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Book Review: Oxford College Gardens

Book Review: Oxford College Gardens

Oxford College GardensTim Richardson, Oxford College Gardens, (London: Frances Lincoln, 2015), £40. ISBN 9780711232181

Tim Richardson, author of English Gardens of the Twentieth Century and Great Gardens of America writes regularly on garden matters for a number of magazines and newspapers and has now turned his hand to describing the gardens of Oxford colleges. Working with him was the photographer Andrew Lawson, one of Britain’s most experienced garden photographers who can not only wield a camera but is also a gardener who opens his Oxfordshire garden under the National Gardens Scheme.

The book contains detailed descriptions of the thirty-four gardens (including the Oxford Botanic Garden and the University Parks) which Richardson deems substantial enough to be given a chapter to themselves. Brief mention is also made in the introduction of eight other smaller but noteworthy gardens. There is a good index. Each of the main entries contains a description and history of the college, a modern sketch plan of the gardens and colour photographs showing plants growing in those gardens. In some cases, there are also black and white illustrations of how a college looked in the past. For example, there is a 1744 engraving of Pembroke College, alma mater of both Samuel Johnson and Richardson himself, showing how what is now Chapel Quad was once divided into three separate gardens – one for the Master, another for the Fellows and the third for the students. The book’s endpapers are from Ralph Agas’s detailed 1578 map of Oxford which, at first, may cause a little confusion because Christ Church Meadow, for example, appears at the top of the page whereas on a modern map, like the one Richardson has provided at the back of the book, it is to be found at the bottom. However, once this little difficulty has been overcome one doesn’t have to be a cartographer to appreciate the detail in the map and relate it to the sketches of the twenty-first century colleges.

Garden historians will enjoy the mysteries still to be solved which this book reveals. Take, for example, a 1733 engraving of Trinity College by William Williams. This was the year in which Lord Cobham, a Whig, started work on re-landscaping his formal garden at Stowe in a more naturalistic manner. The Williams engraving shows three principal elements for Trinity College - a Wilderness, a double lime avenue and a parterre. Richardson comments that this design was redolent more of the time of William & Mary or Queen Anne than of the Georgian period. The leaders of Trinity were Tory in outlook and may have been reflecting upon the dismissal of the Tories from government and the bureaucracy so perhaps the Williams engraving was a political statement, harking back to the baroque styles of the Stuart monarchs? Richardson follows this up with detailed information on the ways in which the Trinity gardens changed over the years. Both the Wilderness and the double lime avenue shown in the Williams engraving were built but no evidence has yet been found for the building of the parterre.

The book contains a double-page photograph of the view across Christ Church Meadow, the ancient water meadow grazed by a herd of English longhorn cattle. It will remind some readers of a battle from the 1960s when the Oxford city fathers submitted a plan to allow a sunk road to be cut diagonally across the middle of the Meadow in order to relieve city centre traffic. The controversy resulted not only in the abandonment of the scheme for the road through the Meadow but also the formation of the Garden History Society (now The Gardens Trust).

Gardeners who read this book will find plenty of new ideas for things they might like to try at home, whether it be suggestions for new planting combinations from Lawson’s photographs or ideas for lawn maintenance and design from Richardson’s description of the sward at Worcester College. Those who care for the Oxford college gardens are mentioned too – there is an Appendix listing the Head Gardeners in post in 2014. Mention is also made of the college Fellows who are deputed with ensuring their college’s gardens are kept up to standard. Their job is mainly of looking after the financial affairs of the garden but Lawson’s photographs show how, at New College, the writer Robin Lane Fox has overseen the management of a most wondrous herbaceous border.

Richardson’s text is sprinkled with amusing tales like that he recounts of an unnamed college where he came across an herbaceous bed that was pink at the front and blue at the back: ‘I was told it was because one garden master liked pink whilst their successor liked blue. (I felt a little like Alice at this point) …’. Elsewhere he recounts the presence at Wadham College of a Black Hamburgh vine which the college reports to have been planted during the wars with Naploleon. ‘In 2014 it produced 250 bunches of grapes for the college fellows to enjoy while dining at high table – thick of skin but intensively flavoured (the grapes that is)’.

So, who will enjoy this book? Lovers of gardens, especially historic gardens, of course. Fans of Harry Potter films might well want to discover the location of the Quidditch Pitch in the University Parks or take a look at New College which was a location for Goblet of Fire. For television viewers who feast regularly upon the antics of Morse and Lewis careful scrutiny of the photographs may enable them to work out where filming takes place. Oxford students, both present, past and potential will find it not only gives them an insight into their own colleges but also into the extraordinary hidden gardens of Oxford. What a wonderful present when the examination grades are announced and a place at Oxford confirmed! Or perhaps this should be for those about to apply – after all recent webchat suggests that the majority of students chose their university first on friendliness and inclusiveness, second on accommodation and surroundings, including the gardens, with academic matters a long way behind!

Jean Reader