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"Oh Charles, what a lot you have to learn!"

The biting cold air clouds my breath as I trudge down the High Street. Half-melted snow, which fell during the night, has thoroughly permeated my socks, my chapped lips are as painful as a stained-glass window, and, to compound this misery, my frozen fingers feel like they’ve fallen off. 

But the picturesque scene that greets me upon entering the Botanic Garden is recompense enough for my troubles. A white carpet of snow, undisturbed and perfect, has been laid across the grass. Skeletal trees dapple the sunlight. Magdalen’s bells ring out, loudly. 

Dr. Stephen Harris, acting director of the Botanic Garden, shakes me warmly by the hand. Snow crunches and squeaks beneath our feet as we wander around and he begins to tell me about the Garden’s history. 

The result of a £5,000 donation by Sir Henry Danvers, who would later become the first Earl of Danby, the Botanic Garden officially opened on July 16th 1621, Harris tells me. A Latin inscription, carved into Nicholas Stone’s spectacular gateway, commemorates Danvers’ generosity, and records that the gift was made for “the glory of God and the greatest honour of King Charles I”. 


The land itself, used as a Jewish burial ground in medieval times, was rented from Magdalen College and the four walls that were built to enclose the Garden have remained virtually unchanged since their completion in the 1630s. “The soil quality had to be improved at first,” Harris explains, “so thousands of cartloads of dung from the city and from the colleges were dumped here in order to create a really good soil.” 

I ask Harris how closely linked the University and the Garden are, beyond the much-appreciated contribution of tonnes and tonnes of manure. “The Garden itself is a department of the University, and it also has very close ties with the Department of Plant Sciences,” Harris gestures towards the buildings that make up the North Wall, “which actually occupied these buildings until 1953, so there is a very intimate connection there.” 

Since its foundation, the Garden has grown (pardon the pun). It now comprises the original Walled Garden; the Lower Garden, an area outside the wall bordered by the river Cherwell; a series of glasshouses which emulate a variety of worldwide climates; and the Harcourt Arboretum, a 130-acre site a few miles outside the city, containing hundreds of different tree species. 


There seems to be something historically significant about almost every plant here. We pause by the entrance to the Lower Garden, an area outside the walls not included in the original plans, where an impressive Yew tree stands guard. “This is the oldest tree in the garden,” Harris informs me. “It was planted by the first keeper of the Garden, a German named Jacob Bobart, in 1645. It’s actually mentioned in a catalogue written by Bobart in 1648.” 

The Yew tree, like many other plants in the Garden, serves not only a botanical purpose, but a medicinal one as well. “Back in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, the only effective sources of medicine were plants,” Harris explains. “That’s still true today to some extent, because in many ways, plants can synthesise very complex chemicals much, much easier than we can. 

“There is a chemical isolated from Yew trees that is very important in treating cancer, for example. Belladonna and Mandrake provide very important anaesthetics. We have a whole series of beds with these medicinal plants in.” 

We approach these beds and I am mildly surprised when I notice the presence of a certain green-leaved herb. “We do grow cannabis in the gardens,” Harris laughs, “but not that cannabis. Ours has no THC in it. We still need a Home Office licence, though.” 

The Garden plays another important role: conservation too. 

“First and foremost, the Garden helps through educating people,” Stephen explains. “But we do have some plants here that are really rather rare. We’re particularly heavily involved with the protection of two local species, a little violet and a small bedstraw. We think about conservation on a local, a national, and an international level.” 


But Harris admits that for most, the Garden is primarily a place of relaxation. “It’s an open space which is generally quiet and peaceful, and is a very pleasant place to spend time. We’re not seeing it at its best now, but in the spring and summer, it is genuinely stunning.” 

“It’s amazing to think that this garden has been here for nearly 400 years. We’re standing in a space where generations and generations of students and academics have moved and walked and discussed.” 

“Linnaeus, Humboldt, Darwin, Tolkein, Carroll – they have all worked within these four walls. This is such an amazing space that I suspect quite a few students don’t know is here.” 

As we shake hands and head towards the exit, I am reminded of Sebastian’s comment in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. It seems beautifully pertinent. 

“Oh, Charles, what a lot you have to learn! There’s a beautiful arch there and more different kinds of ivy than I knew existed. I don’t know where I should be without the Botanical Garden.” 

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