Buildings and Grounds

Buildings and Grounds

The architect of St. Catherine's, Arne Jacobsen, designed the college both to reflect elements of a traditional Oxford college and to be an entirely modern solution to the challenge of creating an integrated environment which would be both practical and aesthetically pleasing. At the heart of the College lies a rectangular quad, its sides formed by student rooms built in the conventional Oxford 'staircase' format, its ends consisting of the Dining Hall and Library.

Unlike most quads, however, St. Catherine's is not closed off; instead hedge-lined walks lead to other buildings, and to garden areas which are planted with a fascinating variety of trees, shrubs and flowers. The whole is flanked on one side by the river Cherwell, and on the other by Merton College's playing fields which themselves border the University Parks, giving St. Catherine's an apparently rural setting which is yet only minutes away from the centre of Oxford.

Since the completion of the original buildings, a number of additions have been made. The College now has three blocks of student accommodation; a Dining Hall which can seat 350; a library; the Bernard Sunley Building which includes a large lecture theatre and a number of meeting rooms; the Mary Sunley Building, a purpose-built conference centre with lecture theatre and meeting room; spacious Junior and Senior Common Room areas; a Music House; squash courts and gymnasium; a punt house; car park.


Arne Jacobsen, the architect of St Catherine’s College, considered the garden as an integral part of his design. As such it is now a Registered Garden to accompany the Grade 1 Listing of the buildings (1994). Unlike historic buildings, however, a garden cannot be conserved in every aspect; it  must undergo constant change under the influence of the weather, the health and longevity of individual plants, new botanic introductions and (not least) the sensibility of those who care for it.
The College’s policy has been to work with the language of Jacobsen’s design, but to complement its classical austerities with a softer and more ‘romantic’ English style which has become more obvious as the trees and shrubs have matured. However, the garden retains the strong personal imprint of its designer particularly in the carefully thought through physical linking of built forms with garden spaces.
The skeleton of Arne Jacobsen’s original garden design is largely unaltered. It is dictated by the three metre grid which unifies the entire site, and is set out as a series of spaces or rooms defined by yew hedges, brick walls and covered walk ways which connect the strong lines of the buildings. Many of the original trees and shrubs have had to be replaced, and there have been significant changes to the entrance (where Sir Philip Dowson opened up in 1968 the splendid vista looking down the water garden) and in the form of the new (Stephen Hodder) buildings at the north end of the College. Some of the Jacobsen courtyards and the configuration of and balance between grass and paving have also undergone evolutionary rearrangements over the years. The garden’s abiding strengths are in its architectural qualities set against simple plantings of carefully chosen trees and shrubs. There are no extensive bedding schemes but many choice plants. It is planned to be at its best in June and October to coincide with the climacterics of the academic year.

History of the Site

The St. Catherine’s site lies on part of an island between the Cherwell to the east and an early 17th century ‘Mill Cut’ to the west.  Until just before the Second World War this whole area was still original Thames valley flood meadow. The only man-made feature intruding into this scene would have been the outline of a huge ‘V’-shaped defensive earthwork, a ravelin, each side of which was about 90 yards long, built by the Royalist garrison in 1642. The city was besieged from 1642-1645, but never suffered a major assault. The ravelin was built to defend the flour mill (now Holywell Mill and part of Magdalen College) and the ford of the river. The ravelin’s line can now be traced by following the fence boundary at the southern end of the college. No picture exists of any part of these defences, although there is a plan of 1644, but from excavations in the Science Area the ditch in front of the ramparts appears to have been about ten feet wide by eight feet deep. The ‘St. Catherine’s’ stretch of the defences was the responsibility of the scholars and it is not surprising in view of their size to read in a diary of the time that this was 'where the scholars do night and day gall their hands with mattocks and shovels'. In 1650 all the other ramparts around the city were levelled and only this section remained visible. Before the Second World War the meadow was used as a  rubbish tip, thus smothering the original Thames alluvium and obscuring the line of the ravelin. Subsequent planting operations have revealed the buried Marmite pots and sauce bottles of an earlier generation. Towards the end of the war, and for some years after, the area was used for allotments. More tipping during the building programme has raised the soil level about five feet above the flood plain; only the area around the Music House still floods and is planted accordingly.

Detailed Description

As you enter the College over Napper’s Bridge (a corruption of ‘Napier’, the name of the Catholic family that held Holywell Manor) with the mill stream running beneath, you can see on your left new buildings designed by Stephen Hodder, built in two phases between 1994 and 2005 and forming a significant new development to the north. This area contains the car park which is formally planted with Ligustrum lucidum (Chinese privet) and newly planted Betula papyrifera (paper bark birch) replacing a previous planting of Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’ that succumbed to disease in 2012. The car park is surrounded by beech hedging and decorative blocks of lavender and Sarcococca. Its western edge is punctuated by specimens of Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Sunburst’ and three Gingko biloba. In the northwest corner is a small grassed quadrangle. In its centre is a newly planted Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’ and to the west at the foot of the Punthouse (Jacobsen) two Magnolia x soulangeana. Turning right beyond Staircase 20, you pass Eucryphia x intermedia ‘Rostrevor’ . To the north east is a grassy area looking over Music Meadow with specimens of Pterocarya macroptera and three Tilia x europaea. Now turn right again towards the new porters’ lodge sited in the Arumugam building (Stephen Hodder, 2005), along the lawn designed by Hodder to pull together the old and new parts of the college by the simple expedient of extending the line of the main lawn and water garden.  Ahead of you is  ‘Unbroken Tai Chi’ by Ju Ming and to your right a line of Arbutus x andrachnoides  alternating with  Prunus x amygdalopersica 'Pollardii' ,the hybrid between the peach and almond, planted along the back wall to the car park. Looking south from the Porters’ Lodge on your right  is a Tilia ‘Petiolaris’ (weeping lime) two Robinia pseudoacacia (false acacia)and recently planted specimens of Sophora japonica (Japanese pagoda tree) and Sorbus aria (whitebeam) along with a large specimen of Garrya elliptica (silk tassel bush).

Straight ahead are the lawn and water garden in front of the original Jacobsen buildings. On your left is the Mary Sunley Building (Knud Holscher, 1982) with Rosa × odorata 'Mutabilis' trained up its west wall. On its south front is trained a fine Cercis siliquastrum (Judas tree) under planted with Ceratostigma plumbaginoides, Cistus ladanifer, Philadelphus 'Belle Etoile'.

Looking ahead down the long lawns between the Master’s Lodgings (to the right) and the Senior Common Room block (on the left) there are specimens of Tamarix pentandra (tamarisk), Cotinus coggygria (smoke bush), Ficus carica (fig) and Indigofera heterantha beside the left hand wall that runs the length of the moat.  Underneath the fig tree is a newly planted herb garden (2012), which is regularly used by the kitchens.  

The moat is nearly 190m long and when full holds up to 240,000 gallons of water. It is also home to many koi & fresh water carp that have been generously donated to the College over the years although some have fallen victim to a predatory heron. The tree by the Master’s Lodgings is an unusually large Salix babylonica ‘Tortuosa’ (corkscrew willow).  Immediately to the right of this  located in the Master’s Garden is a Davidia involucrata festooned in late May by pure white bracts like paper handkerchiefs.

Turning right towards the mill stream, you glimpse on your right, the three courtyards of the Alan Bullock Building (Holscher, 1982). In the first (eastern) court is a Eucryphia x nymansensis, and in the northern bed Acer palmatum ‘Osakazuki’. In the centre courtyard is another Robinia pseudoacacia and an Acer palmatum. In the western courtyard is a thirty year old specimen of the Metasequoia glyptostroboides (dawn redwood). On the south walls is Pyracantha coccinea (firethorn) up the front of the buildings, with beds of Euonymus fortunei   ‘Emerald ‘n’ Gold’ below. You now pass beneath a Platanus x hispanica (London plane). This hybrid between Platanus occidentalis and P. orientalis was first observed in the Botanic Gardens, Oxford, in the second half of the 17th century, by the then superintendent Jacob Bobart. It has no ‘London’ connection at all. On your left is the circular bicycle shed, with a specimen of Rosa banksiae under planted with Pachysandra terminalis. In the far right hand corner by the wicket gate is Acer platanoides ‘Drummondii’ (variegated Norway maple).

Following the road around, by the west wall to the Master’s garden, on your right is the man-made mill stream, now a tributary of the Cherwell,  that used to serve the mill house which is now within the walls of Magdalen College.

Walking south down the roadway, a beech hedge protects the path from the stream, along the bank of which are various Corylus avellana (hazel). On the opposite side against the wall of the Master’s garden are, running from north to south, Sorbus aucuparia ‘Fructoluteo’, Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Ruby lace’, and  Malus baccata (Siberian Crabapple). Further on at the roundabout island, there is a fine specimen of Acer sacharinum (Silver maple).

Turning left you now face the main front to the College and the old porters’ lodge now converted into seminar rooms. The bronze on the right is ‘Achaean’ by Dame Barbara Hepworth. Beside it are examples of Cornus controversa (wedding cake tree) with its elegant ‘pagoda’ habit and the yellow-leaved Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Sunburst’ (honey locust). Beyond are four specimens of the upright beech Fagus sylvatica 'Dawyck' (the so-called ‘Dawyck’ beech and not the misapplied Fagus sylvatica 'Fastigiata'), behind that a handsome planting of Quercus ilex (evergreen oak) & Gingko biloba (maidenhair tree).

Crossing the bridge through the old lodge you are arrive at the main quadrangle with its large circular lawn. To your left is the dining hall and to your right the library and Bernard Sunley Building. After some false starts, the tree currently situated in the lawn is Cedrus libani (Cedar of Lebanon) planted as Jacobsen specified. The other trees offsetting the quad are to the immediate left, Morus nigra (mulberry tree), to the far left is Liriodendron tulipifera ‘Fastigiatum’ (tulip tree) and  to the far right  Cercidiphyllum japonicum (Katsura tree) providing autumn colour and the scent of treacle.  Turning left you approach the Senior Common Room (SCR) garden. On your left is a good specimen of Magnolia kobus (Kobushi magnolia), on your right Paulownia tomentosa (foxglove tree), underplanted with Helleborus x hybridus. Below the west wall of the dining hall an herbaceous border with amongst other plantings, fine tree peonies and Abutilon. Near the doorway to the SCR is Chimonanthus praecox (winter sweet). On the sundial wall at the top of the garden you can see a large specimen of Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ (Nepalese paper plant).  The two examples beside it were seedlings  from the original plant. Planting between the SCR windows includes: Carpenteria californica (tree anemone), Itea illicifolia (holly-leaved sweet spire) and Acca sellowiana (pineapple guava), formerly known as Feijoa sellowiana,  and Romneya coulteri . In the SCR garden are another Cercidiphyllum japonicum (Katsura tree), Acer palmatum ‘Senkaki’, and (recently planted, 2013) Melia azederach (bead tree).Beyond the yew hedge is Exochorda x macrantha  'The Bride' and, on the gable end of the River Block,  Rosa ‘Madame Alfred Carrièrre’

Returning to the central quadrangle turn left past the mulberry.  On the south wall of the Hall is an enormous expanse of Parthenocissus tricuspidata (Virginia creeper) with its brilliant summer green and red autumn foliage. Turn left into the Junior Common Room (JCR) garden. Like the SCR garden, this also contains an herbaceous border, at the southern end of which is a Koelreuteria paniculata (golden rain tree) with attractive bronze young foliage and yellow flowers in summer. Alongside is the red Acer capillipes (snake-bark maple) the four young trees are Robinia x ambigua, a pink flowered false acacia. Also in this area are two specimen trees of Acer griseum (paperbark maple), Prunus maackii (Manchurian cherry), and another Liriodendron tulipifera (tulip tree). Planted in the beds besides the JCR windows are Exochorda × macrantha 'The Bride' (pearl bush)’ Melianthus major (giant honey flower), Abutilon vitifolium and a form of Clematis texensis

Retrace your steps and walk south, past the central lawn to the south-western corner of the quadrangle. Between the Meadow Block on your left and the Library on your right is a bed with Eucryphia x nymansensis planted among Paeonia lutea ludlowii . Beyond to the left are specimens of Mespilus germanica (medlar) and Fatsia japonica. To the right Magnolia and beneath another (unidentified) form of yellow tree peony. Next to this a fine Magnolia obovata with fragrant white flowers, sometimes followed by colourful cone-like fruit. Beyond it are specimen beds containing lavenders, bearded irises, evening primrose, hellebores and a shifting population of other interesting plants. On the lawn stand a rare specimen of Cladrastris lutea (yellow wood), Ptelea trifoliata (common hop tree) and a recently planted (2009) specimen of Halesia monticola. This vista ends with a mature Prunus serrula.

