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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Marks, MA

A Brief History of Clare College Fellows’ Garden in Cambridge

What is Clare College Fellows’ Garden?

Clare College Fellows’ Garden is a neatly manicured garden that was redesigned in the 20th century by a Clare College fellow.

Clare college as seen from Fellows’ Garden

Fellows’ Garden History

Clare College was founded 700 years ago and is the second oldest college in the University of Cambridge. With gardens that straddle the banks of the River Cam, Clare is situated within the famous Cambridge ‘Backs’, making it one of the most scenic and charming places in the entire city.

Among Clare’s Grade I-listed buildings, perhaps its most iconic feature is Clare Bridge, which you can have the pleasure of passing under on a punt tour through the city. This bridge, which connects the 17th-century Old Court with the more modern Memorial Court, is one of the oldest bridges in Europe which is still in use, having been constructed in 1640. It’s also one of the only bridges in England to survive the 17th-century British Civil Wars.

Clare’s gardens are considered the pride of the college grounds. They lie on either side of the river, with the Master’s and Scholars’ Gardens on the east bank, and the Fellows’ Garden on the west. The Fellows’ Garden, in particular, is celebrated as an impressive feat of landscape design. Redesigned in the mid-20th century by one of Clare’s resident fellows, Professor Nevill Willmer, the garden expertly plays with perspective via optical illusions. This is no surprise, considering that Willmer was a biologist whose research included the origins of vision. In addition to his interest in gardening, he was also an amateur landscape painter – a passion that’s evident in his design of the garden. For example, the herbaceous border is filled with blue and yellow flowers: colours which become altered for the human eye when viewed at different times of the day. Another example of Willmer’s impressive work is in the design of the riverbanks. Here, he intentionally configured the flowerbeds in order that, when viewed from a boat, the composition of the gardens would mimic the foreground and background tones of a landscape painting.

Fellows’ Garden plantlife

Other notable features include the Sunken Garden, surrounded on all sides by elegant stonework (best viewed in spring), as well as the more recently planted Tropical Garden which thrives at the tail-end of summer, when its banana trees and castor oil plants come into full bloom. The college is also very proud of its two champion trees: a dawn redwood from China, planted here in the 1940s and which now stands at 25 metres tall, and an extremely old swamp cypress which long predates Willmer’s designs.

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