Why? Garden motivations and influences


Laying out winding gardenesque-style pathways in the new eastern section of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden in the 1950s. 

The Cambridge University Botanic Garden is unusual in that only half its area – the western section – was developed by Andrew Murray and his team in the nineteenth century.  The eastern half of the 38-acre plot was rented out for allotments and experimental beds until the 1950s. Understanding some of the motivations behind why and how the eastern section developed alongside the existing nineteenth century garden are key areas of interest for this history project. What ideas helped to shape the various plantings and developments into the twenty-first century at the Botanic Garden? What was the vision of those who planned and managed the new garden section?  Was the idea to integrate the new twentieth century section into the existing nineteenth century gardenscape, or was the plan to develop a new era in garden development?

Early research suggests a mixture of the two approaches was adopted. Director, John Gilmour (1951 -1973) and his superintendent, Bob Younger, wished to preserve the gardenesque feel of the historic garden, so winding pathways were designed to echo those of the original garden.  At the same time, the team planned new and innovative areas in the recently requisitioned eastern half.  It was a heady, if muddy, time for the garden team. One that required an abundance of vision and foresight to imagine the future potential for the overgrown allotments.

According to Norman Villis, garden supervisor in the 1990s, who joined the Botanic Garden as a young man in the 1950s, one of the philosophies for the eastern garden was that space would consciously be kept for those who came in the future.  Any garden is by definition a work-in-progress, with a constant element of experimentation and trial and error, which makes a Botanic Garden a stimulating ongoing physical and intellectual challenge.

It is fascinating to discover the various narratives about the eastern garden as we begin to excavate some of the motivations behind the various decisions and choices taken; and to follow how these unfold during the course of this research project.   Next instalment coming soon…