Cambridge University Botanic Garden. 10.07.13

It has been many years since I last visited Cambridge, but Gloria was once a regular and it was lovely to be shown around by someone with such clear affection for the place. We visit many gardens and in one way or another they all trumpet their educational aims in the same way that manufacturers of chocolates occasionally promote their nutritional value. One listens politely.
It was very restful to come to a garden that provided some real educational value without feeling the need to shout about it.

All that I remember from my last trip was the long corridor that connected the glasshouses. They have been built at different times in a variety of styles laced into a harmonious whole by this simple linkage.

Victoria cruziana is a giant in a small pool in the tropical waterlily house. This section of leaf has been cut off and turned over to show the arrangement of the reinforcing veins beneath that act as flotation chambers. It was a simple and thoughtful act and I daresay it was not instigated by a 'Visitor Experience Consultant'.

During the 1980's we were all swayed by the idea of 'themed' gardens (with the possible exception of Gloria, who is rarely swayed by anything). I once saw a 'Television Personalities' garden that was so bland it was accidentally representative. My spirits sank when I saw the sign to a 'Scented Garden' but it turned out to be a jolly place full of bees. It was sufficiently aromatic to fulfill the promise admirably.

There is a deft touch evident throughout the garden and it is a joy to wander through the skill on display. This annual meadow was a masterpiece to match that grown at Hidcote last year. Annual meadows often look like the Emperor's new clothes. We are told by those who style themselves wise and powerful that they are gardens, they are ecological, they are simple, cheap and fashionable. We are told it and we go along with the conceit until someone with real ability mounts a tour de force on this scale and exposes the common sort for the low quality hay they are. To the gardener responsible: we have seen, we have learnt, we are grateful.

Botanic gardens can be wonderful archives of horticultural history. The roses in the garden were not massed in flowered ranks but selected for their significance. Rosa x damascena 'Versicolor' has been surpassed as a rose in the same way that one outgrows a primary school teacher. It is a foundation and leaves little showing on the surface but affection.

Education offers us the challenge of peering beyond what we know to discern the dim shapes of future understanding. This bright pink Psylliostachys suworowii was certainly not dim, but it was unknown.

It was a strange experience to stroll through a flat Cambridge garden and be confronted by a limestone rock garden, and this was a corker. Knobbly and uneven throughout, criss-crossed by erratic paths and irregular steps. Gloria rather shrewdly kept her distance following her recent fall, though I am sure that the garden staff are quite capable of rescuing a wobbly old woman who fell in the pond, should the need arise.

If you have any comments you can e-mail us: