On a fine Spring day, the lawns of Exeter University’s main campus (Streatham) are dotted with students, relaxing and chatting, their books abandoned for a brief respite while they take in the fresh air and the beauty that surrounds them. For the campus of Exeter University is indeed one of the most beautiful in England, described by The Times as the ‘best-gardened campus in Britain’. But it is not just for students – anyone can visit and explore the grounds and the buildings, as I did earlier this week.
My visit started with lunch in the majestic Reed Hall (see main pic), an Italianate mansion nestling in the most beautifully-landscaped gardens. After a delicious meal with friends in the palatial dining room, and coffee in the more intimate cafe afterwards, I was all set for an afternoon exploring the grounds of the university.
The campus is a registered botanic garden with a National Collection of Azara (a South American evergreen shrub) and many mature trees, shrubs and plants from all over the globe, dating back to the 19th century when the grounds were laid by the famous Veitch family of nurserymen. Since then, successive horticulturalists at the university have continued to cultivate new and exotic plants, making the grounds a real haven for those interested in plants and gardening.
Complementing the landscaping, and enhancing the beauty and interest of the architecture, are 36 sculptures that make up Exeter University’s Sculpture Walk. You can wander and see what you find, or pick up a leaflet from the library (or on-line) and make a more systematic tour. The full walk, including indoor and outdoor sculptures, takes a full two hours.
There are sculptures by well-known British modernists like Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, as well as those by local living artists like Ed Crumpton and Peter Randall-Page. Perhaps the most powerful sculpture is the one that was erected anonymously overnight in 1989 by a group of students to commemorate the tragic events in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on 3rd and 4th June of that year. The imposing metal figure, with lance held ready for battle, commands the landscape, and every June wreaths are laid against it in tribute to those who have died fighting for the freedom of speech and cultural expression.
Not all are traditional sculptures – included in the walk are mosaics in the Islamic Centre by Elaine Goodwin, and Alexander Beleschenko’s digitally-printed glass panels of the recently built Forum at the heart of the campus (below), a stunning mix of indoor and outdoor spaces that recalls ancient Rome yet is thoroughly modern in its conception.
Some of the indoor sculptures can only be viewed through glass (unless you are in a guided tour) like Peter Corlett’s Five Days in May, (above right) a piece was produced during the artist’s residency in a month that saw an unusually high amount of rainfall. I love the incongruity of the fibreglass figure, in her polka-dot bathing costume, trapped inside the foyer of the Senior Common Room. I imagine it a metaphor for how students are feeling in the summer months with exams looming and beach days on hold!
Streatham Campus, with lakes, parkland, woodland, landscaped gardens and sculpture walk, must certainly be conducive to the serious business of studying. But for those of us just visiting, we can fully immerse ourselves in art and nature, and enjoy the surroundings free from the worries of exams and grades.
Settle yourself in a holiday cottage near Exeter and have yourself a cultured outing to somewhere you didn't know was public.
By Mary Costello (of Molly and the Princess blog)
All image credits to Mary