Lost elysium of the Cambridge Backs

One of Britain’s most celebrated views will soon be dramatically changed

When I was last in Cambridge on the trail of the Pre-Raphaelites I was doubly affronted, being an Oxford man and an academic, when an officious college porter barked at me to keep off the grass as I stretched to achieve the best angle for a photograph of the Mathematical Bridge at Queens’, which I needed for a lecture. I shouldn’t have been surprised to be so chastised, as Oxbridge is suffused with such traditional hierarchies which serve to enhance that sense of privileged exclusivity. Now all that is to change at King’s on the hallowed turf, preserve only of university dons, in front of the Chapel and James Gibbs’s New Building by the banks of the Cam.

In a brave ecological move, the college fellows and their gardens committee have decided to turn their vacant lawn into a wildflower meadow, creating, as their head gardener Steve Coghill describes it, a “biodiversity-rich ecosystem”. At a stroke, this will alter one of the most celebrated views in the whole of the city and would be like cutting down that sycamore tree in the High at Oxford which gives colour and texture to an otherwise stony thoroughfare.

The loss of the formal Back Lawn at King’s is symptomatic of the way in which both Oxford and Cambridge have swept away almost all of their historic gardens, opting instead for a minimalist treatment of lawns and suburban flower borders where once greensward was dotted with cypress trees and enriched with parterres, living sundials, mounts, arbours, canals and garden houses. Added to this is the disappearance of many of the private fellows’ gardens on the west bank of the Cam, which have been subsumed within later building.

Though long gone, former garden layouts within the college walls can be easily retrieved through a series of early maps and seventeenth-century engravings. The most useful of these are John Speed’s 1610 map of Cambridge and David Loggan’s map and exquisitely delineated plates for his Cantabrigia Illustrata of 1688. Through these the historic narrative of the grounds at King’s can be traced and the period in which the Back Lawn became an inviolate, almost sacrosanct, space can be determined. In Speed’s time, King’s grounds had two distinct garden areas. The lawn by the great Chapel was threaded with tree avenues and there were two Elizabethan parterres, while a bridge across the Cam gave access to a more private sector, the “Kinges colledge backesides”. These were tree-lined meadows, with the southerly grove centred by a rectangular moat on which a pavilion provided contemplative fishing for fellows.

Loggan’s map marks the rectangular footprint of a makeshift bell tower on the open lawn at King’s, set at the head of a diagonal path across the greensward, which led to a new bowling green that had supplanted one of the parterres. Apart from the redesign of some of the earlier parterres and an expansion of some college gardens, the ubiquity of bowling greens is the main difference between the grounds depicted in the early century and those on Loggan’s map.

Some of these were given pavilions or covered settles where fellows could shelter to watch the sport; two are apparent at King’s. Tree avenues divided the “Chappel Yard” at King’s from the lawn further towards the Cam and trees flanked a wide gravel walk leading to the bridge across the river and to the secret meadows beyond.

This arrangement of formality and leisure on the east and fellows’ gardens — Hortus Sociorum — in the rural meadows on the west persisted at King’s until an ambitious scheme was drawn up in 1720 by the architect James Gibbs in concert with Charles Bridgeman — the foremost exponent of landscape design in the country and soon to be Royal Gardener — to redesign the grounds to the south and west of Gibbs’s New Building. Twenty years were to elapse before a “prospect” of this proposal was published, which shows a formal treatment of the grounds on both sides of the Cam behind a proposed new quadrangle alongside the Chapel. The designers intended to utilise the walk from the College across the Cam as the axial line of the garden design, to obliterate the moated island and opt instead to canalise the river and develop from it westwards a rectangular canal with a semicircular ending overlooked by a domed, classical temple.

King’s grounds as recorded by Loggan in 1688

This insistently angular scheme was never executed and between 1749 and 1753 new walks planted with limes were made on the west bank of the Cam, while another was laid out on the south side of the east court down to the river. The “Chapel yard” survived unaltered until 1772, when the College voted to sow it with grass seeds and feed it “from time to time with sheep as occasion may require in order to get it into good and ornamental condition”. This effectively opened up the area to the Cam and provided the focal point for possibly the most destructive scheme ever proposed by the “Meagre Genius of the Bare and Bald”, or “Lady Nature’s Second Husband”, depending upon your point of view — Lancelot “Capability” Brown, who lived up the road in Fenstanton.

