skip to content



Being wrapped in silence is a familiar feeling when entering a library but with the UK’s first lockdown in 2020, silence fell like never before in the Cambridge University Library. Reading rooms emptied, staff were furloughed or working from home, and just a few individuals would enter each day to perform essential checks on the library building.

As footfall fell, the grounds around the library took on a new character. Management of the library’s manicured lawns had remained largely unchanged since the building opened in 1934, but all this suddenly altered with the pandemic. Lockdown meant that mowing was suspended and, shortly afterwards, the library community began to notice biodiversity springing back.

As lockdown eased and business resumed, the challenge was to find ways to accommodate, or even improve, the best aspects of the rewilding that had taken place. The process was a learning curve for us all, as we tried to respect the vision of the architect behind this Grade 2 listed building and, importantly, the expertise and opinions of our gardener who has single-handedly kept the grounds in order for the best part of a quarter of a century.

With much advice from places the Cambridge Botanic Garden, and very patient suppliers, we began to understand that successfully managing land for nature requires deliberate action and not just inattention. We were looking for a process to maximise biodiversity while also providing a space that functions as an important recreational area for staff and visitors.

We always recognised that there would have to be some areas of manicured lawns, for recreational purposes, to respect the architect’s vision for the tectonics of the building, and in places for more mundane reasons (such as the locations of Fire Assembly points). Nonetheless we have been able to diminish the areas of grass monoculture by over 50%. In the areas where we have been keen to promote wildflower growth, we started by sewing in the autumn of 2020 a plant called yellow rattle whose job it is to parasitize the root systems of the endemic grass in those areas, and create the space for wildflower varieties to compete.

Wildflowers were then sewn in these areas in the spring. Rather than sew them widely and thinly, we decided to heavily scarify and sew multiple small patches. The hope being that in this and coming seasons, the wildflower varieties will have the strength to consolidate, expand and ultimately link these areas up. So far this tactic seems to be working. Lastly, we have planted a new border of mature lavender and hebe, which also provides us with some additional colour and scent in the area.

It’s been a thoroughly rewarding experience for us all and if anyone has any questions about this project, or the suppliers we use, please do contact me.

Text and photography by Simon Halliday

Deputy Facilities Manager, University Library