22 July 2010

I never wanted to be a gardener, but ...

The gardens at Sidney Sussex are a haven for everyone taking part in this year’s summer school (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

I have never been interested in gardening. To be frank, I have no interest in ever being a gardener. But gardening is a noble and Christian profession ... on Easter morning, Mary first thought the Risen Christ was the gardener.

Here in Cambridge, the college courts and gardens are secluded and hidden places of calm. In the midst of a very busy tourist season, as I try to listen and study, these gardens and courts are oases of peace and tranquillity.

This year, I’m staying in Garden Court in Sidney Sussex College. The Richard Powell Library is on the ground floor. Unlike Cloister Court and Chapel Court, where I have stayed in previous years, this is an ugly, brash, functional modern building – too ugly to be part of a housing estate in Dagenham.

On the other hand, these rooms mean that I am right beside Mong Hall, where our lectures and seminars are taking place each day. My room looks out onto the King Street Gate and over the busy, lively junction of King Street, Hobson Street and Sussex Street. From most parts of this building, there are also gracious, gentle views across the Master’s Garden and the Fellows’ Garden that have given Garden Court its name.

Despite its brash, modern appearances, Garden Court is located on historic ground. This building stands over the original course of the King’s Ditch, an ancient watercourse that helped to protect 13th century Cambridge against the rebellious robber barons lurking in the Fens.

There is a tradition of maintaining the gardens at Sidney Sussex College that is as old as the college itself, stretching back more than 400 years. The college was founded in 1596, and from the spring of 1598 John Simon was employed here as a gardener. The college statutes that year provided for two gardens, the first for the Master and the second for the Fellows. Another formal garden, similar to the Fellows’ Garden, was laid out on the grounds where Garden Court now stands.

At one stage, some of the present gardens were used as sports grounds and for football matches. It is said that while Oliver Cromwell was an undergraduate at Sidney Sussex, he wasted much of his time playing football in the gardens. He is quoted as having said later he could remember the time when he was more afraid of being tackled in football by a fellow student, John Wainwright, than “of meeting any army since in the field.”

When Cloister Court was built in the early 1890s, the bodies buried in the mediaeval Franciscan cemetery on the site were disturbed and had to be re-interred. But the building of Cloister Court also took away from the Fellows’ Garden much of its original area.

The history of the present gardens begins with the work of the Revd Bertram Tom Dean Smith, who was elected a fellow in 1918 and later became the Dean and Tutor of Sidney Sussex. BTD, as he was known, was a keen and gifted amateur gardener, and he devoted the greater part of his leisure hours to improving and developing the Fellows’ Garden.

Strolling through the gardens this week, I have stumbled across delightful structures such as the classical gate, which holds a child-like secret promise of entry into Jesus Lane, and the view of the spire of All Saints’ Church beside Westcott House.

The Weeping Ash in the Master’s Garden in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Many of the trees in the gardens remember former undergraduates or fellows of Sidney Sussex. One of the most famous trees in the gardens of Sidney Sussex must be the weeping ash in the Master’s Garden, in the circular bed behind the lodge.

Although the Master’s Garden is normally closed to the public, I am told it springs to life at the receptions on degree days for graduands and their families, and during the tea parties given for members of Sidney Sussex returning to Cambridge for the annual gatherings commemorating Lady Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex, and her foundation of the college.

It is said that Sidney glows most brightly in Spring, when the unmanicured areas beneath the trees are flooded with bulbs. Things begin to get busy in March, and every second year an elevation platform has to be hired to prune the Magnolia grandiflora in Hall Court.

The Magnolia grandiflora in Hall Court ... an elevation platform is needed to prune this every second year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

This week, I have appreciated these gardens as a haven for all of us taking part in the summer school organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies. In these balmy summer days, the gardens of Sidney Sussex offer each of us peace, tranquillity and quiet places to be at one with the Creator God and with creation and nature.

And in their own ways, these gardens truly are also reminders of that first Easter and the joys of the Resurrection.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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