In keeping with its motto, ‘the best of the old and the new’, the gardens at Fitzwilliam College combine traditional and contemporary planting to striking effect. Head gardener Steve Kidger gives Alice Ryan a guided tour. From the outside, Fitzwilliam College doesn’t appear the friendliest of places. Approach from Cambridge’s busy Huntingdon Road and there’s a distinct air of fortification: the walls, built of shadowy dark brick, loom tall and impenetrable – save for windows so narrow, they call to mind castle arrow-slits.
The brainchild of modernist architect Denys Lasdun, whose work is a famously acquired taste (he designed London’s National Theatre, a building lauded by poet John Betjeman and compared to ’a nuclear power station’ by Prince Charles), the Sixties edifice seems to shout ’keep out’. But step inside the college walls and you’re welcomed into another world: a leafy oasis filled with grand old trees, immaculate striped lawns, flower-filled borders, and even patches of wild meadow, abuzz with bees and butterflies.
“I have to admit, the first time I walked in through that Huntingdon Road entrance I really didn’t know what I’d find inside: that style of brutalist architecture is very mposing,“ says head gardener Steve Kidger. “But then I came into Tree Court and got a real surprise. I saw the trees and the lawns and the big borders running away – so much greenery. It was a brilliant contrast.“
Despite its austere exterior, Fitzwilliam has a reputation for being one of Cambridge University’s friendliest colleges. “I like to think the gardens play a part in that,“ adds Steve. “Everything interlinks and nothing is closed off, not even the Fellows’ Garden. It’s got a very open, sociable feel.“ In line with this hospitable ethos, Fitzwilliam welcomed 150 members of the public this spring when the gardens made their debut with the National Gardens Scheme, opening alongside Churchill College. A charitable enterprise, the scheme raises cash for nursing and caring organisations; between them, Fitzwilliam and Churchill raised £1,000 in a single day.
Led by Steve, the public tour began at the college’s main entrance (which relocated from Lasdun’s monolith on Huntingdon Road to a far more approachable new-build on Storey’s Way in 2003). Retracing his footsteps, Steve leads the way through the Porter’s Lodge and out into Gatehouse Court, where the focal points are a number of age-old copper beech trees, set in verdant lawn; the wettest May for decades has, concedes Steve, offered some benefits.
College lawns are usually mown with painstaking precision; elsewhere on the 10-acre Fitzwilliam site, grass sports those signature stripes and checks. But in Gatehouse Court, segments have been left to grow wild, a concession to Mother Nature which, refreshingly informal, creates a pleasing contrast with the college’s plentiful stern architecture.
“This area used to be a meadow and on the other side was a woodland, which ran right down to the roadside,“ explains Steve. “There was a lovely collection of trees, about 30 of which had to be culled to make way for the 2003 redevelopment. We were able to preserve the copper beeches and a gorgeous avenue of lime trees just beyond. The old trees give the new buildings a sense of permanence, I think. The college motto is ’The best of the old and the new’, and we try to create that balance between history and progress in the gardens too.“
Fitzwilliam is, by Cambridge standards, a relatively recent addition to the university: its origins can be traced back to 1869 and it only moved to its current site in 1963, receiving its Royal Charter three years later. The entire college is built in the grounds of The Grove: dating from the time of the Napoleonic Wars, it’s a delightful yellow-brick house boasting curved bays, generous windows and an inviting covered terrace, bordered by a squat stone balustrade. Built in 1813, by architect William Custance, the house was once home to Emma Darwin, who lived there after the death of her husband Charles.
The period property stands at the heart of Fitzwilliam’s plot; wherever you wander, vistas lead your eye back to The Grove. “It is the most lovely building,“ says Steve. “I came across a photograph of a portion of the house the other day, taken around 1910. It struck me how little it has changed since then – and reminded me how radically the surrounding area has altered.“
The architecture within the college spans 200 years, with The Grove the oldest building and the library, with its curvy towers and angular wood-finished front, the youngest, completed only three years ago. “That’s one of the greatest challenges of gardening here,“ admits Steve, “creating schemes that suit the old buildings and the new, and also lead naturally from one into the other.“
Among the most ingenious planting schemes surrounds the auditorium, on the far side of Gatehouse Court. When it was constructed, in the early Noughties, Steve and his team – two full-time gardeners and one part-time – were tasked with creating a companion garden. The result is an eye-catching ’moat’ built out of sunken beds: like the building beside them, the beds are sharply angular – but they’re filled with ethereal plants, chosen to mimic the appearance of water. There’s flowing fountain grass to provide movement, blue Agapanthus ’Midnight Star’ to give colour, and even plum-hued Pittosporum to ’reflect’ the purple beech hanging overhead. Standing on a small bridge, which spans the ’moat’, Steve admits the display is not yet at its best. “It looked totally different this time last year because we’d had such warm weather; this year we’ve had a drought followed by a deluge, so everything’s running late. But you can’t predict the weather, you just have to roll with whatever comes. And I like to think there’s something worth seeing here all year round: it’s intended to be a garden for all seasons.“
Steve, who has been head gardener at Fitzwilliam for 10 years, inherited his green fingers from his grandfather. “He was a ship builder on Tyneside, as was my father. He’d come home from work in his flat cap and boiler suit and head straight out into his veg garden. I would be roped in as assistant. “He was strictly a veg man: he grew a few little marigolds, but he always said ’They’re for your nanna’. He had a very large corner plot divided into raised beds; I had my own little raised bed where I grew my first radishes and lettuces. . .“
