Formal lawn in Lincoln College Front Quad

The Oxford lawn: Balancing tradition and sustainability

Formal lawns. One of those quirky Oxford ‘traditions’ we never question. Almost every college has at least one of these perfectly manicured and luscious green patches. However, this was not always the case. The formal lawns we see in Oxford quadrangles today date from the early seventeenth century, long after the thirteenth-century founding of Oxford’s oldest colleges. During that period, the Jacobean landed gentry constantly sought original ways to display their superiority. Manicured lawns, epitomising wasted space with no practical use, provided the perfect symbol of wealth and status.The triumph of grassy order over weedy chaos found in a formal lawn’s symmetrical and uniform look also displayed their control over nature.

Prior to the seventeenth century, college quadrangles at Oxford functioned primarily as functional domestic spaces, paved or cobbled for heavy use and easy cleaning, according to Lincoln College Garden Fellow Peter McCullough. The principal quadrangles of Corpus Christi and Merton College remain the only two to have never been turfed. Even into the early twentieth century, this limitation persisted. In a 1675 engraving by David Loggan, the lawn on Brasenose College’s Old Quad is nowhere to be seen. Instead, it depicts hedges and trees in the style of a knot garden surrounded by a low ornamental wall. It was not until 1727 that these were replaced with a grassy turf. The fragility and expense of hand-mown lawns restricted their appearance in colleges to fellows’ and heads of colleges’ gardens before the introduction of the petrol lawn-mower in the late Victorian era. At Lincoln College, the Front and Chapel Quads remained unturfed until a decision in 1947 to lay down a grass plot. 

The fragility and expense of hand-mown lawns restricted their appearance in colleges to fellows’ and heads of colleges’ gardens

Today, every Oxford college has its own specific rules pertaining to lawns. At Lincoln college, both the Main and Chapel Quad lawns are out of bounds to everyone but the gardeners in order to maintain their pristine condition. Meanwhile, at Balliol College, while the Back Quad grass is open for walking year-round, the official handbook stipulates that “It is an offence to walk across the lawns as a shortcut.” These rules are so ingrained within the university community that even the most iconoclastic Oxfordian would likely raise an eyebrow at the sight of someone daring to set a foot onto a turf adorned with a ‘Please keep off the grass’ sign. It is no surprise, then, that when in 2020 members of Extinction Rebellion sought to draw attention to Trinity College, Cambridge’s “destruction of nature” through its investments in fossil fuels, they chose to dig up the ‘sacred’ lawn. Similarly, the Oxford Action for Palestine movement recently dug up part of the Radcliffe Camera’s lawn to plant an olive tree. By disrupting these formal lawns, protestors are making a broader statement: challenging the long-standing norms and socio-cultural dynamics underlying the presence of lawns in these spaces.

Beyond their symbolic embodiment of tradition, manicured lawns have also frequently come under fire for their environmental impact. Sustainability concerns tend to fall under two categories: excessive consumption of resources and lack of biodiversity. Not only do some lawn mowers consume a lot of gasoline, but the maintenance of a turf’s velvety green appearance can require large quantities of water. As for biodiversity, lawns often draw criticism for being monocultures artificially enhanced by harmful chemical fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides or fungicides that leach off into the water supply and further pollute our resources. 

Sustainability concerns tend to fall under two categories: excessive consumption of resources and lack of biodiversity.

These concerns have not gone ignored at Oxford. At Lincoln College, mowing is now entirely fossil-free as they have switched to electric mowers. Regarding watering, Lincoln has a strict moratorium, or as McCullough put it “if they go brown in summer, so be it.” Balliol College Gardener Shane Corkery recalled that during a heatwave that hit a peak of 40°C in the summer of 2022, he decided to let the lawns go brown for a number of weeks. As for biodiversity, Christ Church Head Gardener John James pointed out that “if not over maintained they [lawns] can be very biodiverse.” Christ Church College’s lawns are made up of an evolving mixture of many grass species, including perennial ryegrass, creeping red fescues, and bent grasses upon which no fungicides or pesticides have been used in the last ten years. Some colleges have also begun to turn some of their lawns into wildflower meadows. Though when asked whether these could ever completely replace the grassy formal lawns, McCullough highlighted that despite looking breathtaking in the early summer, they offer “none of the necessary attractiveness” expected of the principal lawns throughout the rest of the year. 

Beyond the neat edges of the formal lawn, McCullough proudly told me that Lincoln is peat-free. Head Gardener Mike Hawkins has begun to grow all of their window-box annuals from seed. This not only saves them expense, but, as McCullough emphasised, would also move them away from mass commercial horticulture “that we both [McCullough and Hawkins] strongly dislike.” At Christ Church, James told me of the success he has had in restoring Christ Church Meadow’s floodplain meadows by spreading green hay from the ancient local floodplain. The Meadow has also witnessed the resurgence of plants that had nearly disappeared such as cowslips and wild orchids, after he reduced mowing from weekly to annually.

Oxford may never be able to part completely with its iconic lawns. But it is encouraging to see those responsible for preserving them exploring ways to align this relatively recent tradition (in Oxford terms) with sustainability.

Image credit: Caro Wallis via Flickr

Image description: Formal lawn in Lincoln College Front Quadrangle