Stuart Macbeth wanders among the flower beds to talk to Tim Richardson about his new publication

Townspeople used to visit Oxford’s college gardens and groves frequently until the mid 19th century,” author Tim Richardson informs me, “especially on Sunday evenings in summer.”

But, since then, many of these splendid local gardens have appeared off-limits. Now Tim has brought them vividly back to life in an illuminating and beautifully presented new book, Oxford College Gardens. It’s his 14th book and he admits that writing it was a true labour of love.

“I’ve tried to include everything a reader might want,” Tim enthuses. “The book is a comprehensive guide to the colleges and their gardens for people visiting the city. I’ve included maps, a list of head gardeners, and a strong sense of the prevailing college character.”

And Tim says there are many great stories to be told. The 48-year-old’s passion for gardens was ignited while he was an Oxford undergraduate, reading English at Pembroke College.

“My grandfather, great-uncles and great-grandfather were all professional gardeners, so I grew up in an atmosphere where it was normal to talk about gardens seriously. But it wasn’t until I was about 20 that I had a realisation that gardens are incredible large-scale, constantly changing art installations.”

From Oxford, Tim went on to work as gardens editor for Country Life and now writes a popular gardening column for The Daily Telegraph. He also acts as an adviser on gardens to the National Trust, and is founder director of the Chelsea Fringe Festival.

He asserts that his new book is for anyone interested in gardens regardless of whether they know Oxford or have attended the University.

“It used to be rather difficult and unpredictable to visit the gardens since each college has different opening hours and restrictions. But the colleges have been ‘opening up’ over the past decade. The Internet has made it easier for people to find out opening times and I thought a book would be useful.”

He continues to find the gardens an inspiration: “Each college is its own enclosed world, with its own character, architecture and idiosyncrasies,” he smiles. “The gardens reflect and exaggerate this sense of personality. While writing the book I loved delving into these worlds within the world that is Oxford. I learned a huge amount about the importance and value of gardens to the Oxford colleges.

“It emerged that the gardens are not just optional add-ons but have been integral to college character.

“The quality of the garden is also a key factor when potential Oxford students are choosing their colleges today. In fact,” he laughs, “the gardens often figure higher up than academic matters!”

Tim also intends his book to function as an introduction to Oxford’s colleges.

“I wanted to write about the architecture of the colleges as well as the gardens, because to me they are inseparable. In a way the book works as a visual guide to the colleges, only missing the interiors of the chapels and halls in most cases. I don’t think I intended to go into quite as much historical detail, but I found it all so fascinating!”

Tim was aided in his research by many local experts including David Leake, Andrew Little and Simon Bagnall, the head gardeners of Corpus Christ, Wadham and Worcester respectively: “These and other head gardeners deserve the kind of respect afforded to the professors within colleges,” he says, “because few of the academics fully appreciate how much the gardeners do.”

The book is filled with remarkable colour pictures by photographer Andrew Lawson, of Charlbury. Andrew is widely regarded as the finest photographer of gardens in England. Tim explains that for this book Andrew had been out photographing the gardens at all seasons over a period of five years.

“I have known Andrew since the mid-1990s. His ability to photograph plantings in all their complexity is unmatched, and is born of his own skill as a gardener and as a painter. The book came about partly because we discovered that we had both been at the same college. We collaborated on an article on Pembroke’s garden for its alumni newsletter, as a trial-run for the book.

“I worked closely with Andrew but I never tried to dictate precisely what he photographed. I trust his eye.”

To someone who’s never visited any of these gardens before Tim suggests that early autumn is a good time to start. And a copy of his book will provide the ability to admire the gardens for the first time, or with fresh eyes.

“I’ve tried my hardest to make the reader smile,” he grins. “My wife studied at Keble and when she read my chapter on the college she said ‘this is actually quite funny.’ That is high praise indeed in our household!”