Landscape historian Tim Richardson offers a glimpse into the beautiful gardens of Oxford colleges and explores the enchanting stories behind their individual styles.
By Tim Richardson
Each college is utterly unique and determinedly idiosyncratic, which is the open secret of Oxford’s charm. The traditional plan of quadrangles and gardens creates wonderful surprises for the visitor, who might progress from a cosy and well-ordered front quad through a dark passageway and out into... what? It could be a much larger second quadrangle bedecked with windowboxes and a towering Victorian Gothic chapel, or a lake, a cricket pitch, a cathedral, a tall-windowed Georgian library, a starkly Modernist recent addition, or a broad-lawned fellows’ garden. The surprises – and therefore the delight – multiply in any tour of Oxford college gardens.
Above: Lincoln College's front quad in autumn
Typically, the front quad of a college was never conceived of as a ‘garden’ and was generally unadorned – either left as mud, or partially covered in gravel or hoggin, and at a later date in nearly all cases grassed over in one piece or as quadrants or halves bisected by paths. At most colleges, the front quad is perceived as a ‘walking quad’, where the grass is off limits, while the second (and in some cases a third) quad is in many cases more of a ‘sitting quad’. The idea that the quadrangles were once highly decorated spaces replete with features such as knot gardens is erroneous; only Brasenose ever had anything like that level of decorative horticulture in its front quad, and only a handful of others attempted serious gardening in a second quad. ‘Proper gardening’ is usually to be found beyond the quads.
Above: The Queen's College - view towards the entrance lodge
In the very earliest days of the first colleges, it appears the garden was considered a productive space – something inherited from the traditions of the academical halls which predated the colleges. (The ‘Aularian’ or hall statutes of the late fifteenth century suggested a fine of 2d for any student who did not help maintain the hall and its garden on the days specified by its Principal.) But quite rapidly the emphasis switched to the pleasure and quietude a garden could provide. Several colleges built little pavilions for the students which functioned as outdoor common rooms, while the flowers and fruit of the garden would provide succour and respite from the smells and degradation of the city beyond the walls – the college garden as a nosegay of sorts.
Corpus Christi begins with a tight front quad, still paved over (most quads were grassed only in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries), and then progresses through yet tighter spaces before opening out dramatically into the wide Fellows’ Garden, overlooked by an elegant Fellows’ Building (1706-16) which is one of the most underrated buildings in Oxford. Trinity, on the other hand, opens expansively, its grassed front quad viewed through the blue railings facing Broad Street, taking on the character of a small arboretum flanking a drive that leads past a lodge and up to a country house. After a couple of fine formal quadrangles, it ends expansively, too – with the great lawns which shoot off eastwards towards the Parks Road and the celebrated clairvoyee gateway.
Above: Worcester College's 'Queen of Night' tulips on the Nuffield Lawn
In some places the demarcation between gardens extended even to the undergraduates: at Pembroke, for example, eighteenth-century illustrations show that what is now Chapel Quad was originally divided into three different rectangular enclosures, reserved for master, fellows and undergraduates. Something of this flavour lingers at Wadham, where the excellent Fellows’ Garden (open to the public) represents just a third of the main garden area, with the rest taken up by the Private Fellows’ Garden (glimpsed through a locked door) and Warden’s Garden. The colleges at the edge of the old city generally had more scope for expansion, and several created not just gardens but groves and walks, which became favoured resorts of the University and town on Sunday evenings in summer. St John’s has contrasting Inner and Outer Groves, while Magdalen’s grove became its deer park in the eighteenth century (in tune with the landscape style).
The nineteenth-century former women’s colleges, situated farther out, all created large gardens over time which were a particular source of pleasure for students in their early years, when chaperoning was deemed necessary in townThere has long been an emphasis on sport in Oxford, since historically the authorities were keen to discourage the young men of the university from expending their energy by brawling in the streets. From the fifteenth century – well before the advent of rowing, football and rugby – many colleges boasted ball courts, or sphaeristeria, within the college walls, where versions of tennis, fives or handball would be played. Several colleges still retain these, but the sites of old courts can still be divined at several colleges including Oriel (a raised terrace in Back Quad) and at Merton, where the old ball court was situated by the chapel walls (three ancient tennis balls were discovered wedged in crannies during restoration work).
So what is the best garden in Oxford? That is the question people tend to ask. I am not going to hedge around but say that in horticultural terms, Worcester College has the finest gardens currently, thanks to an ambitious head gardener with an excellent team, properly resourced. The lawns at Worcester are perhaps the finest in either Oxford or Cambridge, while the borders are full of interest for much of the year. But there is good gardening across the University – in the borders at Magdalen and Merton, in the quads of Jesus and around the flowing lawns of St Hugh’s and Lady Margaret Hall. Corpus and Pembroke Colleges have head gardeners who like to work alone and have added immense charm and individuality to their respective institutions.
The college gardens today are each run along highly individualistic lines. In most cases a college fellow is deputed as ‘garden master’ or some similar appellation (at St John’s this post is Keeper of the Groves). At one college, I came across a curiously planted herbaceous bed where the front was all pink flowers and the back was all blue. I was told it was because one garden master liked pink while their successor liked blue.
There are two excellent gardens easily overlooked. Rhodes House offers a satisfying Arts and Crafts confection with exceptional herbaceous borders, and Wolfson College has an unsung modernist masterpiece with lawns flowing down to the river – not quite as ambitious or original as St Catherine’s College, that other modern gem, but perhaps rather easier to enjoy.
Tim Richardson (Pembroke, 1986) is a landscape historian and gardens writer, a columnist in the Daily Telegraph, the author of several books, and an adviser to the National Trust on historic gardens. His latest book is Oxford College Gardens (Frances Lincoln, September 2015) with photography by Andrew Lawson, priced £40.
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All images © Andrew Lawson