Oxford Today talks to garden writer and historian, Ambra Edwards

Ambra Edwards portrait.jpg

Garden historian Ambra Edwards (St. Hilda’s, 1976) is a woman on a mission. She wants to tell the world that gardens are an astonishing resource – not least in Oxford where she read English – for scientific and cultural and artistic reasons that are in danger of being forgotten. 

Worse, asked how her current book Head Gardeners originated, is her suspicion that the profession of gardening is being denigrated and dismantled, bit by bit. Merton Fellow's garden in 2017.jpg

She vividly remembers former Prime Minister David Cameron’s controverisal remark while in office, to the effect that the long-term unemployed should be put to picking up litter or gardening, confirming a widespread prejudice that gardening is an activity without intelligence or skill.

Noticing how gardeners often are self-effacing, even celebrated Head Gardeners of august institutions such as Lucille Savin of Merton College, who occupies a brilliant chapter in the book, Edwards also notes that even within Oxford there is a tendency to ‘contract out the gardening’. 

Merton College, The Grove - landscape 2017.jpg

The merest acquaintance with this book will show you why any such move is tantamount to vandalism of the worst kind. She says early on,

We live in an age that values labour of the brain more highly than labour of the hand. Yet in the case of the sculptor, the painter, the concert pianist or the master chef, we acknowledge that the two are indivisible, that artistry and manual skill go quite literally hand in hand. In what way is it different for a gardener? 

Capping this approach is Edwards’ view that Britain’s greatest contribution to world culture is the garden. She says, ‘I’ve rarely met a head gardener who didn’t impress me. They’re multi-talented individuals with very diverse backgrounds and skills.’ The book is the result – she has show-cased 14 Head Gardeners in thirteen chapters. 

While the photography is brilliant, the book is not a coffee table leviathan but a sensibly sized book ‘that you can fit in a handbag,’ she notes. 

Asked how an alumna of St Hilda’s in the late ‘70s –then a women’s college of course- came to interview the Head Gardener of Merton reveals a nice memory of Oxford, at a time when very few colleges were mixed. ‘We’d angle very hard to get invited to Merton,’ she recalls. ‘The food was much better, and the garden. We went for the food and the garden, not the guys,’ she says smilingly.

For this reason mostly – and perhaps coincidentally that her daughter Cressida Auckland (Merton, 2011) is researching a DPhil there in Medical Law – Edwards returned to the college to find it even better than remembered and in the bold and creative hands of Lucille Savin (Pictured, below), one of the most exciting head gardeners working in Britain today.

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Lucille takes her place amongst such luminaries as Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter; Michael Walker, the energetic force behind Trentham Gardens, and Troy Scott Smith, seeking to rekindle the spirit of Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst. Lucille is singled out for her adventurous plantsmanship, especially for her exuberant container displays and her bold use of exotics, which miraculously thrive within Merton’s benign microclimate even when their counterparts only yards away in the Botanic Garden perish.  

Under Lucille’s care, the formerly gloomy Grove (pictured above) has been transformed into a vivid wildflower meadow; the Warden’s private garden is a riot of Carribbean colour (pictured below), while the bland Rose Lane quad is pepped up with an exotic foliage display dominated by a vast Tetrapanax, each leaf the size of an umbrella. Brilliantly coloured climbers more usually found in conservatories rampage over the venerable walls, while towering echiums (native to the Canary Islands and rarely seen outside Cornwall or the Scilly Isles) soar up in the borders and lean over the paths.

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Such sights are perhaps surprising in Oxford’s oldest college, where every stone is steeped in history and the weight of tradition is palpable: no fewer than four Nobel laureates have strolled over Merton’s venerable lawns. Yet, as Lucille points out, their greatness lies in their readiness to think something new - and it is that self-same sense of adventure and risk that is her inspiration in the garden.  Equally, she is careful to preserve the sense of timeless tranquillity that makes the garden so well loved by the students.  It is not just a valuable social space, but also, Lucille believes, a vital decompression zone at times of stress.

Both Savin and Edwards concede that few students have reached the stage in life where they take an interest in gardening, (Ambra recalls that she had no interest in gardening as a student), yet they hope that later in life former students will look back with more than just fondness on Oxford gardens they encountered. Savin says, “All around where I live are these awful little beaches of gravel, so miserable and uninspiring. I like to think the students might remember Merton, when the time comes, and do better.’

Merton Pictures by Charlie Hopkinson; portrait of Lucille by University of Oxford/Richard Lofthouse

Head Gardeners features photographs by leading landscape and portrait photographer Charlie Hopkinson, and is published by Pimpernel Press on 21st September. Ambra Edwards (St Hilda’s, 1976) will also publish two further volumes in 2018, both with Pavilion. One is an updated re-working of the comprehensive global history of gardening by Penelope Hobhouse, The Story of Gardening. The other is national, The Story of the English Garden.