterly, the forgotten gem in Britain’s royal inventory. Now all that has changed — following five years of research, two years of restoration work, 380 tons of scaffolding and £5 million.

It has not looked this good since the reign of George III, for the simple reason that the dragons are back in situ for the first time in more than 200 years.

Appropriately, it was George’s great-great-great-great-great-grandson, the Prince of Wales, who reopened this magnificent curiosity the other day by climbing all ten flights of stairs to the top. Even today, the view is quite remarkable.

On a clear day, you can look out from this vantage point in the South-West London suburbs as far as Windsor Castle in one direction and across to Canary Wharf in the east. The horizon is a little hazy when I arrive but there is still a good view of the capital’s other high-rise landmarks, including the 95-storey Shard and the London Eye.

As a giant landmark, the Great Pagoda was the London Eye of its day, except that the public could not buy tickets. Only the King and his invited guests were allowed inside. The records reveal that on a few occasions, George........

© Mail Online