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With just a few hours to spend in Oxford, I decided that I would have a walk around the city centre and choose just one place to visit in detail. I picked the Botanic Garden, partly because the weather was fine enough to be outdoors. It is officially on Rose Lane, which is just off High Street opposite Magdalen College. Even before I went in I was impressed by the trees that were growing beside the road. In front of the entrance is an area of hedges that are arranged like a maze, but they are so short that it isn't a maze you could get lost in.
The entrance is through the gift shop, where tickets are sold. This was April 2012, and I paid £4 for a day ticket. I was handed an A5 sheet of paper showing a plan of the garden; it had a sticker at the top which was actually my ticket. I went out of the shop through the door leading into the walled garden. My first impression was that the garden was a little bare, but this was early April and I'm sure it looks very different in summer.
Looking at the plan, I decided to go into the conservatory first as this was nearby. The weather had clouded over since the morning, and it was very pleasantly warm inside. This is not an enormous place, but there is plenty of room to walk around without bumping into other visitors. There are lemon trees, miniature orange trees, begonias, one or two cacti and several other flowering plants. Most of the begonias were down on the floor while the citrus trees were on a shelf above. One thing that struck me almost straight away was the gorgeous scent of some of the flowers which pervaded the whole conservatory. I had been photographing architecture all morning and soon had my camera out to take some close-ups of fruit and flowers for a change. As well as the plants, there was an intriguing set-up of plastic bottles showing how you could create a window farm in your home to grow vegetables. There were leaflets explaining the procedure as well. A wooden bench was provided for anyone who wanted to have a seat for a while; I would imagine it's a very popular place in cold or wet weather.
As I came out I turned left and went out of the garden onto the banks of the River Cherwell. Rows of boats were moored there, and quite a few people were out on the river; it was after all a bank holiday. I noticed that further along there were several hothouses, but to go into them you have to go back into the gardens. There is a little alpine house, a fernery and an area for insectivores as well as a somewhat larger lily house that has a pond in the centre in which water lilies grow. A narrow corridor with yet more plants passes alongside the hothouses; there are twisting trunks and trailing roots as well as richly coloured and more delicate flowers. My camera was in constant use, and I was interested to come across a woman sitting drawing one of the insectivores. A little further along was a separate entrance leading to a palm house and also an arid house. It is very warm and humid in all these areas; if you're wearing a coat you will probably end up carrying it.
When I had had my fill of the hothouses I went back into the walled garden and had a bit of a shock. There seemed to be someone standing on their head in the middle of one of the flower beds; I thought perhaps they were doing yoga! Then I realised it was a scarecrow. It certainly had me scared for a moment. I went to the end of the walled garden and through to have a look at the herbaceous border which was beautifully colourful. Back inside the garden, I sat down on a seat to delete some old photos from my camera as the memory card was full. Spotting another body on the grass, I was relieved that this time it was a real person just having a lie down and some peace and quiet. It certainly is the perfect place to get away from the crowds when the weather is fine.
Realising that I had been rather quick to dismiss the garden as being too bare, I went to have a proper look at the fountain in the centre. It isn't spectacular; elegant might be a better word. Around the central area were four large flower pots with flowering plants just coming through; pretty enough already for a photo. From the centre I went back beyond the walled garden again, this time to see the rock garden. This was quite colourful with small trees as well as flowering plants among the rocks. Continuing along the central path, there are fruit, vegetables and herbs to the left but again there must be a lot more to see in summer. Beyond the flower beds is a water garden that a duck was certainly enjoying. I loved the bright yellow lilies that were growing right beside the water.
As I made my way back through the walled garden I went to have a look at a tree that had hundreds of red ribbons tied to its branches. It turned out to be a wishing tree, and there were plenty more lengths of ribbon waiting for anyone who wanted to make a wish. The tree was blossoming too and did look delightful.
There is no cafeteria on site, but you wouldn't have to walk very far along High Street to find one. Toilets, including one for the disabled, are situated behind the conservatory. They are modern and very clean; they even have central heating.
I probably spent about an hour in the garden. You could walk round in less time, but I kept stopping to take photographs. On the other hand, you could spend a lot longer there if you wanted to sit and relax, read or just enjoy the sights. If I lived locally I can imagine I would buy an annual pass and go and do some plant drawing there. There are over seven thousand species of plants in the garden, including medicinal herbs, and all of them are labelled. The plan shows a composting area to the extreme right as you enter the walled garden, but I didn't investigate this.
Both day tickets and annual passes are available, and there are concessionary prices. It's worth buying an annual pass if you are going to make more than three visits. There is no charge for children accompanied by an adult family member. Dogs are not allowed, with the exception of guide dogs. The gardens open at 9am every day. From November through to February they close at 4pm. In March, April, September and October they close at 5pm. From May through to August closing time is 6pm. Last admission is always 45 minutes before closing time.
