Introduction to The University Parks

Superintendent: Walter Sawyer
Parks Office: Oxford University Parks, South Lodge, South Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3RF
  • The Parks are open from 8 a.m. until half an hour before dusk on each day of the year, except for Christmas Eve.
  • Closing times are displayed inside the gates.
  • Entrance is free.
  • Cycles are not allowed in the Parks (whether ridden or not).
  • There is no car parking.

The University Parks consist of about 70 acres (30 hectares) of parkland on the west bank of the River Cherwell, together with a 4 acre (1.5 hectare) spur of land running towards the south. This lies between the upper and lower levels of the river and is thus traditionally known as Mesopotamia.

A total of 91 acres (37 hectares) of land for the Parks was purchased by the University from Merton College over an eleven-year period from 1853, and of this area, four acres (1.5 hectares) were used for the University Museum which was completed in 1860. Between 1912 and the early 1950s, a further portion was taken over for buildings in the University Science Area.

In June 1863, the University was presented with a plan for the Parks by Mr James Bateman of Magdalen College. However, this was rejected and in 1865 the University allocated £500 for the purchase of trees and shrubs. The Reverend Thomas Hopkins, Curator, directed the first plantings which were carried out under the supervision of Mr William Baxter, then Superintendent of the University Botanic Garden. Many of the trees listed were exotic species, very few of which survive. Further major tree planting was carried out in 1888 and in the 1920s and 1950s. More recently, since 1977, many young trees have been planted. While these have little impact on the landscape at present, they will ensure interest and pleasure for future generations of visitors.


Woolly Rhinoceros Tooth.  Copyright 2007 Dr. Ian Plummer, Balliol College.

Tooth of a Woolly Rhinoceros found in the University Parks
Courtesy of the Museum of Oxford

The Thames valley gravels were a major area of settlement in prehistoric times, and near Oxford the floodplain was then much drier, allowing settlement, for example, on Port Meadow. Early stone tools have been found at St Ebbe's and Wolvercote, and there are signs of a neolithic settlement near Christ Church. Bronze Age barrows have been identified on Port Meadow, a linear barrow cemetery in the University Parks, and a double-ditched barrow in the nearby Science Area. 

A settlement of the Beaker period has been found in St Thomas Street. In the Iron Age, heavy occupation of Port Meadow is suggested by ring ditches and enclosures, and undated sites of similar character are visible from the air in the University Parks and South Oxford (on the former Oxford City football ground). 

Dr EJ Bowen and the Ashmolean Museum

The soil over most of the area is thin and overlies river gravel. This has had a great effect on the size of many of the trees, which, particularly in the open areas to the west, do not appear to have attained their full potential. This is apparent in the group of Wellingtonias and in the younger plantings of Tulip trees and Indian Bean trees; it may explain why the avenue of these trees was not continued. The central area is very exposed, which may also affect the growth rate of the trees, for example those in 'Coronation Clump'.

Trees have been lost through disease, storm damage and drought stress; between the 1930s and 1970s, the extensive collection of more than 100 Elms succumbed to Dutch elm disease. However, since 1991 much new planting has been carried out under the direction of the present Superintendent, in particular in Cox's Corner, the Hayrick Border, and in beds along the West Walk and to the south of North Walk.

The redevelopment of the pond as a more natural feature has provided an opportunity to grow a greater variety of moisture loving plants. Plant associations throughout the Parks have been chosen to provide interest all through the year, with attractive combinations of plant and foliage shape, texture and colour. Flowering bulbs are an attraction in spring.

Previous attempts to label trees met with little lasting success. As early as 1889, the Curators recorded the replacement of labels lost through damage by visitors to the Parks. Trees are now labelled with a location code and number, which relate to the tree guide.

Organised University Sport is a feature of the present day life of the Parks. It is overseen by the Committee for Sport, which is distinct from the Parks Curators. The Parks have been the home venue of Oxford University Cricket Club since 1881 and the cricket ground is regarded as one of the most attractive in the country.

Map of Parks

Click here for a large scale version

Key to particular points of interest

1. Cricket Pavilion - designed by Sir Thomas Jackson and completed in 1881.

The Cricket Pavilion
The Cricket Pavilion - University cricket has been played in the Parks since 1881 and T.G. Jackson's (1835-1924) pavilion is sited at the same distance from the wicket as the pavilion at Lord's. Jackson, a member and subsequent fellow of Wadham, pupil of Gilbert Scott, also designed the Examination Schools (1876-82) , Brasenose (1882-1911), Hertford (1887-1914) and Trinity (1883-7) colleges.

2. Wellingtonias - the seven large trees (Sequoiadendron giganteum) were planted in about 1888; the small one was added to the group in 1972. North Lodge, nearby, was built in 1866.

Giant sequoia

Giant sequoia, Wellingtonia

The giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) is the only species within the giant sequoia genus. Giant sequoias are the largest trees ever to inhabit the earth, and are among the oldest. Heights of 300 feet and diameters of 30 feet are not uncommon. Their ages commonly range from 2,000 to 3,000 years (only bristlecone pines are older). 

3. North Walk - many of the larger trees on either side of the path were planted in the late 1880s. Younger trees date mainly from the 1950s & 1970s. Mixed borders to the south are planted for seasonal interest.

