In 1779 Lancelot 'Capability' Brown drew up a scheme for joining together five college gardens at Cambridge University into a single park and straightening the River Cam.
From the 1690s written records that begin with Celia Fiennes, delighted in the beauty of the College gardens. The gardens were being enlarged on the west side through enclosure and the David Loggan Map of 1688 shows part of the college gardens of St John’s, Trinity, Clare, King’s and Queens’, laid out on floodplain land known as The Backs, with formal gardens leading to the river, paddocks and avenues beyond.
Brown at St John’s
St John’s College first approached Brown about plans for its ‘back’ garden in 1772 but, due to Brown’s ill-health, little was done until 1776-78 when Brown visited the college and staked out a plan which, according to Dr Boys Smith, the college historian, “transformed an entirely formal fellows’ garden of the 17th century into a more natural one along the lines of the present lawn and wilderness”.
A New Park
In 1779 the Duke of Grafton, Chancellor of the University, asked Brown to make “Some Alterations”; in other words, to prepare a scheme for all the gardens. He ultimately presented a plan in watercolours, which showed a unified layout stretching from St John’s on the north side to the Mill Pond on the south, made up of a park with four separate paddocks.
This would require the removal of some avenues, bridges and formal boundaries. He also proposed a straightening of the river by St John’s, as originally proposed by Christopher Wren, to allow a finer view from Wren’s library, built for Trinity College. Also key was the widening of the River Cam into a lake with two long islands, and on the western side there would have been a “leg-of-mutton” shaped lawn with clumps of trees planted across the entire length of the site.
At the centre of Brown’s unified landscape, as if representing the country house, would be the King’s College Fellows Building, designed by Brown’s friend, architect James Gibbs (1682-1754, Wikipedia). It lies alongside King’s College Chapel, fronting the river. The main driveway, which he took over a public bridge and round in front of the neighbouring Trinity and Clare Colleges, would also be part of the scheme.
Brown’s plan of 1779 was praised for doing “wonders on a plain surface”; and, unusually for Brown, at an expense “scarce worth mentioning” (George Dyer – then fellow of Emmanuel College). However, expense was not all that was on the Fellows’ minds: instead Dyer noted long “disputes, economical and political, philosophical and critical, metaphysical and theological”. The separate colleges just could not agree to the scheme, which would have needed a long period of cooperation between them. Brown was presented with a silver salver, in thanks for his efforts, but his ideas were never carried out.
The Backs today
The Backs is a Grade I-listed site and visitors can explore the area on foot or by punt along the river, subject to College opening hours.
Sarah Rutherford, Capability Brown and His Landscape Gardens, National Trust Books, 2016, pages 66, 67
Ronald Gray, Cambridge Gardens, The Pevensey Press, 1984
Mavis Batey, The Historic Gardens of Oxford and Cambridge, MacMillan 1989
Charles Malyon, A Selection of Cambridge College Gardens, 2016 – published and available from the Cambridgeshire Gardens Trust
Jane Brown, Lancelot Brown: Cambridgeshire Connections 2015 – published and available from the Cambridgeshire Gardens Trust
Cambridgeshire Gardens Trust walks leaflet: cambsgardens.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/4246-The-Backs-Lft.pdf