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Art in the Garden

A large metallic sculpture of the millenium bug

In addition to the exhibitions of local artists’ work frequently displayed in our Visitor Centre, the Garden itself serves as a canvas which plays host to some unique pieces of artwork. Hidden within the pathways, trees and gullies of the Botanic Garden reside several sculptures for you to discover. This juxtaposition of art and nature offers a distinctive touch to garden, with children and adults alike enjoying exploring these sculptures.

Prince Bishops’ Garden

The Prince Bishops Garden was originally commissioned by Durham County Council and designed by Sunderland artist Colin Wilbourn for the Garden Festival at Gateshead in 1990, where it won three awards. Sir Peter Ustinov, then Chancellor of the University, opened its new home in the Botanic Garden in May 1992. It consists of three fountains and a cascade, fed from the mouth a gargoyle. The gargoyle is a copy of the Sanctuary Knocker, from the North Door of Durham Cathedral. The three fountains represent the three main rivers of County Durham, the Tyne, the Tees and the Wear.

A large sculpture used to exist in the centre of the garden, called "In the Shadows of the Past". Unfortunately, this sculpture has had to be removed, as the wooden figures forming it were rotten. The space in front of the fountain that they formerly occupied is now a popular terrace overlooking the Garden. Some of the wooden figures have been restored, and now reside in the glasshouse.

The figures were all carved from Elm trees which were felled because they had Dutch Elm disease. Each figure took approximately twenty to thirty days to carve (this does not include planning and thinking time!), using a chain saw to 'rough out' and then chisels and mallet. The sculptures meant to represent the historical background of County Durham. Each of these figures had a steel 'shadow', with a pattern of fretwork cut into it. This pattern, at a first look random, allowed instead a particular piece of landscape to appear if viewed from the right place. The view related directly to the figure to which it was attached. In this way each carved figure had on his back the mark he had left behind, which is still apparent in the environment, like a shadow of the past.

The six figures and their shadows represented the following historical figures: William of St.Calais (Bishop of Durham from 1081 to 1096, his shadow shows the Cathedral today); Ralph Lord Neville of Raby (Representing one of the main families of the Counties nobility, his shadow shows Raby Castle where his family lives); John Cosin (Bishop of Durham from 1660 to 1672 and he who built the library at Palace Green, his shadow shows the Chapel which he also built at Auckland Castle); George Stephenson (Pioneer of the railways, his shadow shows the railway viaduct at Chester-le-Street); A member of the Shafto Family (Important colliery owners in the County, his shadow shows the pit head and winding gear at Seaham); Sir James Laing (Representing ship building on the Wear, he is shadowed by an image of Sunderland shipyards).


Designed and constructed by Frosterly artist Peter Sales, this metallic Heron (called Harry) was presented to the garden by Sir Kenneth and Lady Calman in July 2000. The Heron now replaces the sculptures formerly resident in the Prince Bishop’s Garden, as he stands sentinel over the Garden’s pond, eternally waiting for fish. There is a second Heron (called Hermione) in the ponds by the monkey puzzle tree., again presented by Sir Kenneth and Lady Calman.

Millennium Bug

Inspired by the Millennium, local artist Graeme Hopper spent 8 months creating a giant bug and her offspring. It has been always very popular with visitors, with kids and adults a like who have been enjoying exploring this strange life-forms which have become since its installation a very much loved and distinctive feature of the garden.

Vessels of Life

In October 2008, the Vice-Chancellor of the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Professor Ramesh Goyal, visited Durham University for the first time to help facilitate the establishment of research links between the two Universities; an agreement that was formalised by a Memorandum of Understanding being signed by both institutions in 2009. To support this collaborative agreement a Distinguished Fellowship in the form of an artist in residence at the University’s Institute of Advanced Study and Grey College was offered to MSU Baroda under the Institute’s 2009-10 ‘Water’ theme. Because of Baroda’s reputation for creative and performing arts, Professor Higgins, Vice-Chancellor of Durham University, felt that the ideal output from this Fellow would be a piece of public art for the University and for Durham. The university was delighted when the Maharaja of Baroda, Ranjitsinh Gaekwad, agreed to accept the Fellowship.

