In Bed With The Gardeners

Originally posted on Kit Smart’s Blog on May 6 2016

Nick Firman, Pembroke’s Head Gardner has worked at the College for 51 years. In that time, he has had a hand in shaping the beautiful grounds that we now enjoy. Taking advantage of all that experience, the GP asked Nick to give them a tour of the gardens and Kit tagged along.

Starting in the Fellows’ Garden, Nick filled his tour with anecdotes from his extensive knowledge of all things Pembroke. For instance, the statue in the Fellows’ Garden was originally part of the Chapel but when it was replaced, it found a new home. While pointing out the incense cedar that stands next to it, he also mentioned how the land in that part of the college once belonged to Peterhouse and because of an agreement dating back to when it was first rented, the gardeners still have to ask permission to plant trees on it.

Nick also took the group to the lesser known gardens (or at least, lesser known to the graduates) found in Foundress Court and at the back of the Nihon room. The Nihon Room’s Japanese garden was designed by a London firm who specialise in such and it is now maintained by a Japanese Society in exchange for dinner.

The famous Pembroke bowling green, he assured us is not actually the oldest in Britain but it is unique for its rub. This rub is so prized that when new grass was laid, they had to be sure that they did not disturb its signature rise.

In front of the café, there are two magnolias which were donated by Ray Dolby in honour of the former master, Meredith Dewey. Dewey, who was also once the gardening steward, was responsible for the rockery that can be found at the end of Ridley’s walk. The gardeners were once only allowed to go near the rockery when Dewey was out of college in the holidays which is when they would find pieces of coal lying around from where he had thrown them to scare off the sparrows.

Opposite the rockery stands the banana plant that is apparently a Japanese variety which is very hardy but produces inedible bananas. They used to cosset it in the winter but as it kept growing regardless, they stopped with that. It is a very invasive plant that would take over if they did not keep cutting it down, Nick told us while pointing to an additional plant that has sprouted up behind the main feature.

The Orchard houses tree grown from a cutting of the original Spencer mulberry that stood in its place. The mound was built up around the original to support the mulberry’s weak roots and tendency to snap. Next to it, Nick pointed out the pond which was put in during the war to ensure that they could put out any fires that might occur.

There used to be a walnut tree on the old court lawn but the college managed to convince the council that the lawn looked better without it and so had it removed. There are also two to three hedgehog nests around the college, and their penchant for falling into the ponds is why you can find boards in and at the sides. Nick told the tour about the hedgehog they had saved from drowning only to witness it walk straight down a drain.

The tour finished up in the greenhouse which was specifically designed to blend in with the trees in the avenue, which is why it stands tall and thin. The greenhouse is full of cuttings and plants waiting for warmer weather as well as a stag plant that the gardeners rescued from Selwyn College but are now not sure what to do with.

With a final few questions we thanked Nick for his time and Léonie for organising our informative afternoon.

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