4. Pond - a circular lily pond was constructed in 1925. Enlargement and landscaping carried out in 1996 bring this area more into keeping with the size of the Parks and reflect the original plan of James Bateman.

The pond

The pond with autumn colour

5. High Bridge - built in 1923-24 in a relief project for the unemployed and sometimes known as Rainbow Bridge. Footpaths lead to Wolfson College and to the Marston Ferry Road.

The pond

The High Bridge in winter

6. Riverside Walk - alongside the River Cherwell, a tributary of the River Thames.

7. Cox's Corner - previously the Parks' rubbish dump which accounts for the height above the river. Shrubs planted in the 1990s are largely native species. It is named after Charlie Cox, a former keeper of Parson's Pleasure bathing place, which was on the opposite bank and is now incorporated into the Parks.

8. Mesopotamia - the name derives from the Greek for "between the rivers". The walk to Marston Road via King's Mill gate was laid out in 1865 and is just under a mile long.

Bench inscription
"The inscription pictured here may be found in Mesopotamia, between Isis and Cherwell, in the University Parks of Oxford. ... As the photo make clear, the text reads: 


9. Cycle track & bridges - the cycle track leading to Marston was developed in 1994. The middle bridge of the three was designed by Alfred Goldstein in 1949 and is thought to be the first pre-stressed arch bridge of its kind.

10. Oak Walk - planted in the 1980s to replace an avenue of elms. The oaks are interplanted with Malus sp. (crab apples) and Prunus sp. (cherries).

11. Hayrick Border - the name indicates its former use. Now an herbaceous border, backed by trees and shrubs and particularly colourful in the summer.

12. Thorn Walk - while a few of these trees date from 1889, the majority were planted in 1928-29 with newer replacements. The collection includes over thirty species and varieties of Crataegus (hawthorn).

13. Croquet Lawn - the surrounding trees were planted in 1878 to screen the Observatory, which, when built in 1874, was isolated in the middle of the Parks. It now adjoins buildings of the Science Area. The Oxford University Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club, which was founded in 1863, was disbanded in 2002.

Croquet coaching

Croquet - coaching at the croquet lawns

14. Tulip Tree & Bean Tree Avenue - the yellow-green, tulip-shaped flowers of Liriodendron tulipifera open in June and July. The white flowerheads of Catalpa bignonioides appear slightly later; its black seed pods remain throughout the winter.

Tulip tree bloom Liriodendron tulipifera (family Magnoliaceae)

Tulip tree, Yellow Poplar, Tulip Poplar 

Deciduous tree, 70-90(150) ft, [21-27(46) m], strong central leader, narrow ovoid. Leaves alternate, simple, 7.5-20 cm across, broad truncate apex, bright green above. Tulip-like flowers in spring, greenish-yellow petals, orangish interior, green cone-like fruit. Foliage only yellow, brown in autumn.

Indian bean tree Catalpa bignonioides (Family Bignoniacea)

Indian bean tree, southern catalpa, catawba

A medium sized tree with large heart-shaped deciduous leaves, showy, clustered flowers and long cigar-shaped fruit pods. This short boled tree grows 2'-4' in diameter and supports a broad, open and rounded crown. 

15. Genetic Garden - an experimental garden established by Professor Cyril Darlington, (Sherardian Professor of Botany, 1953-1971) to demonstrate evolutionary processes. Planting includes hybrids with their parent species, graft chimaeras and plants with different types of foliage variegation.

16. Sophora japonica - known as the Japanese Pagoda Tree, although a native of China. This specimen was planted in 1888. In 1936 its girth was recorded as 6ft 6ins (1.98m); it is now 10ft 5ins (3.17m).

Japanese Pagoda tree,
Sophora japonica (family  fabaceae)now known as Styphnolobium japonicum

Japanese Pagoda tree, Scholar tree

Creamy yellow flowers in July. 

The flowers are the source of the transparent pigment Imperial Yellow.

17. West Walk - on the Park side are several Ilex sp. (hollies), including a weeping tree and a variegated specimen whose topmost leaves turn yellow in winter, becoming green again throughout the summer.

18. Coronation Clump - planted to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

Gandhi plaque unveiled in the Parks (September 1998)

A memorial plaque was unveiled in the University Parks on 13 July, marking the spot where a tree honouring M.K. Gandhi, known as `the Father of modern India', was planted in 1995. This is the first time permission for a plaque in the University Parks has ever been given. 

Unveiling the Gandhi plaqueThe slate plaque, designed and crafted by local sculptor Martin Jennings, MA, ARBS, was unveiled by Mr Richard Symonds, a scholar on commonwealth history, who knew Mr Gandhi personally, and worked with him on relief projects. 

The Vice-Chancellor, Dr Colin Lucas (pictured with, from left to right), Mr Symonds, Professor Indranath Choudhuri, Director of the Nehru Centre of the Indian High Commision, and Deputy Lord Mayor of Oxford, Cllr Beryl Keen, were among those attending the open-air ceremony in the Parks. 

Koelreuteria paniculata treeThe inscription on the plaque reads: `This tree Koelreuteria paniculata (Pride of India) was planted to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the birth on 2nd October 1869 of M K Gandhi - an inspiration to us all.' 

The Indian Independence leader, who died in 1948, had many links with Oxford. He twice visited Balliol College in 1931 while in Britain for the famous the Round Table Conference, and was involved in lively debates on the Indian constitutional question.