University of Oxford Botanic Garden 13.07.12

This year we have been making an effort to visit gardens that we haven't been to for a long time and it has been interesting to see how they have changed. The Botanic Garden at the University of Oxford was founded in 1621 to promote learning and glorify nature. It occupies a compact site bounded by the River Cherwell. It is an immaculate garden space, surrounded by magnificent stone buildings. I have only ever visited in the height of summer but I imagine that its trimmed precision is a delight at any season.

The view through the old entrance arch and along the central path through the order beds. Originally the order beds would have attempted to represent the sum of botanical knowledge and arrange it in its proper order, but that task has grown beyond the realistic reach of any botanic garden. They are now a very early example of edutainement. The planting is meaningful and occasionally whimsical. It is a great joy to wander here and enjoy the recognition of the familiar while feeling worthy and being educated (and slightly tanned). My grandson tells me that if one wanted to create the same effect for the modern day one might design a botanical explorer game for playstation. It wouldn't have the same tanning effect in the summer, but you wouldn't get rained on either.

I like order beds. I find them reassuring and it is always good to have clear labels on plants. They reduce uncertainty and that is very reassuring as well. I like the precision and angularity of beds like this, and I enjoy the loose way that plants associate when they are grouped with their relatives rather than companions that suit them. That is not to denigrate planned herbaceous borders, I am just championing the pleasures of chance familiarity.

A couple of beatiful arches lead through the walls to large triangular garden beyond. It is bounded by the River Cherwell, haunt of punts and boaters of one sort or another. It would be an easy matter to fall from botany into recreation and the garden handles the transition from amusement to education with great skill, and offers a flotation device if the fall becomes literal (I so wanted to say littoral)!

The outside wall shelters a long herbaceous border with a rock garden at the far end. There is a small water garden, a formal water lily pool and the very remarkable Merton Border which cuts diagonally through the middle. It is a planting for dry conditions designed by Professor James Hitchmough at the University of Sheffield. It currently looks very strange with sweeping masses of Eremurus producing strong vertical lines through the space. It's development will be interesting through the years - if it looked right in the first year or two then it would be doomed in the longer term.

The greenhouses are grouped between the outer wall and the river and are quite delightful. I have always liked them. They are quite small and cram an enormous amount into a tiny space. It has the same feeling as many amateur glasshouses, filled by the passion of an individual rather than rolled out to meet an institutional need. The is a small alpine house that serves as an entrance. It is the only part of the complex where the plants were spread out to fill the space.

A small fernery next to the alpine house is unexpected and green. The tropical waterlily house next to it is dominated by a gigantic pool with a small path around it. A wide range of broadly tropical plants fill every available corner and dangle from the roof. There is just about room for some people as well, but a child in a buggy nearly required the assistance of the Automobile Association. Victoria cruziana in the centre will expand to fill the pool by the end of the year.

The sections are connected by a narrow corridor that is just wide enough for a single person to sqeeze through. Plants on the right clothe the outer wall, plants on the left clothe the glasshouse walls. It's a fascinating collection of climbers (and a few things that have become climbers out of necessity).
The Botanic garden is a beatiful little space. We spent several hours there and could have spent longer. It was as enchanting as it was the first time I visited 30 years ago. In fact, it was exactly as I remember it.
I'm not sure if that is a good thing or not. Gloria says it is not, and she rarely offers an opinion in such matters.

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