The artist

Ranjitsinh was a distinguished artist who held a graduate and a postgraduate degree in Fine Arts from MSU Baroda and who has worked at the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts in London, where he won several awards, including the David Murray Scholarship for landscape painting. The result of his Durham fellowship was a sculpture, designed by Ranjitsinh for the Botanic Garden, entitled “Vessels of Life”. The Institute of Advanced Study’s water theme was generously sponsored by Northumbrian Water. The sculpture was installed in the Botanic Garden on the 25th November 2009. Ranjitsinh Gaekwad died in 2012, however, a part of his legacy survives on the east side of our Botanic Garden.

The symbology of water

Ranjitsinh used this opportunity to convey some important messages about the centrality of water to the existence of life on this planet. The eight copper pots are representative of the clay pots used by women in India and elsewhere to collect water. Water is always in short supply in India and the pots are carried by rural women to collect water, often carrying them for very long distances in order to supply water to their homes. The pots are also used at weddings and have symbolic significance, particularly of fertility. Stacked one on top of the other, Ranjitsinh sees the pots as representative of rivers in India that for thousands of years have provided water to the Indian people and their surrounding environment, but that are now, as a result of misuse, drying up. The animals depicted on the sculpture are in danger of becoming extinct; they are resting on these vessels in the search for water and for life. The water on which they and humans are so reliant is draining out from the tap at the bottom of the sculpture and is symbolic of the rivers that are disappearing in India and elsewhere in the world. The petals at the base of the sculpture are representative of the lotus flower, an aquatic plant with wide floating leaves and bright aromatic flowers which grow only in shallow waters. The lotus is the national flower of India and holds great symbolism in many Eastern traditions. Amongst other things it is seen as representative of water, tranquillity, purity, strength, rebirth, fertility, knowledge and enlightenment. It is particularly fitting, then, that the sculpture be placed in the Botanic Garden’s oriental collection. Ranjitsinh is keen that visitors viewing the sculpture are reminded of the preciousness of water; that water is something to which everything on this planet has a right and therefore of the great need to look after it in order to preserve it for future generations.


The piece, by artist Ian Hamilton Finlay, is of green oak, the initially enigmatic numerals indicating a 'method' - the type of musical or mathematical composition employed by bell ringers. The successive numerals give directions for 'change ringing', with the permutations giving the place of each differently tuned bell in the sequence. The reference is both to the omnipresent cathedral with its bells, and to the bells - tubular flowers- of the numerous foxgloves which surround the post. The work sets out to compliment the pleasingly variegated nature of the gardens with their mixture of wild and formal views. Unlike a sundial, however, it alludes not to the regular succession of the hours of the day, but to the episodic bouts of ringing which punctuate the ecclesiastical calendar.

Basil Bunting Inscription

The poet Basil Bunting is synonymous with literature in the North East. At Durham University the Basil Bunting Poetry Centre fosters study and research on the Northumbrian poet, and on poets associated with him through the region, or on the modernist/post-modernist tradition. In honour of this connection, an inscription of one of Bunting’s most entertaining and illuminating quotes is displayed in the Botanic Garden.

Download a Garden Map

Visitors’ map of the Botanic Garden, including accessible routes.

Download a Suggested Route

Follow this self-guided tour that takes in the entire Garden.

Download the Quiz Trail

Our most popular activity, the Quiz Trail sign-posted offers questions suitable for children as they tour the garden.

Download the Science Trail

A guide to the sign-posted Science Trail, providing detailed information on the flora and fauna that inhabit the Garden.

Download the Crossword and Word Search

Our second children’s activity aims to make science in the Garden more accessible to children, with the answers to these activity sheets being found along the Science Trail.

Download the Nature Trail

Suitable for young children, this activity teaches about the wildlife in the garden, allowing kids to colour in pictures of animals as they find them hidden in their natural habitats around the garden.