Just south of Oxford rises the gently sloping wooded area of Boars Hill. If you climb up the flank of the hill you are rewarded with an exceptional view of the city of Oxford. Towers and spires fill the horizon. The poet Matthew Arnold strolled on this hill with fellow poet Arthur Hugh Clough. It was Arnold who coined the term ‘dreaming spires’ referring to Oxford’s romantic skyline of towers and steeples, ‘that sweet city with her dreaming spires’ in the poem Thyrsis (1865).
BOARS HILL & THE POETS
In the old days Boars Hill was an unwooded hillside, commanding exceptional views in all directions. Local farmers grazed their animals on the grass slopes, cows and sheep roamed freely here. Later the academics arrived, enjoying the rural idyll on Oxford’s doorstep. In the 1840s the poet Arthur Hugh Clough lived here and introduced his fellow poet Matthew Arnold to this atmospheric spot. Later residents included Arthur Evans (archaeologist), John Masefield (poet laureate), and Robert Graves (war poet) who was also the owner of the short-lived village shop. In the 1920s John Masefield tried his hand at bee-keeping, goat herding and poultry rearing on Boars Hill. I wonder if the pastoral romanticism of Wordsworth inspired Masefield to tinker with rural life.
Today Boars Hill is a wooded and secluded residential area. Large houses are surrounded by high walls and private gardens. Gradually the academics are being replaced by successful professionals and people relocating from London. Although I’m informed by residents that a handful of academics are still hanging on.
ELEGY TO A GARDEN
I was inspired to write about Boars Hill by my friends Louise and Nick Edwards. Louise has dedicated much of the last five years to their garden on the southern side of the hill. The garden at Blackthorn was originally laid out by Cecil Pilkington (a wealthy gentleman from the Pilkington Glass family of St Helen’s, Lancashire). Pilkington bought a substantial plot of land on Boars Hill in the 1930s, together with a chunk of woodland. He built an arts & crafts style house on the site. The garden slopes on the south side, with views towards the Vale of White Horse. Jan Morris, in her book ‘Oxford’ comments that, ‘’on the windows of Boars Hill, I am told, there is sometimes a deposit of sea salt brought in by the wind from the west.’’ It is true that Boars Hill is exposed to westerly winds, however the nearest coast is almost 70 miles away at Bristol. So the idea of salt crystals carried by the wind seems a little far-fetched. Although local folklore persists and elderly residents will tell you that occasionally on a very windy day salt particles do accumulate on their window sills.
Just as the population of Boars Hill has changed over the years, so the vegetation has changed too. Originally this hillside was acid heathland. A grassy mound, grazed by animals. Matthew Arnold’s view of the ‘dreaming spires’ of Oxford would have been unencumbered by trees. Today ash trees partially obscure the views. As more people moved to Boars Hill and began to divide the land into private parcels of garden, trees were planted in large numbers, and the wooded hillside we are familiar with today began to develop. Within Louise’s garden there are several hundred trees including oaks, beech, ash and pine.
The challenges of developing and maintaining a garden on a hillside exposed to westerly and southerly winds are numerous. The winds have a drying effect on the soil. The soil is naturally ‘acid’ and not all plants can tolerate an acid environment. Rainfall can be too abundant in winter and too sparse in summer. Then of course there is the issue with the animal population of Boars Hill. Here there are rabbits and squirrels, rodents of all types and even the occasional grass snake (and adder). But by far the most successful population on the hill are the Muntjac deer. These miniature deer are herbivores, with a preference for the smallest, most tender and juicy shoots of any grasses, shrubs or saplings. The Muntjac are tenacious and will force their cute, furry little forms through the tiniest gap in the fencing. The gardeners of Boars Hill are not the most enthusiastic supporters of the Muntjac population. Louise regards them as vermin.
Muntjac Deer are not indigenous to the British Isles. Muntiacus reevesi to give them their official Latin title were probably introduced into Britain by the Dukes of Bedford in the 19th century. There has been a deer park at Woburn Abbey since the 1660s. Then Herbrand Russell, 11th Duke of Bedford came along in 1893. He was a keen zoologist and President of the Royal Zoological Society. The Duke collected over 42 species of deer to add to his well established herds of Red and Fallow Deer. He was assisted by his wife, Mary, who kept meticulous records of their deer population from 1893-1914, including purchases, births and deaths. Amongst the species introduced by the Duke in 1894 were Chinese Water Deer and Reeves’ Muntjac deer. Over the years, there have been various escapes from the deer park at Woburn, which is located about 45 miles east of Boars Hill. So it is quite possible that the Muntjac of Boars Hill are descendants of the Muntjac at Woburn. From the dedicated gardener’s point of view the Muntjac are a scourge and a nuisance. They graze prolifically on low plant species, favouring young and tender buds and stems. This causes damage to the plants, restricts their growth and sometimes even kills the plants.
