Fellows’ Garden at Merton College, Oxford

Last fall, I found great joy living the life of a student again for a week at Oxford University. Thirty-eight students, mostly Virginia alumni and parents of alumni, were enrolled in Oxford’s “English Gardens and Architecture in the Time of Thomas Jefferson,” sponsored by UVA Lifetime Learning. Our group ranged in age from early 30s to mid-80s and arrived at Oxford from across the U.S. and Canada. UVA’s Richard Guy Wilson, professsor of architectural history, and Michael Pirie, head gardener at Green Templeton College, were faculty leaders for this program. We spent the week exploring medieval towers and walking through sumptuous gardens.

Oxford University has its origins in the 12th century, when friars in local monasteries began tutoring sons of the gentry. The colleges developed to meet housing needs of these students. After 800 years, the university, now 38 colleges strong, sprawls across the town’s landscape. It established separate women’s colleges in the late 19th century, and has accepted women in all colleges since 1974.

During Jefferson’s service as American envoy to France, he made three trips to England, but didn’t record his Oxford visits. Although he may have been reluctant to praise America’s recent adversary, I imagine Jefferson the botanist was fascinated by the extensive gardens. Oxford colleges’ gardens vary as much as the architecture, and the designed landscapes integrate trees, shrubs and flowers with the buildings.

At the start of the program, we toured Merton, our home for the week and one of Oxford’s oldest colleges. The Front Quad consists of The Hall (for dining) and the Porter’s Lodge (welcome center for the walled college), and the chapel. Looking at the chapel’s tower reaching toward thick, low clouds, I recalled the 15th-century spire from the 1451 Merton Chapel that decorates UVA’s Pavilion Garden VI. Each college within Oxford contains a chapel, dining hall, lodging, library and gardens. Several of us noted that the original grounds at UVA contained these components minus the chapel, but again Jefferson does not mention Oxford as an influence.

Chiswick (top) and Painshill

We also traveled outside the University on field trips to several homes and gardens, including Rousham Hall, Stowe, Chiswick and Painshill. These homes featured design elements inspired by Italian Andreas Palladio (another of Jefferson’s muses). In 1786, on one of his diplomatic trips to England, Jefferson wrote of Painshill: “Paynshill … three hundred and twenty-three acres, garden and park all in one … A Doric temple, beautiful.”

We enjoyed great dining at Merton in the majestic setting of The Hall. The long rectangular room, paneled in wood, resembles the one in the Harry Potter movies, filmed at nearby Christ Church College and built, like Merton, in the 13th century. Beginning the first day with a full English breakfast, our palates were treated royally to a buffet of scrambled or fried eggs, bangers (sausage), bacon (ham), mushrooms and tomatoes. Lamb—which the British cook to perfection, retaining its moisture, flavor and tenderness—highlighted several meals. We also enjoyed roasted squab and a delectable lunch of fried cod and small whitefish.

Path at Merton College Althea Brooks

Finally, Evensong at Christ Church Cathedral, founded almost 500 years ago by Cardinal Wolsey (See “Wolf Hall,” PBS), helped me bid farewell to Oxford. The Anglican evening prayer service sung by choir and parishioners and accompanied by a pipe organ magnificently resonated through this exquisite and smallest of all English cathedrals. As I listened, I thought of strolling a path along a garden wall festooned with grapevines and espaliered crab apples, passing by quince trees, white and yellow hollyhocks, red dahlias and pink cosmos. I vow to return.