The Corpus garden is famous for its ‘wildness ’, blending a wide range of flowers and botanical curiosities in a distinctive and arresting series of spaces. For many years, the garden was cared for and developed by David Leake. After a brief hiatus, it is currently undergoing restoration and redevelopment, led by botanist and gardener Tom Wells.
Said by some to have inspired Lewis Carroll, the gates of Corpus conceal a veritable wonderland of small wooden doors and winding passageways that link several distinctive quads filled with historical and botanical curiosities like pelican sundials, Kings’ gates and “fossil trees”. At the rear of the college sits the shaded arcadia of the main garden. On a sloping mound above the croquet lawn, a huge copper beech nestles against the shadow of the old city wall, and ascending the paths to the top of the slope gives spectacular views over Christchurch and its meadows.
As well as being an important space for residents, academics and visitors to Corpus, the garden is also a haven for wildlife. Beyond the annual spectacle of the College's famous Tortoise Fair, rabbits, squirrels, foxes, bats, and birds make their home under the canopy of the beech and other trees. Bees have also been an important symbol of the College since its founding, and we do our best to support both domesticated bees and wild pollinators through seasonal plantings and sympathetic management practices.
The garden is run on organic principles, with most garden waste composted on site, the use of peat-free potting media and organic fertilisers, and zero pesticides. Plants are propagated in house or sourced from local nurseries following similar principles, and herbs and fruit are used by the college kitchens. Even the weeds in the paving and paths are kept in check with an organic and biodegradable vinegar preparation. What is more, you won't hear noisy, power-hungry machinery such as leaf-blowers or hedge-trimmers, just the clipping of shears, raking of gravel, and the occasional gentle hum of the mower at the height of summer.
This principle of welcoming and sustaining biodiversity has been at the heart of the garden for over forty years, receiving widespread acclaim and inspiring a Financial Times article in 2021. In an article about the gardens, written for the 2018 Pelican Record, David Leake said: "I often think that what you don’t do is as important as what you do. I like the way that plants have insinuated themselves into the garden without my help – the hollyhocks against the wall of the Front Quad, together with other little plants such as valerian (which attracts the hummingbird hawk moth), corydalis and the greater celandine, the flower of the patron saint of Oxford, St Frideswide. I like the oxeye daisies that grow in parts of the College lawn and that miraculously survive the trampling of the crowds who come to watch the tortoise race in summer. And I like the little daisy-like erigeron that grows under the walls of the Chapel and the JCR in the Gentleman Commoners’ Quad. They’ve all come in on their own: I might gently look after them but it is all chance."
This spirit remains a guiding principle as the garden undergoes redevelopment and The Spencer Building nears completion. The blend of the formal setting of an academic institution with the relaxed softness of its surrounding gardens lends the college a unique and welcoming atmosphere that continues to provide sanctuary and inspiration to generations of staff and students.
See the gardens
Visitors are welcome to enjoy the gardens when the College is open to the public. Please ask at the Lodge about access.
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