John Garth meets the extraordinary creator of one of the most storied and unusual Oxford college gardens.

By John Garth

Root and branch

The ultramodern greenhouse at Corpus Christi is part cultivation centre, part cabinet of curiosities.

Among the cacti and tumbling rosehips, a landscape painting by a lodge porter stands alongside Madame Lulu — a salvaged shop dummy surreally equipped with bow and arrows, parrot and crab.

In the huge frameless plate-glass front window are items mostly collected by Corpus gardener David Leake while beachcombing — shells, a dried razorbill head, stones picked for their likeness to the seals of his beloved Norfolk coast.

David washed up at Corpus just as haphazardly in 1979 after a decade and more hitching around Europe, North Africa and Asia. To top up his funds he had occasionally gardened in the London parks; then, on a whim, he took a National Certificate of Horticulture. The Greater London Council refused to adjust his wages to match a qualification it did not recognise, but the certificate won him the Corpus job. ‘They like bits of paper in Oxford,’ he says.

He found the gardens run down through lack of full-time care. Today, a vigorous 67-year-old with an equally vigorous grey mane and beard, he still plans, plants and maintains the college grounds four days a week, tending its other Oxford properties with an assistant on the fifth.

We walk and talk in the Corpus quads and gardens. Here is the quince tree whose fruit goes to friends and Fellows. Here, flourishing in the heat from the kitchen vents, is a Wollemi pine – an early Jurassic species thought extinct until its rediscovery in Australia 20 years ago. Here the library windows are framed by bamboo, including one named after a college donor. David also grows olive trees, rosemary and wild roses in honour of the tradition of classical learning at Corpus.

There is something of the medieval illuminator in the way he fills his margins with symbols. But David, whose motto is rus in urbe – the countryside in the city – will not confine himself to the borders. In his greenhouse window is a cartoon: across a suburban garden wall, a suited gent on close-mown grass hectors a hippy who stands to his elbows in what looks like a prairie. David laughs, ‘It it sort of symbolises my relationship with the college.’

Root and branch

There was some strain during the 15-year presidency of Sir Keith Thomas, who favoured a St John’s-style formality. David has enjoyed more freedom since, under Sir Tim Lankester and current incumbent Richard Carwardine. But he has removed hollyhocks from the Front Quad paving, plus a trailer full of ivy and jasmine, after a word from the president. ‘It was getting a bit jungly,’ he concedes.

In a parallel universe David might have given rein to his wildest dreams. Improbably, he had applied to succeed Sir Keith himself. Electioneering also formed an occasional parallel channel to his gardening, with several attempts to get onto Oxford City Council – for the Greens, as an independent opposing them, and even (in a favour for a friend) as a Conservative.

Had he won the Corpus presidency, David says he would have weeded out old elements of hierarchy. ‘I go and eat my lunch in a room full of mops and buckets having carried it from the counter, and the fellows and lecturers sit up in a very smart room and have someone coming and taking away their plates,’ he observes tartly.

‘I would also like to clear the war memorials in the chapel from all the stuff in front so we can actually read the names, especially with the war centenary here.’

He insists he would also have found time for the garden in between his presidential duties. At any rate, the college rejected his application at an early stage, perhaps because of some of the more colourful aspects of his beatnik years in the Middle East.

So he remains a gardener, accepts the give-and-take involved in running his empire as a fief of the college, and recognises that among those his gardens must impress are Corpus’s potential benefactors.

‘I don’t think any other college would allow this in their garden,’ he says of his greenhouse bric-à-brac. ‘I’m employed by them and I have to do what they want me to do — though it is a balance with what I want to do. On the whole they leave me alone, and you can’t ask for more than that.’

Root and branchIn 2009 the Fellows’ Garden, which he had worked for 25 years, was razed to accommodate the MBI Al Jaber Building auditorium by architects Rick Mather Associates (who also designed the new greenhouse). It was a controversial move. But David has found consolation in the roof terrace vista of Christchurch Meadow, affording such scenes as deer leaping through the floodwaters of a bright January morning. Here he also helps a graduate student tend a beehive in honour of 16th-century founder Bishop Fox, who wanted the college to be like a hive bringing forth sweetness.

Whatever occasional qualms some fellows may have about David’s exuberant tastes, others speak of his gardening in terms the bishop might have approved.

‘He’s brilliant,’ says Dr Liz Fisher, reader in environmental law. ‘I say to the grad students that the college gardens represent the creativity we’re trying to encourage. It’s always unexpected, not regimented — an inspiration.’

Root and branch 

Portraits of David Leake © Oxford University Images / Joby Sessions. Stone archway looking into the Garden Quad © Oxford University Images / Greg Smolonski. This article first appeared, slightly abridged, in the Michaelmas 2014 issue of Oxford Today.


By Jeff Chapman

Long may you flourish, David!

By Doug Neville

I was at Corpus 15 years ago, and the scenery and gardens were one of the reasons I applied there rather than other colleges. Whilst I never knew David beyond a polite "Hello" I'm so grateful for the thought and care he put into keeping the college fresh and blooming. Thank you, David.

By Arthur Stockwin

I was delighted to read this wonderful piece about David, whom I know and like. He is a breath of fresh air in this era of too much conformity and sameness. Corpus is fortunate to have such a creative and nonconformist individual designing and maintaining its gardens. My wife and I have experienced the generosity of him and his delightful wife Susan, together with real intellectual stimulus. Arthur.

By Sarah Whittall

I had the pleasure of meeting David in his greenhouse some years ago and he made a lasting impression on me. He gave me a plant which I took back to our tiny garden in Brussels. He is a real asset to Oxford University.

By Kate Macdonald

What a pleasure to see that David Leake and his garden are still thriving at Corpus. When I was there 20 years ago I greatly appreciated the green spaces he created and maintained for us - as well as his dry take on students and fellows. Long may he flourish!

By Jeannette Rinehart

What a treat to read about my friend David Leake. I met him in 1985 when my husband and I first went to Oxford and the University of Detroit/Mercy's summer program at Corpus and have remained friends. It is wonderful to see that he is appreciated for his unique ability to bring beauty, joy and sometimes whimsy to the students and faculty. Long may he reign!

By Margaret Pigott

We have known David Leake for more than 36 years and have been fortunate enough to enjoy the beauty of his gardens. Every year he presented us with a new view of flora in the gardens and along the paths of the Corpus College quad. David is more than a Gardner; he is the keeper of the real and natural traditions of the great minds of the writers and philosophers of the 20th century. To Hoover a garden and place his lovely flowers along a strict row looking like soldiers on duty would violate all the impulses of his artistic bent. We are all fortunate David has been able to uphold the aesthetic standards that make Corpus Christi College a lovely, welcoming, environment for scholar and visitor alike.

By Nicolette Jones

My involvement in the Oxford Literary Festival in recent years (including the St Hilda's events which took place this year in Corpus Lecture Theatre) has brought me into Corpus where audiences and Festival participants alike have been delighted with the gardens and the curiosity that is David's greenhouse. A round of applause to him and to the College for giving him rein.

By Christopher Armitage

And occasionally he nips over to St Edmund Hall to touch up its quad and adjacent churchyard.