A year (or two) at Kew
As I prepare to leave London this week, I thought I'd reflect a little on my nearly two years at Kew, how I got here and why I'm leaving. A moving on post....
Mid way through 2010, I was getting restless in Sydney. Put it down to the seven-year itch, middle age, ambition, or all three. In any case, I started to look for a new job. Being Executive Director of Sydney’s botanic gardens was fun and demanding but I needed a change. I was thinking quite broadly, from a university Vice Chancellor to head of the ABC!
Inevitably I was attracted back to plants: my passion and, let’s face it, where I was likely to be competitive. In July the Director of Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Steve Hopper, emailed me a position description for something he thought I might be interested in. The job as Director of Conservation, Living Collections and Estates was not the top job, but it had a bigger budget and more staff than I had at Sydney, and…it was Kew.
I’d been approached a few weeks earlier by the executive search company and told them I wasn’t interested, but I was now definitely nibbling. The job included living on the grounds at Kew Gardens, making up for the typically unattractive UK salary. I’d have responsibility for horticulture at the most famous botanic garden in the world, Kew Gardens, as well as leading the Millennium Seed Bank and watching over the associated gardens and forest at Wakehurst Place. Taking on an £80 million maintenance backlog - which turned out to be an underestimate - was perhaps not as alluring but it was an attractive challenge.
On top of all this we’d be living close to mainland Europe, a short train trip away from Paris and a cheap airfare away from a smorgasbord of languages and cultures. And of course I also knew Steve would eventually vacate the position and I thought a few years in this role would prime me up, and test me, for the Director position. On the downside the weather in London was crap and my wife Lynda had explicitly said she didn’t want to live anywhere cold – Hobart had always been off our list for this reason. But then there was the sniff of Paris. Our kids had just left home so it was relatively easy to move hemispheres. In the end it was a now or never decision, and we went for now.
Now, in January 2013, I’m leaving Kew to return to Australia. Again the timing is right, or at least not wrong. The Directorship has been decided and with Richard Deverell Kew has a quite different but fine leader. In fact we get on very well, and although with wildly different backgrounds we are (I hope he won’t mind me saying) uncannily similar – convergent evolution? I have the happy chance to return to my home state of Victoria, and to the botanic garden where the whole love affair started. It was at Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne where I became a botanic garden groupie after a few years working as a vacation student and then a year as a horticultural assistant while I mulled over whether or not to do a PhD.
So after nearly two years at Kew I return home. Two years of working at a truly amazing place. Full of history, intrigue, frustration, potential and what can only be described as its own very special je ne sais quoi, or perhaps chutzpah. I don’t there is or will be another place like Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, but then there doesn’t need to be; other botanic gardens can and should do different things and do them differently. Kew’s chutzpah is what gives it unparalleled potential but it’s also what cements its feet firmly in Thames mud.
Plenty has happened while I’ve been in London. Remember the Windsor-Middleton wedding in April 2011, embarrassing me with two bank holidays just after I carefully started to avoid the Easter break. There was the second Diamond Jubilee for an English Royal – the first resulted in a 15 hectare bluebell-rich addition to Kew Gardens, the second in some renovated gates (now Elizabeth Gate, on Kew Green) and a famously soggy Thames regatta. The Olympics and Paralympics of course, etched symbolically in flowers at Kew. And annual events like the Chelsea Flower show, summer art at the Royal Academy, Christmas where it makes sense… At Kew there were orchids in Princess of Wales Conservatory in winter, succulents in flower in ‘summer’, autumn colour at Wakehurst Place and Kew Gardens, and at least some of the 30,000 different plants doing their thing every day of the year. I’ve kayaked in the Thames, moshed in some of London’s more colourful music venues and sampled its rich literature, media and beer.
When I leave Kew, my job will be dismantled. It was always a slightly concocted role but a useful one for a few years at least. The legacy, I hope, will be closer working relationships between and within the horticulture staff at both sites, and with their colleagues in Estates and the Millennium Seed Bank. They were always good mates I think but we were able to iron out a few rough patches and try a few new things. And we did some good along the way. A major funding campaign for the £34 million restoration of the Temperate House was well advanced when I started, and soon after I leave the final pledge should be made. Millions of pounds of government capital funds were won and spent, and various energy saving or generating projects completed, started or planned. The UK native seed hub opened at Wakehurst Place and after some tense negotiation and positioning we bought an eight hectare farm, the ‘hole in the doughnut’ at Wakehurst. It seems to me that with the some more staff and renewed enthusiasm, the standard of horticulture at Kew Gardens began to improve.
Life isn’t a bed of roses. Or perhaps it is, but you have to put up with the thorns. In September this year we had a visitor die when a large branch fell from one of our historic Cedars. This is the kind of thing everyone working in a public garden dreads but knows is inevitable one day, no matter how vigorously you care for your (in this case 14,000) trees. Visitor numbers were down in 2012 as a result of the Olympics, wet weather and presumably the subdued economy, meaning less money in Kew’s coffers. The government continued to reduce its support as it did across departments throughout the UK. In a familiar story, Kew meanwhile found new ways to generate revenue. Although I like the UK climate and its biological effects – particularly the sharp seasonal changes and starkly beautiful winter – the weather itself was very unattractive, although mostly in a miserable rather than malevolent way.
Now we pack up our belongings to return. We’ve done a bit of packing and unpacking over the two years as Lynda and I took advantage of our place in the world to travel in the neighbourhood. We visited (together or separately) Gran Canaria, Madrid, the Pyrenees, Paris (a few times), Prague, Berlin, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall (a few times), Lancashire and Yorkshire, the Lakes District, and various gardens and counties near to London. For work I went to Nairobi in Kenya, Incheon in South Korea, St Louis in USA and back to Australia only a few months after we’d settled in London, to Melbourne for the International Botanical Congress. We travelled together to Sydney in early 2012 and I visited Melbourne again later in the year to be interviewed for the botanic garden job.
There are plenty things still to do in London: museums, galleries, gardens, pubs, counties and countries. At Kew it would be great to get my teeth into the science restructuring, continuing improvements in horticulture and landscaping, new interpretation, and various projects from replanting the Board Walk kidney beds through to completing the Temperate House restoration and reimagining the Thames River/Kew Palace precinct. But I can watch from afar, happy that I’ve sown a few seeds on fertile ground and that Kew will tick along quite nicely as yet another antipodean heads home.
I have another botanic garden to look forward to, one that has done great things in the last two decades under the leadership of Phil Moors. I’m looking forward to putting my own stamp on things, helping it sing and dance to its own tune. I don’t quite bring a world of experience but in the last two years I feel like I’ve experienced an important chunk of the world.
Bye for now. Next post, Australia...
Images: At the top (taken by Lynda), me with Australia over my right shoulder literally and in 'Afloat', a bronze artwork by Hamish Black near Brighton Pier. This is a neat representation of our planet with "the north and south poles pushed together forming a central hole". In the middle, me at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne 32 years ago. Finally, what they were serving at Sonido! in Gertrude St, Fitzroy, last time I was in Melbourne. [For Denise Gadd's take on this story, in last Friday's (The Age) Melbourne Magazine, see the following link.]