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26 June

OV lockdown insights from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

As we move slowly out of lockdown it is fascinating to learn how businesses and organisations have been managing in these difficult times. We are delighted to hear from OV and Barnabas member, William (Bill) Baker (W 85-90) who is Head, Comparative Plant and Fungal Biology at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, about how they have been adapting…

Photo of Kew gardens tulips

“Like so many much-loved public spaces, Kew Gardens closed its doors on 23 March. Thanks to Covid-19, the national botanic garden closed its gates to the public for 10 weeks, longer than at any other point in its illustrious 180 year public history. I’ve worked at Kew for 22 years (longer if you count my PhD days) and the times have never been stranger.

Kew isn’t just a garden; it’s a world-leading plant and fungal research centre. More than 300 scientists work at Kew, conducting vital research on the diversity and conservation of plants and fungi worldwide, drawing on our incredible collections of living and preserved specimens. The urgency of the biodiversity crisis means that our work has never been more important. And yet the dual emergencies of climate change and mass extinction have been put on ice while an even more immediately tragic issue is tackled.

Kew generates 70% of its income, much of which depends on the site being open. Thanks to the closure, we have a yawning hole in our budget to fill. I lead one of Kew’s six science departments and have had to do the unthinkable – I’ve asked 60% of my colleagues to stop working to bring in urgently needed cash through the government’s job retention scheme. Asking scientists not to work feels ludicrous – these unique experts are extraordinarily motivated and, if left undisturbed, would pursue their science passions 24/7. I cannot tell you how proud I am of them for their stoicism and good humour during this period. Lockdown has really brought Kew together.

Bill Baker at Kew gardens

I’ve spent most of the last 14 weeks working away at a makeshift home office in my bedroom. In common with many, it’s wearing thin now, more like homework than working from home. On the upside, the extended time with family (wife Sally, and children Flora (17), Alfred (15) and Hector (12)) has been rather special, though I won’t pretend it’s always harmonious! I’ve also been able to visit Kew every 10 days to conduct checks of our spectacular Georgian and Victorian herbarium complex, and to keep an eye on the collections. Long Spring walks at the end of the day in a deserted Kew Gardens have been one of the unexpected collateral benefits of lockdown. Having all 300 acres of Kew to yourself is really quite something.


Kew gardens purple alliums

On June 1, the Gardens re-opened to the public – first 2000 visitors, then 4000, now 6000. People have been clamouring for access – they need it now more than ever. Next, we will start to re-open our science buildings to get back to the essential business of studying and saving the world’s plants and fungi. After more than two decades at the same institution, it’s easy to take the place for granted. Fourteen weeks of lockdown have reminded me just how lucky I am.”