Brown was commissioned by St John’s in 1772, when it was “agreed that the bank of the river should be repaired under his direction”; he submitted plans for the fellows’ garden on the west side of the Cam a few months later. In true minimalist style, Brown swept this stiff seventeenth-century formality aside, replacing it with a spacious lawn edged by a thick glade of trees. Fired by his reshaping of the St John’s area of the Backs, Brown then turned his thoughts to tidying up the whole sector of the Cam from the rear of Queens’ College as far as Magdalene.

His ambitious 1779 scheme was an attempt to turn the landscape into a parkland setting, with the New Building at King’s acting as a proto-country house floating above a vast expanse of lawn. Brown wanted to widen the Cam into a serpentine lake, with planting along the east bank framing views of the New Building and King’s Chapel, while blocking out all the other colleges. This radical scheme would have obliterated the private garden areas on the west side of the Cam and resulted in the demolition of all the bridges except that at Trinity Hall, which was to be rebuilt on a more appropriately ambitious scale.

Unsurprisingly, given his extortionate rates, it would have been wildly expensive, but the main issue must have been the proposed removal of all the historic boundaries between the colleges. These fellows’ gardens were horticultural retreats offering collective engagement, whether it was physical, intellectual or aesthetic, which were essential qualities that Brown — whose Ciceronian motto accompanying his coat of arms was, ironically, “Never less alone than when alone” — seems not to have considered important or relevant.

The unrealised 1724 scheme for the land west of the Cam by landscape designer Charles Bridgeman that was intended to accompany a new quadrangle by the Chapel at King’s

So where Bridgeman, Gibbs and Brown (almost) have trodden comes Steve Coghill who, in masterminding the planting of the wildflower meadow, will introduce a completely new aesthetic to the pristine Back Lawn. As reported by Jessica Haskell of the Cambridge Green Challenge, he remarked that “wildflower meadow creation in this country has been around since the 1980s, so it’s about time we got involved.

“Grass lawns are essentially monocultures so it will be incredibly rewarding to instead create a biodiversity-rich ecosystem to cherish and enjoy”. Coghill told the Telegraph in January the new horticultural venture will demonstrate that “King’s is moving with the times and we have to respond to what’s happening in the broader picture of the climate and how we deal with things”.

However, does this admittedly serious new venture address current issues of ecology and climate change, or is it rather an attempt by the fellows of King’s to embrace contemporary inclusivity, especially in the proposed removal of the “Keep off the Grass” signs and the threading through the flora of temporary paths for students to enjoy the ecosystem?

Are wild flower meadows really what’s needed on this side of the river, or is this simply a response to the current on-trend movement of re-wilding? Why is it that institutions feel the need to keep up with the times rather than to preserve the present or even, perhaps, to recreate elements of their historic past?

The Back Lawn at King’s has a distinctly urban, civic character that demands formal gravitas, particularly given its architectural backdrop. Gibbs’s New Building is a Grade I listed structure and is, therefore, protected from any alteration, but the same cannot be said for the greensward in front of it. Even if it is carefully managed, and the life cycle of plants as they grow and die back has a certain educational value, this meadow, taken out of its natural context, is bound to appear incongruous.

Depending upon the seed mix, it might only peak in flower for two months of the year between May and July. After harvesting for hay in August the lawn will be mown again, but over time the grass species are likely to weaken and the meadow will eventually take over.

In his “Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge”, John Betjeman brackets the textures of the university precisely:

The white of windy Cambridge courts, the cobbles

brown and dry,

The gold of plaster Gothic with ivy overgrown,

The apple-red, the silver fronts, the wide green flats and high.

At King’s the wide green flat of the Back Lawn, so vital as a visual foil to the silvery front of the New Building, will soon be transformed and an iconic Cambridge view will be changed irrevocably.

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