Swansea's flowerpot men

April 3, 1998

Everything in the university garden is still rosy, says Ted Nield. Shame about the rest of the estate

Some of the happiest moments of my undergraduate life that were not spent in the Victoria Arms were in Swansea University's Botanic Garden. I passed hours there and took it all for granted. Does not all academe have groves? It all seemed perfectly natural.

The garden's main feature was that it was almost entirely deserted. A pretty pergola stretched the length of it, opening out midway into a square with park benches. As the sun warmed that paved square, I would wonder what attractions I was missing that kept my contemporaries away.

Most of the arts faculty was in the bar, discussing Rimbaud (or Crossroads). Scientists like me were where I probably should have been - in a practical, pulling the quills out of Gallus the Fowl or measuring extinction angles in amphiboles. Others were in the library, maybe wondering, as often I did, why the sniffing person opposite did not blow his damned nose.

Sometimes I wondered if I was the only person who knew of the garden's existence. Other people dragged their heels behind the professor as he tried to locate Ginkgo biloba. Others had traipsed in gangs to the greenhouses to find the oat coleoptiles they had dosed with gibberellins a week before. Why were they not here, soaking up the sun to the murmur of distant lectures?

And where were the public? That question was easier to answer. A notice said, plainly, that the garden was open - and, moreover, at no charge.

However, this notice was cunningly overhung by willows and in any case stood well inside the main gate, so that no members of the public were ever in much danger of seeing it. And if they did, its resemblance to one of those forbidding signs that once sentineled the entrances of properties belonging to the Ministry of Works would have scared them right off. Small wonder then, that the beds of salvia, vinca and yucca were untrammelled by the feet of the unwashed. Apart from the listless band of gardeners, three other people used the garden - a thousandth of the student and staff population.

On the faculty, there was Quentin, whose research involved watching pollinating insects as they visited flowers of various colours. Yes, it was filthy work, but someone had to do it, and Quentin was the man. God, I envied him.

Then there was Lionel, a red-bearded, rustic chap, who converted part of the garden into a snake enclosure as part of his PhD study of the adder. He could occasionally be seen treading very gingerly about under the chicken wire. Lionel subsequently became a media naturalist. No doubt his hours in the snake-pit served him well during his dealings with the BBC.

Then there was Beauregarde. Beauregarde never mixed. He mostly hung around the Union, but could sometimes be found sitting in the garden eating a cheese pastie and wearing the expression of a startled panda. Beauregarde was a three-cylinder person who only ever fired on one. I have no idea what became of him, though he once sued the university for brain damage after his head was shunted between two stage apron-boxes that he was helping the porters to carry. Since no doctor could determine whether his brain had been damaged or not, the case failed.

Like the cast of The Herbs, apart from the green overalls who pruned and tended and scared the rabbits, we four peopled the garden. The trees soughed in the onshore breeze; at high tide the sea sucked at the nearby shore and the rabbits attended to what Richard Adams called silflay in a book that was just going out of vogue at the time. Even Elements of Metamorphic Petrology seemed readable in that paradise, and I bet I learned more sitting there than anywhere else.

This place of peace still exists, and I do not doubt that its role has been questioned. It earns no income. Even the notional public visitors get in free. The wheelbarrow operators presumably expect to eat.

But it has survived, and remains one of those things that makes life bearable as opposed to merely possible. This nicely embodies the difference between education in an old and a new university. Yet, to judge by attendance, it was bloody useless to everyone except Lionel, Quentin, Beauregarde and me. Sadly I suspect the benign neglect lavished on it by my contemporaries only added to its value.

In later, sadder years it was my lot to travel to many universities in the United Kingdom, some of which enjoyed even more lavish landscaping. I went there to talk to vice-chancellors and PR officers about coping with cuts, doing more with less, and presenting smiling, positive images in the teeth of fiscal misery.

And, over those dark years, I noticed a growing sense of unreality creeping on me.

True, the figures looked worse year by year. The government provided ever-diminishing support. Recruitment and retention, they said, were disastrous. Academic career structure was victim to short-termism and casualisation. Research infrastructure was collapsing. Indeed, all objective evidence - for such it claimed to be - suggested that civilisation as we knew it was hurtling headlong down the plughole.

But - where were the weeds? Did the salvia and the vinca and the yucca suffer too? It seemed not. Gardens like the one I loved so well remained tended.

Jungle did not encroach. No United Kingdom university - during my watch, at least - was ever rediscovered in the bush, lost to knowledge like a latter-day Ankgor. Yet surely, if the situation were really dire, would not someone have nipped gardening in the budget?

If this thought crossed my mind as a paid advocate of the system, had it not also crossed the mind of some visiting minister? Imagine: invited to view the desolation being wrought by the government's policies, he steps from the wrong side of his official maestro into a bed of luscious antirrhinum. Would not the plants speak louder than the plaints? Whatever ills beset universities, il faut cultiver le jardin.

I am now convinced that if you wish to determine the true financial state of your institution, do not waste time with the annual report and accounts.Throw a metre quadrat into the botanic garden. If weeds outnumber cultivars, apply elsewhere. My suspicion is you will stand more chance of lassoing a gardener.

Ted Nield is science and communications officer for the Geological Society of London.

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