Don’t be put off by the scientific name (although the promise of rich botanic information is certainly a plus if that’s what you’re into): the Botanic Gardens are perhaps the quietest place, outside of the libraries, in the whole of Oxford. In a tranquil oasis in the middle of this most hectic of cities, you can almost hear your own heartbeat thumping as you wander between the immaculate flower beds. As the plants grow peacefully you can enjoy the tourist-free quiet and ruminate poetically to your heart’s content. Another plus is that entry is free for Oxford students (although I did land myself in a predicament when asked if I was one by replying tentatively ‘Yes, I think so’, and promptly being lampooned by the highly satirical assistant), and a free map of the gardens is included for the less intrepid and more tepid explorers.
These are the oldest gardens in Great Britain, with a 380 year history. Indeed, from the outside the architecture seems almost like any other college. What really makes the Botanic Gardens stand out from other impressive green spaces in Oxford is the abundance of plants that are useful for medicinal and scientific purposes. This means that you can crib up on your flower knowledge and use it to impress your sweetheart. And it’s not all science: the gardens also have a rich literary history. Lyra, star of Phillip Pullman’s bestselling His Dark Materials tril- ogy, visited it in the first novel, and Pullman himself is rumoured to have had his moment of inspiration when reading Blake on one of the benches.
It’s worth noting that seasonal changes can make a big difference in the Botanic Gardens. In winter it can be a dark and gloomy place, the clouds looming over unimpressive beds and the cold wind sweeping up the expanses in the centre (the warm greenhouses are of course available all year round but might prove a bit sticky for a long term stay). But as summer rolls in the flowers blossom and the Botanic Gardens whisper to you invitingly. With the trees in bloom and the flower beds sprouting, it’s the perfect place to search for inspiration and feel awed by the majesty of Mother Nature. The only potential peril that faces visitors to the gardens is the risk of feeling rather insignificant in the presence of nature at its most glorious. But be bold! Fight this fear and remember that you too can have a part to play, however small, in this Edenic place. Bring a blanket and your most pretentious book, lie down and soak up the atmosphere.