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Universities are places of knowledge. Knowledge is based on information. The information has to be interpreted – made sense of, understood. And stored.

A visit to Oxford (July 2011) took in the oldest of British universities – after all, the city centre is the university plus shopping and services, so it only takes a walk along a couple of main streets to be amongst the colleges and institutions that make it up. The constituent colleges are the places where information is exchanged between tutors and students based on lectures in the university and preparation in the libraries. Right at the heart of the community stands the Bodleian Library (pictures 2 and 4 above – 1 is the Sheldonian Theatre), one of the foremost national collections which by law as one of half a dozen Copyright Libraries must receive a copy of every book and journal published in the UK. Most towns have a library of some kind and would feel deprived and second rate if they were to lose it. Many towns have a museum: like a library such a place is a store of information in the form of artefacts rather than printed works. But not many have plant libraries – or should they be called museums? Oxford does, under the proper name of Botanical Garden, and it is, like Oxford University itself, the oldest in the country having been founded in 1621. (If you are wondering about the university’s foundation it’s difficult to say, but teaching was being carried out in the town in the days of William I and there were university level students receiving lectures in the following, twelfth century).

You could have died for lack of a botanical garden. The point is that medieval medicine depended on apothecaries treating patients with plant-based substances. Student apothecaries had to be trained to recognise plants and to know their properties. Get one wrong and the medico might poison the patient. In addition, the trained apothecary needed a source of fresh plants to prepare his stock of treatments. Having a well stocked plant garden was essential. The best gardens were deliberately created to hold examples of as many of the world’s plants as could be discovered and obtained. Trial-and-error research was then possible to find new cures or reliefs for chronic conditions. The first ‘encyclopaedia garden’ as it may be thought of was at the University of Padua and set out from 1545 onwards. Oxford’s came in 1621 though took time to get properly established. The Chelsea Physic Garden in London followed in 1673.

Incidentally, some of the first, regular excursions of an educational nature date back to 1620 in London when apprentice apothecaries were taken into the countryside and trained to recognise plants. The Society of Apothecaries set up the Chelsea Physic Garden to help do the same thing (see the entry for that date in Tourism’s Educational Origins Part 1 in the list of pages here, in the left-hand sidebar).


Image: Oxford Botanic Garden

Oxford Botanical Garden

The Oxford Garden appears to have been set out originally like that in Padua, with a multiplicity of small beds, each of which held a single species of plant. I’m making an assumption based on the old engraving reproduced in the main guide book showing numerous small, square beds, though quite a number of long narrow ones as well. Were they for multiple sets of important plants needed for medical use? The guide book, well written and illustrated, does not go into that detail.

Four areas make up the Garden: the original Walled Garden, the Lower Garden, the Glasshouses and the Harcourt Arboretum which is nine miles away in the village of Nuneham Courtney. Glasshouses were part of the late seventeenth century Garden although the first were unsuccessful being more stone than glass and unable to admit sufficient sunlight. Those seen now have been remodelled and rebuilt in more modern materials more than once. During the Second World War part of Christ Church Meadow was dug up and planted to grow food. In 1947 it became part of the Botanic Garden and has been used for experimental planting. They grow fruit, vegetables and herbs on a rotation system. A large area is being redesigned by consultants for a role suited to the 21st century – as yet unspecified in the guide book. The guide makes an interesting observation about the food grown here: the first curator of the Garden, Jacob Bobart, had very little money to develop it and had to use his own for some of the work. He also grew vegetables for sale in order to bring in some more funds.

We were particularly attracted to making a visit while our caravan was undergoing its annual maintenance check up nearby. The BBC4 three-part series “Blooming History” had just shown, presented by Timothy Walker, the Director (or in Oxford-speak, Horti Praefectus) of the Botanic Gardens. Walker’s genial, easy-going style, knowledgeable but beautifully straightforward, is one of the best of several very good new talents in the TV business. Maybe it’s something gardeners have – an ability to communicate as if on a one-to-one basis with great lucidity – think of Alan Titchmarsh, Monty Don, Rachel de Thame and gardeners past like Geoff Hamilton and, way back, Percy Thrower. The Eden Project in Cornwall is a spectacular example. Oxford Botanic is smaller but the visitor is perfectly informed all the way through.

Image: Oxford Botanic Garden - people

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