The present Fellows’ Garden was designed in 1947 by Professor Nevill Willmer, a physiologist and Fellow of Clare from 1936 to his death in 2001.
In dividing the Garden into separate sections (some almost like ‘rooms’), Willmer was inspired by the great garden of the Arts and Crafts period at Hidcote in Gloucestershire. But his goal was by no means simply imitation; it was also experiment. The Garden brings together two of Willmer’s interests: the landscape painting that he practised as an amateur and the principles of colour vision that he studied as a physiologist.
Thinking pictorially, Willmer conceived of a number of landscape pictures to be seen from different vantage points, such as the west front of the college and the Master’s Lodge, the bridge over the Cam, or the view from the Avenue through the gate to the Pond Garden beyond.
The Fellows’ Garden is one of the most admired gardens in Cambridge. Professor Nevill Willmer (1902 - 2001), a Fellow of Clare and a cell biologist interested in the origins of vision, was entrusted with redesigning the gardens in 1947. Currently, far from being the exclusive province of the College’s Fellows, the garden is enjoyed by our students in the Easter term and is usually open to the public during the summer months.
However, due to the building work being carried out in Old Court, the Garden is currently closed. We anticipate that it will re-open in 2023.
Willmer’s planting made clever use of perspective and colour perception. In a landscape painting, the distant horizon will look hazily blue. Likewise, an illusion of distance can be achieved in the Garden by planting bright-coloured flowers in the foreground and softer, pastel shades further back. You can see a similar effect in the River Beds, as viewed from Clare Bridge: from this key vantage point, yellows and oranges give way to crimson (i.e. bluer) reds as the beds recede.
Yellow & Blue border
A magnificent double herbaceous border runs from the Pond Garden to the riverbank, planted in shades of yellow and violet-blues, including delphiniums, aconitum, achillea and verbascum. This is another application of Willmer’s knowledge of colour vision: go into the Garden at twilight, and you will see how the blues become lighter and the yellows darker, as daylight wanes. Willmer delighted in leading colleagues into the garden to watch this very effect.
Inspired by a trip to Pompeii in 1926, Nevill Willmer designed a sunken garden with a central lily-pool. A dry York stone wall is used to support the upper level of lawn with the surrounding border lending itself to alpine and rock-loving plants. This garden is best enjoyed in spring before the main herbaceous borders steal the show in summer.
More recent innovations in the Garden, under the leadership of Steve Elstub (only the third Head Gardener since Willmer’s day), include the sub-tropical garden. In late summer you can be enclosed in this private jungle-like space, with bold form and colour provided by bananas (Musa spp.), castor oil plant (Ricinus communis) and Abutilon pictum.
Biodiversity at Clare
Wildlife-friendly practices include bird- and bat-boxes in the wooded areas. To help enhance biodiversity an unmown ‘wild’ swathe of grass is left on the south border of the lawn. Native wildflowers can be found here, including yellow rattle and snakeshead fritillaries.
Memorial Court was built during the 1920s to a design of Giles Gilbert Scott and dedicated in 1926. Much later in the century  the Forbes-Mellon library, intended principally for undergraduate use, was constructed in the large and open court of Memorial Court.
Two large Pine trees dominate the lawns either side and in 2006 the planting around the edge of the court underwent a much needed redesign. The tired mixed shrub strips were updated and extended by the Head Gardener at the time, Steve Elstub, and his team. The plantings include an array of Cistus’, Miscanthus, Agapanthus, Sedums and Chamaerops humilis ‘Vulcano’.
In 2014 Ashby Court saw improvements culminating in “walk-through”, pollinator friendly planting bays with seating. Three different species of Birch and two Acer griseum give structure and dappled shade in the summer months. The Forbes-Mellon library opens out onto the central lawn, which is much used by the students for relaxing, studies and May Ball preparations.
Set in the shadow of Castle Mound the Colony is situated between Castle Street and Chesterton Lane. There have been many add-ons and alterations through the years with the final refurbishment of the grounds completed in 2012. A terrace with Mediterranean planting bays and umbrella crab apples, (Malus ‘Evereste’), a “prairie” style embankment that sweeps around Ethelreda House are among the many improvements made to the hard landscaping, to improve appearance and access.
There are a number of fine specimen trees in the College grounds. Among these are two species of deciduous conifer in the Fellows’ Garden.
The riverside swamp cypress (Taxodium distichum) long predates Willmer’s plan. On a bright day in Michaelmas term, admire its red autumn foliage against a blue sky.
Near the centre of the garden stands the Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). A gift to the College, the tree was planted here in 1948. It was grown from seed collected on an expedition to China, where the tree had been discovered only a few years earlier. It had previously only been known through fossil evidence, and was thought to be have been extinct for the last 5 million years. Two other ‘related’ Dawn Redwoods, originating from the same plant collecting expedition, can be found in Cambridge – in the University’s Botanic Garden and in Emmanuel College. Current data suggests that Clare’s Dawn Redwood is the second tallest in the country.
Our Avenue, early Spring
Yellow, white, a dash of blue,
Daffodil, daisy, scylla too.
Iron gates, black and gold,
Clare’s colours wrought in bold.
Our Avenue’s dressed herself for Spring.
Nothing to wear but her very best.
We who walk her in silence sing,
Praising her beauty, being blessed.
Our Avenue, late Spring
That Spring dress’ all tattered and torn,
Scruffy, bedraggled, withered and worn.
Gone the yellow, the white, the dash of blue,
Till Summer comes undress must do.
Our Avenue must bear Nature’s pace.
We who love you in patience wait.
Waiting whilst you re-grow your grace,
Hoping Summer’s sun will it re-create.
Backs Landscape Strategy
The Backs is an iconic landscape recognized around the world as a landscape of outstanding beauty. The six Colleges on the Backs commissioned Robert Myers Associates to prepare a masterplan for the Backs setting out a broad framework for its future evolution over the next 50 years. The Report was completed in November 2007 and following consultation with the Cambridge City Council and English Heritage is in the process of being adopted. The Backs were listed as a Grade I Historic Park in 1995.
The full report is available on The Backs Landscape Report
The gardens are currently managed by Head Gardener Kate Hargreaves and her team.
The Gardens are currently closed due to the Old Court refurbishment and Phase 1b of the River Side Café.
The Gardens are due to reopen in 2023.