The Secret Garden

In 2003 I became the Assistant Warden at Bridges Hall.  One of my responsibilities was to help maintain the walled garden that had been manged by the Hall since 1966.  The garden is surrounded by a high Victorian brick wall on three sides with a low wall and trees to the south.  The garden structure was given by a series of large yew hedges, there was a shrub border along the northern wall and a rose garden very overgrown with perennial weeds in the centre.

Being a keen but somewhat radical gardener, one of my first actions was to dig up and weed the moribund rose bed and start growing vegetables.  The second action was to persuade the university to allow me to demolish and remove the old and rather rotten lean-to glasshouse and replace it with a new one that had toughened glass panels so that it was safe for pyublic use of the garden.  Over a couple of years the garden developed into a social space for the hall staff and senior common room who shared in its care.  Once the major works had been completed it was then used for graduation events with the students.  On the closure of Bridges Hall the garden soon began to look neglected, the gates securing it decayed and some of the plants and features were taken.


The pergola with Wisteria floribunda and grapes.

It was with great excitement that I heard about the student eats project from Justin Groves last year and had the opportunity to discuss the walled garden as a possible site.  Justin, with his usual limitless drive and desire to make things better for all managed to bring together all the relevant parties around campus and get written agreement to use the garden for this new project to encourage students to grow their own vegetables under the Student Eats Botanika Society.  Justin’s hard work on this and other projects got him recognition as Student Volunteer of the Year by RUSU in 2012/13.  The amazing work done by the Student Eats project and the student volunteers who continue this project has now been featured in the Reading Chronicle.

Garden Panorama

Vegetable plots where once the Bridges Hall graduation picnics were held.

The garden was in quite a state after almost 5 years of neglect and had turned into a jungle, especially with the wisteria and grape vine rapidly covering many of the structures. However, during this time the garden has turned into a wildlife refuge which the Student Eats project has capitalised on, building small ponds, leaving log piles and long grass areas which are both beautiful and biodiverse. The Student Eats project has been run entirely by volunteers with a fantastic 400 hours of volunteering over the last 6 months, impressive considering university commitments and the appalling weather. When access to the walled garden was agreed by the University the volunteers spent much of the late (and long) winter clearing the garden of excess vegetation.  There was, quite literally, a mountain of it, and clearing the walls of thick layers of ivy, although some has been left for the Holly Blue Butterfly, was a major challenge. The next stage was to clear the original vegetable patch and continue to remove turf from other areas (garden map below).

garden design

Justin’s plan for the Student eats garden

In addition the team also cleared the area once used by the kitchen staff of Bridges Hall, by cutting holes in the Yew hedges to gain access and then turning it into a dedicated fruit growing area.  Very importantly, water has been installed, wheelchair access provided and money was used to buy fruit trees, bushes, gardening tools and materials to repair the pergolas and build raised beds.  The celebrate the great success of this development the Vice Chancellor visited the project on 5th June to look around and see the impact of a handful of students with a hanful of cash.

Admiring the Broad beans in full flower.

Admiring the Broad beans in full flower.

Justin says “As of June the fruit and vegetables in the garden included: multi-coloured (Fiesta) sweetcorn, a selection of weird and wacky courgettes and squashes, purple french beans, strawberries, multi-coloured carrots and tomatoes all of which are growing strongly.”

Garden in June

Justin with the cucurbits


Justin and the volunteers have really given value for money to the University Annual Fund, Local Food Initiative and the NUS Student Eats Initiative.  They are hugely grateful to these organisations for helping fund this project, as well as the continued help and support of RUSU who helped secure the initial funding, along with the Nursery Manager at the start of the project. Justin would also like to thank the extraordinary effort by the volunteers, as without them this project would not have been a success. It is hoped that once more the garden can again be used for events, whilst also providing interesting, tasty and sustainably grown foods.

There is, however, lots of work still to be done, so if you would like to help please visit the Facebook Group, visit our website or walk over to RUSU on Whiteknights Campus and discuss the project with the Volunteering and Social Enterprise Coordinator.

Peace returns to the Secret Garden

Peace returns to the Secret Garden

About Alastair Culham

A professional botanist and biologist with an interest in promoting biological knowledge and awareness to all.
This entry was posted in Meetings/Events, News, Plants. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.