The management of a large garden requires dedication, hard work and pragmatism. Not all plants thrive in this environment so the gardener must consider what will grow and flourish and what will not. My friend Louise has taken on the role of steward or custodian of her own particular parcel of Boars Hill and has set about nurturing and developing the garden. Her commitment to the task is impressive. This is her kingdom, it requires time, energy and imagination. The garden needs to be maintained, plants need to be pruned and new plant stock needs to be cultivated. Louise likes to propagate her own plants for the garden. Over the last fews years she has grown more than 300 lavender plants taken as cuttings from existing plants. Last year she created a woodland garden at the far corner of the plot, creating a woodland path and oak seating out of recently felled trees.
When I watch Louise working in her garden I see her total commitment to the stewardship of this piece of land. She considers carefully the quality of the soil and what plants might flourish in a particular location. Every day she is practising plant husbandry, nurturing and developing the plants in her garden. There is an inherent respect for nature combined with hard work, vision and determination. In the last few years Louise has re-organised the garden, extending the south facing terrace area, and planting extensively in an English country garden style. Each summer she opens the garden to the public for a day as part of the ‘National Gardens Scheme’. The preparation for the ‘open day’ is enormous. As a dedicated gardener she wants her garden to be at its best. Plants ideally should be at the ‘zenith of their perfection’. Although rearing plants is similar to rearing children and as any parent will tell you, perfection can never be guaranteed. This is where the gardener has to demonstrate resilience and pragmatism. Louise smiles ruefully when she tells me of the latest disaster in the garden, usually involving an especially hungry gang of rabbits. Just like with parenting each challenge has to be dealt with, overcome and ideally put down to experience.
The garden has distinctive areas to enjoy. There’s a wild flower bank that runs down to the tennis court. From there you can see a ziggurat, a spiral mound, offering raised views of the garden. Behind is the vegetable garden and the greenhouse where Louise propagates hundreds of cuttings and grows plants from seed each year. Surrounding the house is a stone terrace with rockery style planting, and leading from the house to the pond is an avenue of lime trees providing a symmetrical vista into the garden. The pond is luxuriant with water lilies each summer and is home to a moorhen family. Gunnera, the Victorian favourite for damp areas, fringes the pond with its massive rhubarb-like leaves. Beyond the pond there is a woodland area, carefully maintained with bark paths. In springtime there are bluebells. Wherever you look in the garden there is something interesting to see. An ornamental hare looks out imperiously across the lawn. Miniature hedges of lavender wend their way down the lawn to the ziggurat. A wood store piled high with logs for the winter is both practical and picturesque. My favourite part of the garden is the greenhouse and vegetable garden area. This is where Louise grows plants from seed, often seed collected in the garden. This is the nursery, where future generations of plants are nurtured and tended to – the plant population of the future.
It seems to me that the real point of a garden is its legacy. The garden remains, long after its stewards have gone. The garden imprints an indelible stamp on the ground. A visual reminder of all that went before. The gardener works with the landscape, soil, gradient of the slope, rainfall to create an environment where plants thrive and the end result is aesthetically pleasing. For many people their legacy is children and grand children, for others it might be a body of work (books, poems, essays), or an invention. For a serious gardener it will almost certainly be a garden. After many years of travelling the world and experiencing endless challenges and hardships, Voltaire’s Candide, discovers that true happiness in life is to be found in nurturing and tending one’s garden. The philosopher Rousseau was of a similar opinion, he believed that working the land was the only legitimate activity. For Louise, to be working in the garden is perhaps ‘the best of all possible worlds’…
- Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Thyrsis’ includes the often quoted line, ‘And that sweet city with her dreaming spires’. Arnold is referring to the view of Oxford from Boars Hill.
And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,She needs not June for beauty’s heightening,
- Arthur Evans, was Keeper of Antiquities at The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. An archaeologist – he led extensive excavations at Knossos, Crete from 1900 onwards. He was prominent in developing our understanding of the Minoan Civilisation on the island of Crete. He lived on Boars Hill for many years.
- The Zoological Society of London, makes mention of Muntjac Deer as early as 1838.
- A ziggurat is a massive structure built in ancient Mesopotamia and Persia. Typically they looked like stepped pyramids, often with a spiral path rising up from the base to the summit.
- The concept of the ‘best of all possible words’ was developed by Leibniz, a philosopher and mathematician in the early 18th century. Leibniz’s ‘philosophy of optimism’ was popular amongst intellectuals.
- Leibniz ideas were brutally satirised by the French writer Voltaire in his novel Candide (1759) – a sort of 18th century ‘Fool’s Gold’ adventure about a young man with a privileged start in life who finds himself experiencing every possible trial and tribulation as he ‘wanders through life’. Only to discover, eventually, that true happiness is to be found in ‘tending one’s garden’.
- The belief that tilling the land, growing plants, tending our gardens is the only ‘truly’ legitimate activity was shared by JJ Rousseau, French philosopher and writer.
THANK YOU – Finally and most importantly a big thank you to Nick and Louise for the endless hospitality and generosity towards me whenever I invade their house and garden, complete with Sasha my Cairn Terrier – Poodle cross. Your kindness is much appreciated.
LASTLY – Here are the first two verses of Matthew Arnold’s poem – Thyrsis, the poem extends to 24 verses! An elegy to Oxford and the Oxfordshire countryside.