Westonbirt Arboretum was created by two generations of the Holford family at a time when Victorian passions for plant hunting and pictureque landscapes were at their peak. What were once common, wood, and chalk down lands were fashioned into an ambitious showcase for the family’s taste and considerable wealth.
Today, the 600 acre estate is managed and conserved by the Forestry Commission along much more scientific lines. It ranks as one of the finest collections of trees in the country. Every year it attracts well over 300 000 visitors, many of whom flock to see the six week long spectacle of autumn colour.
I admit I’d forgotten this when we jumped in the car on Sunday morning. We arrived mid-morning, which is peak time, especially when the weather is warm and sunny. Finding ourselves first parked miles away from the newish entrance and visitor centre, then swept along with the throng across the really new Treetop Walkway heading for Silk Wood, I wondered if we’d made a mistake. We are such quiet country mice ….
Last time we were here, bright and early on a wet Saturday morning in early June, we had the wonderful 300 metre long walkway all to ourselves.
This time our progress was inchingly slow, as the dogs were delighted to be making as many friends as possible. We were intent on heading towards one of our favourite areas, the Japanese Maple collection.
Miraculously, the beautiful cathedral like glade, sheltered by towering larches, was deserted, perhaps because it is still rather early for colour from the carefully nurtured 400 acers it contains.
We always linger here for a spot of wistful window shopping.
Beyond this point and following the ride called Oak Avenue the character of the woodland changes dramatically. Gone are the clusters of artfully arranged rare and exotic trees, in their place is burgeoning native woodland rich in wide ‘weedy’ margins, and so, rich also in wildlife. Back in the late spring I stood transfixed watching a hedgerow teaming with goldcrests.
This time it was the swathes of rosebay willowherb with their corkscrew seed heads glinting in the sunshine that caught my eye. It has good autumn leaf colour too.
Where the unregimented avenue meets Waste Drive you can see how the modern management of the woodland works, here on the periphery of Silk Wood are the species trials plots containing hundreds of trees raised from seed or propagated by cuttings. Plus, mountainous piles of by-products from the never-ending tree work.
Conveniently close-by is the impressive Woodchip Sterilisation Unit with its mighty state of the art, temperature controlled bays that ensure the mulches are free from diseases like honey fungus.
Silk Wood is quite simply doggie heaven, well behaved dogs are welcome off lead so the place is full of friendly wagging tails. All of which which made it a brilliant place to socialise our dogs when they were young.
This final stretch of the walk towards The Downs has an excellent collection of mature shrubs, small trees, plus conifers – among them a wide range of continus and shoulder high sweeps of sculptural silver leaved sea-buckthorn. Throughout the arboretum, information boards are nearly as numerous as benches, it was news to me that native sea-buckthorn is so good for the skin that Russian Cosmonauts used it to protect their skin from solar radiation. Personally, I’d rather use it as a salve than eat recipes construed from the bitter bright orange berries😉.
The combinations look great at any time of the year but for me on this perfect early autumn day one in particular stood out. The delicious scent of candyfloss wafting from the closely planted group of a dozen or so young Cercidiphyllum has the same allure to me as a Bonio to the dogs, off I went for a closer sniff. As you might expect, Westonbirt excels in the provision of precise botanical labels, in this case, it turned out to be the very same C. magnificum Roy Lancaster has written about in this month’s RHS The Garden magazine.
We have a little, lone Cercidiphyllum japonicum growing on in fits and starts at home, this year the leaves on its upper branches have been looking so crumpled and parched that I’ve wondered if it hasn’t missed the light shade and shelter of the big blue cedar we felled in February. Westonbirt have the katsuras facing the morning sun, then protected by an arc of tall conifers to the rear. They say, planting over a gravel path where the fallen leaves are crushed by passing feet heightens the aroma.
In between are a mixture of medium height trees with wide canopies including a very beautiful veteran Acer Japonicum or Full Moon Maple with its swooning branches topped with a crown of dazzling colour.
It reminded me that, once ablaze, the star attraction for thousands of visitors will be Robert Stayner Holford’s Old Arboretum (which is sited opposite Silk Wood). Then the air near the old visitor centre will be heavy with the smell of bangers and burgers sizzling away in gourmet catering vans. Maybe next time I shall take a spin around the dog free zone while one man and his dogs partake of a bacon butty for breakfast?