Oxford College Gardens by Tim Richardson

Helena Attlee delights in the opportunity to explore the gardens beyond the gates of Oxford's colleges in this definitive new work.

Oxford College Gardens by Tim Richardson (Frances Lincoln, £40 *£35)

This is a book for anyone who has paused on a pavement in Oxford to gaze through the open door of a college gatehouse. Some may have glimpsed a wisteria-clad wall, others a grassy quadrangle or a cloister, but, all too often, a sign in the foreground will have proclaimed ‘college closed to visitors’. Oxford College Gardens is the antidote to exclusion because every door is open to Tim Richardson and Andrew Lawson, those titans of garden writing and photography.

Their colossus of a book leads us beyond the grassy quads to the intensely cultivated spaces of fellows’ and masters’ gardens and the pools, lakes, groves, walks, meadows and deer parks surrounding more than 30 of the University’s 38 colleges, not forgetting the University Parks and the Botanic Garden. Oxford College Gardens offers both a rich history of each landscape and an insider’s view of horticultural life at the university.

Although it’s no surprise to hear that every college employs a head gardener and at least one under-gardener, it’s intriguing that the head gardeners at Pembroke and Corpus Christi refuse all assistance, preferring to work alone. Apparently, all of the university’s head gardeners, of which only three are women, get together every term to swap notes and Mr Richardson reveals that they always choose a different garden for the meeting.

He also passes on some pleasing job titles. Gardeners who are highly skilled at caring for grassy quads are known as ‘quad men’, a college fellow given responsibility for the financial management of the garden is called ‘Garden Master’, except at St John’s, where the post is ‘Keeper of the Groves’.

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Mr Richardson can draw on his own experience as a student at Oxford to add another layer of intimacy to his account. Familiar with the character of each institution, he is well able to assess the extent to which a college’s personality imbues the landscape surrounding it. Take Balliol, which he regards as wanting to ‘come across as chilled-out, but is in fact up-tight and super competitive’. No wonder then that ‘the horticultural quality at Balliol today is among the best in the university’.

Anyone glimpsing a college’s enclosed and cloistered front quad might compare it to a monastic building, but Mr Richardson’s solidly useful introduction brushes aside this common misconception. He explains that many Oxford colleges evolved from medieval student lodgings known as academical halls. These often adopted the same ground plan as London’s busy inns of court and livery companies, an enclosed space screened from the street and yet linked to it by a narrow doorway or passage.Mr Richardson sees the quad as reflecting ‘both the contemplative calm of the cloister and the busyness of the city courtyard’. What better metaphor for academic life?

Mr Lawson is as clever as Mr Richardson at getting behind the scenes in a garden. He reveals a clutter of unexpected objets trouvés, cacti, dried seedheads and watercolours on a table in the head gardener’s greenhouse at Corpus Christi, gourds laid out to dry in the Second Quad at Jesus and a ‘quad man’ trimming the edges of a lawn at Oriel. His pictures lend themselves to the lavish scale of the book, in which a double page can encompass fritillaries crowding the water meadow at Magdalen or a herd of longhorn cattle strolling through bleached grass on Christ Church Meadow.

Photographs and evocative text combine to create an ideal book for anyone who prefers their garden visiting vicarious, but others might look for practical information about visiting college gardens in a book that is, in every other sense, the definitive work on its subject.

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