13. The Harbour Lawn And The Missing Tree

Photo: John Cairns

The appearance of the main Harbour Lawn has always been contested. It is very interesting to view early ideas that Powell & Moya had for the quad, which are kept in the College archive. The proposed layouts for the grass area, harbour, and island were much less formal in some cases than the final, quite formal choice. Had some of the other choices been adopted the area might have looked quite different from the layout that we now have.

In the very early days of the College, two factions argued for two different visions: the first, for a rectilinear purity, unencumbered by trees or obtrusive bushes; the second, for a gradual softening of the harshness of the original architecture into a rounder, less cold environment. The visitor can judge which has prevailed. But at the centre of the earlier debate was the question of a single tree on the Harbour Lawn. The early Home Bursar and Historian, Cecilia Dick (mother of Cressida Dick, Metropolitan Police Commissioner 2017-2022) was an advocate of purity, and argued that the lawn should not be sullied by a tree. The College did however decide to plant a small multi-stemmed tree, Amelanchier lamarckii, commonly known as the June Berry, or Snowy Mespilus, which sometimes manages to form a small tree but often only reaches shrub size. There was fierce debate within the garden committee at the time about the need for a tree and what kind of tree it should be. The final choice was a compromise in terms of height and shape, and like all compromises it wasn’t entirely satisfactory. During the 1980’s the tree was pruned by Walter Sawyer to try to make it an elegant and interesting shape. But this was fighting against nature really, as Amelanchiers do not naturally form elegant or interesting shapes. On Cecilia Dick’s death in 1995 some of her ashes were, in a sign of affection, planted beneath its branches. A series of dry summers contributed to the death of the tree in 2021, when it was removed after succumbing to honey fungus. Her wish for a pure lawn was, in the long run, fulfilled.

Photo: John Cairns

For the early decades of the College the Harbour lawn was often viewed but rarely walked on. The only formal event which it was used for annually was at the Foundation Dinner for pre-dinner drinks and if the weather was good between dinner and dessert. But it has become a centre of College social life, and during the COVID pandemic of 2020-22 three teepees were purchased and erected on the lawn, as a relatively safe place for social interaction. Two of them have remained permanently, and have extended the period when the lawn is used by the Wolfson community. They are packed away late in autumn to protect them from winter storms, and come out again with spring.

The banks rising at the back of the lawn host golden daffodils (Narcissus cyclamineus, or ‘February Gold’) in spring, and then a multitude of wild flowers when they are left unmown during early summer.

A further row developed when Ted Darrah, Wolfson’s first Head Gardener, removed all of the turf on the harbour quay bankside and planted it with a mixture of shrubs and perennials. This idea had not been fully developed with the College’s Grounds sub-Committee and approval had not been given. The Domestic Bursar was extremely annoyed about the planting. The large soil area was problematic too: soil erosion was evident; the new plantings were relatively formless and during the winter months unattractive to look at. As soon as Ted Darrah left, the Grounds Committee agreed that most of the bank should be grassed over again. Walter Sawyer designed two beds at each end of the bank which were planted with conifers and ground covering roses. The new plantings were regarded as a success, and harmony was restored between the Domestic Bursar and the Grounds Committee. Some of the conifers survive. The larger central area was grassed.

Over the last 20 years the lawn has become attractive to the large numbers of Canada geese which live along the river – before that time the population of geese was small and they were less inclined to be near people. The lawn is not attractive after they have visited, leaving generous deposits behind. So, the College has devised a natural barrier of gorse (Ulex europeus) to discourage their visits. Canada geese are best seen at a distance.

Tim Hitchens, with thanks to Walter Sawyer