The University of Oxford Botanic Garden
Tel. 01865 286690
~Was it ever really like that?~
Looking back on my student days it seemed like the weather was always sunny, the jokes were always funny, the food tasted better (which is definitely not true) and the British obsession with gardening meant that Oxford was always filled with perfect lawns and beautiful flower beds. Was this last thing any more true than the others? Quite possibly not, but it's undeniable that the city takes great care to always put its best floral face forward. Nowhere can you find a better example of that than in the Oxford University Botanical Gardens.
It's typical of many of the city's attractions that they tend to be pretty much ignored by students and others who live there. I'm ashamed to say that the list of attractions I ignored was a shocking one. I never went to the Ashmolean Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum or the Museum of the History of Science when I lived in the city despite all of them being free. However when it came to the Botanical Gardens, you could hardly keep me away. It might have had something to do with being on my way home or more likely because of having a massive crush on someone who lived in the accommodation building adjacent to the gardens but then again, perhaps I had a middle-aged interest in gardening long before I should have.
~Trying to impress the foreigners~
When I met up with my French friend and her son to spend an afternoon in the city this spring I was warned that they'd already had a full week of museums and that it would be wise not to try to force any more on them. So I proposed the Botanical Gardens and they - very politely - agree to go along with that suggestion. I think that unless you are determined to find it, the Botanical Gardens are very easily missed. You can walk down the High Street and over Magdalen Bridge without having the slightest idea that they are tucked away behind the honey-coloured limestone building that faces Magdalen College. The signage is pitiful - if you don't know that the gardens exist, you are unlikely to stumble upon them by accident.
The first nice surprise was discovering that the entrance fee was less than I'd feared, especially as my friend's son got in for fee by qualifying as a student (albeit not a local one). I got a reduced fee as an ex-student despite having no ID to prove it but then no such common ID exists. I paid £3 and Squidge got in for £3.80.
~Wasn't April a bit early?~
I was a bit worried that the gardens might be a bit 'thin' so early in the year but the early warm sunny weather this year had put paid to any fears. The botanical gardens were looking fantastic. We started out by checking the conservatory which is full of citrus plants including some big ugly yellow things that neither of us could identify as well as the more obvious oranges and lemos. Next destination was the bank of greenhouses that line the edge of the river Cherwell where we sweated it out to see some lovely exhibits. Once inside the greenhouses, the path is overgrown with vegetation and it's easy to convince yourself you could be in the jungle - though a neatly labelled jungle for sure. The first highlight was a pond with water lilies which fills a large greenhouse. It's a bit too early in the year to get the best of water lilies but it was still fun to watch the tiny fish swimming in and out of the stems. Around the edge of the greenhouse were lots of beautiful bromeliads and even cotton plants. Tropical plants about in the greenhouses although my photographs were a bit limited by fear of fogging up my camera. Beautiful ferns and lush greenery fill the greenhouses with life and sweaty intensity.
~Out in the Open~
Out of the greenhouses we found dozens of beds stuffed to bursting with spring flowers with tulips dominating the view. In a wide range of colours, forms and sizes the displays were fantastic. Allium lilies burst into globes of purple flowers and little blue forget-me-nots filled in the spaces between. Walking to the furthest point of the gardens we found a small lake with an island in the middle where prickly guneras were already standing waist high. The water itself was green and full of blanket weed which seems to be a bit problem this year due to the early warmth.
From the end of the gardens you can look back across the entire space and see the tower of Magdalen College beyond. This is the tower where the famous May Morning singing takes place and where particularly low water levels this year meant a high police presence to stop revellers jumping off the bridge and into the river.
The gardens have a small shop at the entrance but it sells very little. There's a small gallery showing paintings or photographs for which entrance is free of charge but it will only take a few minutes to see it. There are no catering facilities - the classic attraction of teashop tourism is not played out in this centre of academic botany and study. Also be aware there are only two toilets for each sex and they are well hidden. As always happens the ladies' has a long queue and the facilities are not sign-posted or shown on the free map that you receive. Just for reference, when you leave the payment booth and the shop, turn left towards the river and left again past the conservatory and they are hidden out of sight.
This was not really the best time to see the gardens and the are undoubtedly more impressive in the summer when the bare beds have been filled with colour and life but for an April display they were already looking very good. Families picnicked on the grass and played games. A small boy collected all the pine cones into a big pile and counted them with his father whilst young lovers were rolling around on the grass.
There are more impressive gardens in the UK but if you find yourself in Oxford this is the best there is to visit and it offers a quiet place for contemplation, picnics and sunbathing. Compared to the cost of many public botanical gardens I consider it a bit of a bargain and I recommend it highly as somewhere you can see great displays without needing half a day to look round.