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Annual Tate Talk 2021 – Cambridge College Gardens

Sat 6th Mar, 2021

Columnist and garden historian, Tim Richardson, gave us a fascinating insight into the gardens in and around the Cambridge Colleges.

From early days Cambridge had a particularly rural location, which adds in modern times to the charm of the Colleges’ locations, unlike Oxford where the gardens are much more enclosed. The name The Backs refers to the land at the reverse of the eight colleges which back onto the river. Historically, and indeed still today in the case of Kings College, they were used for grazing livestock. Several of the college courts and land around the buildings had designed gardens in the past, evident on 17th- and 18th-century prints and plans. Today, the Colleges’ head gardeners plant up colourful borders and maintain these beautiful spaces as areas of peace and relaxation – if they are not too close to the river and the noise from the various punts carrying tourists.

Over time the colleges have planted avenues of trees, and consulted landscape architects such as Capability Brown. Brown’s plan was to amalgamate The Backs into a single landscape park,showing off the elegant college buildings. Fortunately, The Backs stayed in separate College ownerships which gives them their individual styles, St John’s has its wilderness and Magdalen, its tropical garden of brightly coloured flowering and foliage plants.

Many of the gardens are open to the public but we were advised to look at the Colleges’ websites for opening times, or search the National Garden Scheme website to find their open days. A number of the colleges have private gardens only open to the Fellows and the Master.

Tim Richardson’s book Cambridge College Gardens, published in 2019, includes brilliant research and wonderful photographs of the College gardens.

Next Event

Tate Talk 2024

Saturday 2nd March, 2024 2pm

‘Gertrude Jekyll‘ An illustrated talk by Caroline Holmes
Bawdeswell Village Hall, NR20 4RU


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