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 a couple of weeks ago 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.
Isn'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 recent bout of exceptionally warm sunny weather 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 is not really the best time to see the gardens. They will be more impressive in a month or two 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.