University Parks Conservation Management Plan published

The University Parks are a registered Historic Park and Garden (Grade II), home to an important arboricultural collection and several significant listed and historic buildings. The site also contains archaeological features and deposits of exceptional interest, which were the main driver for the preparation of the Plan.

The Conservation Management Plan (CMP) is full of fascinating information about the site and its many layers of heritage. It is one of a suite of CMPs, covering many of the University’s historic buildings and other heritage assets. Others exist for facilities ranging from centuries-old architectural jewels like the Radcliffe Camera and Sheldonian Theatre to relatively modern facilities such as the Dyson Perrins Laboratory.

parch marks in parks 1970s

Parch marks in the University Parks, seen from the air in the 1970s. They show the location of some of the site’s archaeology. (Source: Oxford University Archives)

With its emphasis on archaeology and plant collection management, the University Parks Plan takes a different approach. The document covers the history and significance of the Parks and the heritage assets they contain, but also sets out the areas of identified archaeological interest which lie beneath the ground, and plans for the future of the horticultural and arboricultural collections. 

The Plan traces out the significance of the site’s long and complex archaeological record, from Civil War defensive ditches, medieval and Roman farming landscapes and Saxon mass graves – thought to hold the bodies of Danish invaders – to the barrow mounds and circular ditches of a Bronze Age cemetery and even a pit that’s suspected to date from the Neolithic – some 4-6,000 years ago.

Evidence of much of this history can still be seen from the air during hot summers – the aerial picture reproduced here is from the 1970s, but the drought of summer 2022 again made the archaeology very clearly visible, and a team from Historic England visited to record this with a drone.

parks bronze age barrow reconstruction

Reconstruction drawing of the Bronze Age barrows on the site of the University Parks. North is on the right-hand side of the image; the track running horizontally across the centre roughly aligns with Parks Road and Banbury Road. (Soource: MOLA, 2009 - provided by David Radford, City Archaeologist)

From these prehistoric origins, the CMP traces the area’s history through the formal creation of the University Parks in the mid-nineteenth century and later developments like the gradual construction of the Science Area in the area behind the University Museum, right up to recent additions such as the Physics department’s Beecroft Building. Along the way it gives an overview of the key architectural assets within the Parks, of their ecological, sporting and community benefits, and of numerous other kinds of value to be found within their 70+ acres.

For instance, the Parks host many sports pitches, and the numerous kinds of landscape they contain, from carefully maintained herbaceous borders and tree-lined avenues to riverside walks and areas of wild vegetation, have made them a much-loved place for many members of the local community to walk and relax over many years.

As well as providing a wealth of new detail for those interested in the site’s history, the Parks CMP sets out the University’s commitments to conserve that history. For instance, the University will avoid damaging the site’s archaeology, and is now drafting supplementary plans to renew the aging tree collection and to protect the Parks from the risks posed by climate change. Further investigations such as a comprehensive survey of all the trees in the Parks, already underway, will shed more light on conservation and management priorities.

The University will also ensure that possible sources of disturbance such as events in the Parks and the redevelopment of buildings in the Science Area are properly managed so that the site can be passed on unharmed to future generations.

william gunstone poem

Generations of local people have appreciated the Parks, as this poem shows (A Tribute to the Keeper O.U. Parks by William Gunstone, 1949). (Source: Oxford University Archives)

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