Did past generations anticipate future restrictions such as social distancing? Certainly, they were aware of sensible health precautions, including covering faces, from the various epidemics that seem to be a characteristic of human civilisation through the centuries.
The various designers who have contributed to the layout of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew knew a thing or two: – most paths are generously wide, whether formal avenues such as the Great Broad Walk or informal generous grassy paths that run across and between the different gardens. Even the modern Sackler Bridge over the lake is a good 3m wide, thus enabling the social distancing rule of 2m to be achieved wherever you go in the landscape. The same was true with 18th century urban planning with its wide streets, gardens and squares, but as city authorities are finding, more difficult with many modern pathways. Where did it all go wrong as late 20th and 21st century planning tried to cram more and more into less and less space?
The same is not true inside, but then access by the public is perhaps secondary to the main reason for such magnificent glasshouses such as Decimus Burton and Richard Turner’s Palm House and Temperate House – they have a primary role to safely house and research the different plant collections, though the public do enjoy spending time with the exotic plants.
While the glasshouses, restaurants and anywhere where social distancing would be difficult are all closed, the gardens at Kew are now open again for the public to enjoy, though some flower beds including the parterre in front of the Palm House will not be planted until 2021. The doors to Kew Palace, formerly the Dutch House, purchased by King George III in 1781 as a nursery for the royal children, is also closed as are those to Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, an early example of a cottage orné used by the royal family in the late 18th century for resting and taking tea during walks in the gardens.
In those days there was also a paddock at the rear of the cottage where King George III and Queen Charlotte kept animals including oriental cattle colourful Tartarian pheasants and – wait for it – kangaroos!! The first kangaroos to come to England, they were successfully and bred and by the early 19th century there were 18 of them bouncing around.
Recently restored, William Chambers’ Chinese Pagoda of 1761 looks resplendent with its dragons keeping watch on the mischievous children below with more recent Oriental additions being the Chokushi Mon (Gateway of the Imperial Messenger) dating from 1910 sitting above the Japanese Garden and, across the lake, the dark Minka House in the Bamboo Garden. The Minka House belonged to the Yonezu family, who lived in it after their main residence was bombed in 1945 and it was donated to Kew in 2001 after the family had died. Bushes of sacred bamboo planted around the entrance are believed to dispel bad dreams.
The Royal Family used to come here to relax and escape the pressures of life at Court; the visitors that come now as the Gardens reopen are also doing the same, but in the process hopefully will stand and ponder what has been squeezed out of our urban environments. Hopefully it is not too late to swing the pendulum a little and, as plans are made to reduce car journeys in cities and encourage cycling and walking, lets remember to create interesting and enjoyable green spaces with a variety of different species of trees and planting to give them an educational role as well as environmental one. Perhaps Kew, working with RHS Wisley, could consider a new role of considering how they could help green our cities?