While the Botanic Gardens do not always fall on Oxford's main tourist trail, these historic grounds have proved to be a saving grace for people confined to the city during lockdowns. In my own case, four separate visits to the Gardens over the course of the academic year revealed them to be a destination that is full of surprises, a restorative tonic in any weather. Like the seasons they showcase, the Gardens are a changing yet permanent entity, undergoing dramatic mood swings while remaining regimented in specific patterns.
As I write this review, almost a year since starting my Masters in 2020, the leaves are beginning to brown again, and the regretful, lingering goodbye to the summer mood is settling in. Common wisdom may hold this to be the time to start retreating indoors, but the past year has taught me differently. Against the pull of domiciliary warmth, I entreat those of you in Oxfordshire to follow my lead, brave the cold, and visit the Botanic Gardens!
The Botanic Gardens are not merely some kind of fancy park; these verdant grounds have historical, scientific, and contemporary cultural value to appreciate. Founded in 1621, the Gardens are the oldest of their kind in the UK, celebrating their 400th anniversary this year (Visit, 2021). They have played a major role in botanical research and the teaching of related sciences at the University of Oxford since their founding, and today contain over 5,000 species of plants. Visitors with little knowledge of the history of botany can enjoy other aspects of the Gardens’ cultural legacy, as their societal impact is spread across books and films. Readers of fantasy novels, for instance, might recognise the unassuming bench nestled in the Lower Garden as the meeting place of the protagonists in Philip Pullman’s series His Dark Materials.
In all honesty, I knew almost none of these facts before my first visit to the Gardens. To me, the Gardens were simply another green area in the city worth exploring while the Great Indoors was off-limits. Students get free entry, another fact which drew me in. As the rest of this review will testify, however, the Gardens offered much more than a free stroll through pretty flora. Although my initial motivations for visiting were not particularly profound, my experiences there would prove to have a significant impact on my year at Oxford.
Darwin, C. (1903). Letter 395: To J. D. Hooker. In Darwin, Francis & Seward, A.C. (Eds.), More letters of Charles Darwin (pp. 20-22). John Murray.
Visit Oxford Botanic Garden. (2021). Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum.
Cover photo of the author in the Botanic Garden Glasshouses taken by Juliette Holland and Irina Boeru.
All other photos which appear in this review taken by Ramani Chandramohan at the Botanic Gardens during the visits described.