Reviews The Veg Plot

Book review: Oxford College Gardens by Tim Richardson

Oxford College Gardens Spread

We were recently sent a review copy of Tim Richardson’s new book ‘Oxford College Gardens’, published by Frances Lincoln. And a mighty fine looking book it is too. However, as both of us scrabbled around the more industrial grounds of Coventry Polytechnic for our education, we figured it worth farming this one out to someone with much a much greater knowledge of Oxford’s finer University setting: Nick’s sister, Jo. Here is her considered opinion…

Oxford College Gardens, a book review by Jo Moyle

As an Oxford student many moons ago I confess to having scrumped from the odd Oxford college garden: apples from Worcester, mulberries from St John’s and figs from Exeter. Well, what else would you expect from the sister of a Thirsty Gardener? Thanks to the hugely informative, as well as strikingly beautiful, Oxford College Gardens by Tim Richardson, I now know the figs were filched from a tree so venerable it has a name: ‘Dr Kennicott’s Fig’. Whoops. I’m very sorry Dr Kennicott.

Oxford has to have one of the highest densities of gardens per square metre of any city in the UK and access to most of them is not just for lofty scholars (you can check opening times here). There is also University Parks and Oxford Botanic Gardens (included in this book) and I visited during Heritage Open Days when access is extended and completely free. If you are looking for inspiration ahead of a visit, this brilliant book will provide it. One of its additional pleasures is the glimpse it gives into those fellows’ gardens still kept private from the mere likes of you or me.

The proportion of pictures to text is as generous as you would hope for in a big fat colour book like this. But the text is equally engaging, incorporating history, gardening know-how and a rollcall of interesting characters, past and present. There is plenty of the entertaining nonsense of such institutions: the rivalry in following the latest garden fashions (can your College boast a mound? Terrace walk? Sacred grove?); the obsessional attention to grass (at Worcester the lawns are brushed clear of dew every morning). And there are lots of fascinating snippets that even a Thirsty Gardener would be interested in: Lincoln College’s ivy ale, for example, made with ground ivy and drunk on Ascension Day, part of the pre-hop herb-ale tradition.

If you know anyone who lives in or anywhere near Oxford that’s one of your Christmas presents sorted then.

Jo’s Top 5 Oxford College Gardens

An amazing sunken quad, gorgeous medieval cottages, the best herbaceous borders in Oxford, a lake, an orchard, and freshly brushed grass.

Corpus Christi
Quirky, exuberant planting by head gardener David Leake, whose curio-filled greenhouse you can peer into. Plus some of the best views in Oxford.

Tranquil medieval cloisters, vast striped lawns and sumptuous borders, a deer park, tree-lined riverside walks and, in April, masses of snake’s head fritillaries. And, yes, a Sacred Grove.

St Edmund Hall
As cute as its nickname ‘Teddy Hall’, with miniature front quad, tiny medieval tower church-turned-library and striking churchyard garden. Generous public access.

University Parks
The most relaxing space in Oxford with stunning seasonal borders, arboretum-quality trees and the meandering River Cherwell. Plus you don’t have to Keep Off the Grass anywhere.

Oxford College Gardens Book Cover

Thanks to the publishers for sending out the review copy. And thanks to Jo for reviewing it.

Leave a Comment