Gardening: What good Fellows to open their garden: Cambridge college gardens are at their most seductive and the children can be diverted by teas. Anna Pavord suggests some weekend walks

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THERE may be a five-year-old somewhere who can put his hand on his heart and say: 'I really really want to see the Cercis siliquastrum in the Fellows garden at King's College, Cambridge, tomorrow.' In my experience, however, children and garden visiting do not mix. They would far rather be charging untrammelled around their own garden than tiptoeing like reined-in racehorses around the ordered borders of a strange patch. Apart from the lure of a tea out, as far as they are concerned, the exercise is a no-no.

Tempers improve all round, however, if you can combine garden visiting with some other treat. Careful organisation and the help of a spare minder or two may even enable you to let them off the gardens altogether.

Tomorrow, for instance, the Fellows gardens of two Cambridge colleges, Trinity and King's, are open to the public. As the trade-off for your treat, the children can be taken punting on the river, or to play football on Jesus Green, or into one of the tea-shops that Cambridge seems to have more of than any town in England. There is some wicked date and walnut loaf at Aunty's, a tea- shop almost opposite the entrance to King's. What is it about dons and buns?

The Cambridge Backs are at their most seductive now, with the willows just breaking into leaf, the grass a vivid fresh green and the walk over the bridge from King's to the Fellows' garden is spangled with blue Anemone blanda, fritillaries, chionodoxa and scillas. After the restrained grandeur of the courtyard of King's, these carpets of flowers, naturalised in grass, seem shockingly frivolous.

Looking back from this walk, you have a stunning view of King's College Chapel with a veil of willow over its face, and a glimpse of a wide flat-topped 'Shirotae' cherry where King's College boundaries drift into neighbouring Clare's.

The Fellows' garden, laid out in the 1850s, covers about three acres on the far side of Queen's Road, a noisy thoroughfare that spoils the visual link between the garden and the rest of the college grounds. Capability Brown would have landscaped the road away immediately. Once inside the gardens, though, you forget it. The perimeter is well disguised with a thick band of shrubbery, yews, Portugal laurel, viburnum, box and mahonia.

The layout is informal, grass, fine trees, wide island beds and a rustic summerhouse almost obscured by wistaria. 'Good professors are not more essential to a college than a spacious garden sweetly ornamented, but without anything staring or fantastic,' wrote the enlightened Lord Kames in 1762. Nothing stares in this garden. It reveals its pleasures quietly.

One of them is the Cercis siliquastrum, a Judas tree. Already the flowerbuds are clustered thickly along its branches, breaking in a most unlikely way directly from the bark. Judas trees seem to grow better in Cambridge than anywhere else in the country. Perhaps it is the light, fertile, free-draining soil that they like so much. The tree is also well adapted to hot, dry summers, which have had a dire effect on other mature plants in Cambridge.

The most extraordinary thing about the King's Judas tree is its trunk. It is twisted like a rope, the twists continuing up the three main branches. The effect is not random. This is a neat deliberate twist, leading always from right to left around the trunk.

Another fine tree, a Lucombe oak, hanging with evergreen leaves over the entrance path, frames the first view of the garden. Its bark is corky and deeply fissured. No precise planting plans are apparent, although a garden committee was set up in 1895 'with power to expend the annual sum of ten pounds on plants and seeds'. I hope that particular statute has been updated.

Trees benefit from the slow pace of change in institutions such as the Oxford and Cambridge colleges. Fashion passes these gardens by. There are no dramatic fellings or uprootings or redesigns. The perimeter shrubbery still marks this garden clearly as a 19th-century creation. So does the tall, slim outline of the Wellingtonia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, introduced to this country in 1853. It was an expensive novelty: the West Country nurseryman, Veitch, charged two guineas for a single seedling.

Trinity followed quite close on the heels of King's in developing its own Fellows' garden, which also lies on the far side of Queen's Road. There may have been an element of oneupmanship in its choosing William Broderick Thomas, who had laid out the Sandringham gardens, to transform its eight-acre ridge-and-furrow field into a garden. (You can still see the original ridge and furrow.)

The most breathtaking sight at the moment is the meadow garden, thick with small wild daffodils, cowslips, violets and scillas. Like the King's garden, it has a perimeter walk through viburnum and mahonia, the shrubs underplanted with Solomon's seal, geraniums and other ground cover.

Sheets of Anemone blanda naturalise in these gardens more easily than anywhere else I have seen. They are mixed with grape hyacinths: not the ordinary sky-blue one but a species called Muscari latifolium; the flower spike is dense, the bottom half navy blue, the top half much lighter - unsure whether it belongs in Cambridge or Oxford.

Elm disease radically changed the Cambridge city landscape and its gardens. An old elm avenue that once led to the gates of the Trinity Fellows' garden, west towards Grange Road, has been replaced by young planes.

The newest work in the garden is concentrated on a brick octagon where Richard Bisgrove has planted shrubs with gold foliage. Another small formal area, with rose beds bordered in catmint, was laid out around a sundial that commemorates three members of Trinity's garden committee killed in the First World War.

The walk back through Trinity's courts passes the tower in Great Court where Lord Byron, the first wild child, kept his pet bear. College rules forbade students to have dogs.

AT Hanging Langford, north-west of Salisbury in Wiltshire, children and minders can visit Lottmead Farm, which is having a lambing open afternoon tomorrow, while you continue round the corner to Manor House Farm, where Anne Dixon is opening her garden crammed with daffodils.

Miss Dixon took the house 12 years ago for the fishing (brown trout on the river Wylye) rather than the garden, but has filled it with good plants. A fine Clematis armandii covers one wall of the house, and parrot tulips fill beds on the terrace. The garden is surrounded by a cob wall with a thatched top. Cob, a mixture of clay and chopped straw, is hell to keep, according to Miss Dixon. One wetting with a hosepipe and it melts away like icing on a cake. But it makes a sympathetic background for plants: hellebores, daphnes, osmanthus. Snakeshead fritillaries surround a vast Bramley apple tree, 250 years old.

The garden covers several separate areas, including an old shearing barn, a long, narrow, roofless building. Dark purple hellebores flourish in a corner and the grey-leaved Fritillaria persica 'Adiyaman' is just about to flower. I was jealous of that, having lost more bulbs of this fritillary than anything else.

Lamb parties and garden parties can meet at the village hall afterwards for tea.

Fellows' gardens at King's College and Trinity College, Cambridge, open tomorrow (2-6pm), admission pounds 1.

Garden at Manor House Farm, Hanging Langford, Wiltshire, open tomorrow (2-6pm), admission pounds 1.50. Lambs at Lottmead Farm, 2-5pm.

(Photograph omitted)