A love of the outdoor life inspired Steve to embark on a career with the meteorological office. “I was a weather observer. But I didn’t see myself going on to become a forecaster, so I decided to take some time out and went backpacking. While I was travelling I met a girl, she came from Cambridge – and that’s what brought me here. “When I first arrived, having come from Tyneside, I was just astounded by how green the city was. In particular, I loved the colleges – and I managed to get a job at Trinity, as an under-gardener.“
That led on to a job at Fitzwilliam, where Steve quickly worked his way up to head gardener. “We’re only a small team and we’re pretty busy: the college owns quite a number of student houses elsewhere in the city, and we have to look after those gardens too. “But I do really enjoy my job, especially having the freedom to create my own style of planting. I lean towards the naturalistic style; it’s not just about making the garden look pretty any more: it’s about being aware of ecological issues, of climate change and the impact of using pesticides. . . It’s a challenge, but that’s all part of the appeal.“
From the bridge over the planted ’moat’ there’s a charming view of The Grove, its pale bricks lit up by a sudden burst of early summer sun. Traversing the avenue of limes, it’s into Nineties-built Wilson Court. Behind a neat laurel hedge appears a secluded woodland: gnarly trees arc overhead and wild flowers – hedgerow varieties like campion and honesty – bloom underfoot. It’s both beautiful and magically silent here: a little haven. Steve explains this area used to be completely overgrown; careful thinning was undertaken to showcase some magnificent oaks. “Look at that bark: it’s beautiful,“ enthuses Steve. “People often think gardening is all about flowers, but it’s not: structure and texture
are very important.“
Follow the path onward and you emerge beside a diminutive statue. Titled The First Undergraduate, it was created by local sculptor Christopher Marvell to mark the college’s 125th anniversary. “A superstition seems to have built up around him. During exam term we’re always finding little offerings the students have left at his feet; they say presenting him with a gift brings you luck. Usually it’s flowers, but we have found a few very odd things: once it was a pile of sugar, which I cleared away pretty sharpish before the ants moved in. . .“ The pathway leads on direct to The Grove. The beds around the house are, Steve says, some of his favourites: containing numerous cottage garden favourites – blowsy peonies, delicate aquilegias, spiky verbascums – it’s an absolute picture. A box-hedged parterre, with a sundial in the centre, comes next. Planted with tulips and hyacinths, Steve says it comes into its own in springtime. Then there’s a wee wild flower meadow. When the library was constructed in 2009, the builders set up camp here: “When they left I decided to give it back to nature. We sowed various wild varieties; last year the cornflowers were amazing – the bees absolutely loved them. We also put up bird boxes, which are already in occupation.“
The Grove backs on to the ultra-modern library. Developing the ground between the two, in collaboration with landscape architects, was, says Steve, quite a task: “The buildings have such different characters, and the space is an awkward shape. But I think what we ended up with – more traditional borders by the house, then a series of geometric beds in front of the library – works well.“ The geometric beds are planted with impressive architectural plants: elegant veronicastrum and fleeceflower, a towering, giant form of knotweed. Prince Philip opened the library in the springtime, so an adjacent border also boasts an abundance of spring-flowering bulbs: “I wanted there to be plenty of colour to coincide with his visit, so it’s become our ’spring garden’.“ A large border, planted in concentric circles, curves round the library tower. Daisy-like rudbekias grow beside globe-topped alliums; it’s a striking combination.
Next up is the aforementioned Tree Court, which made such an impression on Steve’s first visit. Some of the planting here dates back decades; other sections are new. “Where possible I’ve been trying to replace old shrubs with herbaceous planting: it’s higher maintenance, but it looks lovely.“
Steve and his team have put a lot of time and energy into improving the soil quality in this area: “You don’t have to go down very far before you strike solid ground: when these buildings were constructed, I think a lot of the hardcore ended up here.“ Composted green waste has been key.
Beyond the Central Building – another Lasdun, famed for its raised scalloped roof – Fellows’ Court opens up; finally, New Court brings you full circle, back to the front of the college. The New Court buildings, dating from the Eighties, feature built-in flowerbeds which, filled with ericaceous soil, are home to acid-loving azaleas and rhododendrons.
The Fitzwilliam gardens are incredibly varied; there is even a dinky kitchen garden, which keeps the Master’s Lodge in veg. Steve clearly has his hands full. So can he face tending his own garden, at home in Girton? “It’s not big but yes, I do look after it,“ he laughs. “I just love plants: I never tire of them.“
Steve lives with wife Jacquie, daughters Ellora, 11, and Sasha, 9, and Lottie, the family’s Dalmatian. “Neither of the girls are showing signs of green fingers, but Sasha went on a field trip to a garden centre the other day – and came back with a packet of seeds for me, which was very sweet.There is a great sense of reward in gardening,“ he adds. “When visitors come to Fitzwilliam, take a tour of the gardens and say ‘That’s beautiful’ or ‘I love that idea’, it’s lovely. When people are appreciative of your work, it makes it all worthwhile.“
Members of the public are welcome to visit the gardens of Fitzwilliam College. To find out more, visit www.fitz.cam.ac.uk or call 01223 330784. You can take a virtual tour of the individual courts at www.fitz.cam.ac.uk/