You have now reached the southern end of the Jacobsen ‘plinth’ on which are set all his buildings save the squash court, music house and punt house. At the end of staircase eight on your left is a magnificent Magnolia grandiflora  (probably ‘Ferruginia’). Beyond it is Arbutus unedo. This was cut to the ground by frost in the early 80’s but luckily regenerated. To the south east is Amelanchier canadensis with a Gingko biloba at the top of the slope to the path to the squash courts to the south. A companion Gingko was planted in 2011. Heading down the path to your left is Sorbus hybrida ‘Gibbsii’ (Swedish whitebeam), and two Liquidamber styraciflua. To the east of the squash courts are two conifers Calocedrus decurrens (incense cedar). Across the lawn looking west is Tilia tomentosa 'Petiolaris'  (weeping silver lime); the narcotic scent of its yellow/green flowers in summer attracts bees in abundance. Behind the Tilia there is a group of trees, four Metasequoia glyptostroboides (dawn redwood) handsome deciduous trees that had been thought to be extinct before being rediscovered in 1944. In the centre of these is a Taxodium distichum (swamp cypress) most famously associated with the swamps of the Florida Everglades.

Returning  to the terrace, there is a grape, Vitis ‘Brandt’ on the south wall of the Bernard Sunley Building is  This variety has both decorative foliage and edible grapes, though the fruit is full of pips. The striking red foliage of the leaves in the autumn contrasts well with the yellow brick of the building. To your left are two more Taxodium distichum (swamp cypress) and mature Fraxinus excelsior (common ash) planted along the boundary line where the ravelin once was. At the end of the terrace is a specimen of the  Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’ Group, with its glaucous blue foliage.

Turning north again by the west wall of the Bernard Sunley building, to your right is Clerodendrum trichotomum var. fargesii and to your left a young specimen of Drimys winteri and a group of Hamamelis;  further on   Parrotia persica (Persian ironwood), underplanted with Magnolia sinensis and (recently planted, 2009) Styrax hemsleyana.  Climbing up the wall of the MCR (middle common room) is Hydrangea anomela (ssp petiolaris). Going through a door to the walled MCR garden you face a bed of Rosa ‘Old Blush China’. To your right is Hydrangea villosa and Acer Palmatum ‘Sango-Kaku’.  At the top of the lawn in front of the MCR stands a large Eucryphia x nymansensis.

Emerging from  the MCR garden you face another group of trees growing in grass, Ptelea trifoliata ‘Aurea’, Prunus subhirtella ‘Pendula’,  Acer capillipes, Malus tschonoskii  (Chonosuki crab )for its coloured fruits,  and Morus nigra (black mulberry).  Turning south and heading back to towards the end of the building, is a paved area with Fraxinus ornus (Manna ash).  At the end of the moat is another specimen of Koelreuteria paniculata (golden rain tree). Go down the steps taking in the great vista down the length of the moat to your right and you pass two good forms of Gingko biloba (maiden’s hair tree) and in front of them the Quercus ilex that you saw earlier. Bear right at the music house over which climbs the rambling rose, Rosa ‘Bobbie James’.  The lower lawn behind the music house floods regularly through the winter months. Standing here with the ‘Dawyck’ beeches behind you, you will now see a form of Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Pendula’ (Nookta cypress) and to the right more Taxodium distichum and then newly planted Populus balsamifera (Balsam poplar) plus two Prunus padus ‘Wateri’ (bird cherry). To the far end of the lawn is a newly planted (2013) Cornus ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’ and Juglans regia (common walnut). Head up the steps behind the tree and this concludes your tour.