The Origin of Robinson College Gardens

Robinson College Gardens are a fusion of several pre-existing gardens which are subtly linked while still retaining their distinctive character. We now benefit from the plantings of the 1890's - early 1900's and from the focal water garden developed during the building of the College. Thus, magnificent mature trees and wilder areas are juxtaposed with more formal sections to make a diverse garden full of historical and horticultural interest which has become a haven for wildlife and a pleasure to the eye.

Lake and Thorneycreek

The plan chosen in 1974 for the building of the College was by Gillespie, Kidd and Coia, a firm of Glasgow architects. While other plans envisaged buildings throughout the site, theirs preserved much of the old gardens by building the new College around the sides of the site, with the gardens retained as a central feature. Thus the gardens you see today are actually a combination of no fewer than 10 original gardens. The largest is the central garden of Thorneycreek house, built in 1895. Four gardens of other houses now link into this on the Adams Road side, No 2 (built 1898), No. 4 (1908), No. 5 (1902) and No 6 (1890's) with one further garden at 1 Sylvester Road (1933). Additionally four houses were demolished in order to build the College - one in Adams Road and three in Herschel Road - and parts of their garden areas remain.

While the Gillespie plan originally favoured the idea of a natural garden with longer grassland, as was being promoted by the Dutch landscape gardeners at that time, the central area around the Bin Brook owes its character to the vision of the Landscape Architect, J.S. Bodfan Gruffydd. His 1979 plan sought to maintain diversity but to provide unity though linking the new College building to the Thorneycreek garden by means of an elevated walkway over the Bin Brook stream. He saw 'a wild woodland water garden'; focusing on the Bin Brook and a new small lake at the heart of the site, with a feeling of park and informal woodland, while at the same time keeping the sense of the more formal gardens beyond. Thus, the central area has a wide lawn running down to the pond, framed by many mature stately trees with much of the original planting intact, including a walnut tree planted in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee as well as the original plantings on Thorneycreek Terrace. There is an adjacent planting of yew hedges in a more formal arrangement, tempered with a weeping Wellingtonia, which reinforces the formal-informal juxtaposition.

Students on lawn

The Adams Road Gardens have retained their original distinctive plantings while evolving through time. Each garden was developed by the original occupants, No. 2 by Lord and Lady Kaldor, Lord Kaldor being an economic advisor to successive Labour Governments and Lady Kaldor a local Councillor. The garden still has their original herbaceous borders, espalier fruit trees and mulberry and now it has a new thyme-planted seating, a revitalised border and the new Maria Björnson outdoor theatre framed by what have grown to be magnificent mature chestnut trees. No. 4 was occupied by Dr Shillington-Scales who pioneered X-ray techniques in the garage: the garden retains his large lawn and yew hedges. No. 5 was occupied by a Mr P.A. Rottenberg who was a passionate collector of bulbs, many of which still remain, though his vegetable garden to the west of the present path has been re-planted with specimen trees. No. 6 was occupied by Lady Thomson, widow of Sir J. J. Thomson, who was Master of Trinity College and discoverer of the electron. After Lady Thomson's death their daughter, Mrs Charnock, and her family lived in the house until January 1986, when it was sold to Robinson College with the stipulation that the Cyclamen hederifolium should not be lost - and it still flowers in the garden there to this day

Apart from the main site, No. 3 Sylvester Road ('Sellenger') was occupied till 1970 by Lady Barlow, the last surviving grandchild of Charles Darwin and a cousin of the artist Gwen Raverat. She was an amateur botanist and her own Aquilega vulgaris 'Nora Barlow' still grows in the garden.

In the newer redeveloped areas around the main College building some of the original trees still stand with underplantings of spring bulbs next to the inner lawn. Other newer plantings comprise the Hall border, largely of Mediterranean shrubs, and commemorative trees, while outside the College the Grange Road silver birches and the Herschel Road plantings of shrubs now flourish.

Dr. Stephen Trudgill,
Chair of the Gardens Committee, August 2004

Head Gardener, Desmond O'Grady, George Coupe and The Gardens of Cambridgeshire by Cambridge Gardens Trust.

© Robinson College, University of Cambridge