The Arboretum is a wonderful world of trees and shrubs.
There are 18,000 of them from all over the world, producing 600 acres of beautifully landscaped countryside. This makes Westonbirt one of the finest tree collections in the world today. However „
Getting a decision out of my relatives is always a challenge so I was a bit nervous about how we'd fill a long weekend away with my parents, my sister and her partner last October. We were staying just outside Cirencester in the south of the Cotswolds and we tried to make sure that everyone got to pick something to do at some point during the weekend. After my husband spent the first evening in our self-catering accommodation snoring on the sofa whilst everyone else watched 'Autumnwatch' my sister declared that her choice was a trip to Westonbirt Arboretum. I think she'd done her homework and knew it was nearby and hadn't just been inspired by seeing the arboretum on television.
It was mid-October and the day was beautifully warn and unseasonably sunny and so it seemed ideal for a walk around the woods. I'm no tree expert and could count the trees I can confidently identify on two hands, possibly with the odd digit to spare. My sister by contrast is a botany buff and could no doubt have bored for England on the topic. It's best not to get my step-father started on what he thinks of Leyland Cyprus or to ask my husband about the time he fell off our hedge. It's fair to say that levels of tree interest were pretty varied.
Westonbirt is managed by the Forestry Commission and supported by the Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum and is the 'National' Arboretum. I guess that means it should be the biggest and best though I don't have too many such places to judge it against. Just in case anyone isn't familiar with the term, an arboretum is a collection of trees, often used for research purposes. Visiting one is pretty much like taking a nice walk in the woods but the difference is there are many different types of trees than you'd expect in a regular wood or forest. The collection was started back in the 19th century and contains over 3000 different species and 16000 individual trees.
Westonbirt is on the A433 just a few miles from Tetbury. Other towns in the area include Cirencester, Stroud and Chipping Sodbury. For those coming from further afield it's about a 20 minute diversion off the M4 or M5 motorways. We rolled up at about 11.30 on Saturday morning and were astonished to see that the car park was absolutely packed. We wondered if there was some kind of special event going on to cause quite so many people to have been inspired to go and visit. It was possibly going to be the last good weekend of the year before the autumn and winter really set in and it seemed as if everyone in a 50 mile radius had woken up with the same inspiration to visit the arboretum. Had I been with just my husband, I think the sight of quite so many people would have had us turning on our tails and heading somewhere else but with 6 in the party we were committed to go ahead.
~Mum Bags a Bargain~
Entrance prices vary by season and by the age of visitors and autumn is the most expensive season. Adults pay a whopping £9 per person with 'concessions' (disabled, students and over 60s) at £8 and children over 5 charged £4 each. The little ones go free. My mother has a disabled car parking permit which she waved at the ticket seller as we arrived. The seller was really kind and friendly and asked Mum whether any of us was her 'carer' since that person could go in for free. "Oh yes" said my ever independent but bargain seeking mother, "that'll be my husband". The four of us thus got in for £26 total whilst my sister and her partner had to pay £18 for just the two of them. We also benefited from being allowed to park closer to the entrance. Considering that by the time we left in the middle of the afternoon people were parking so far away that they'd have been exhausted before they saw a tree, this was a substantial benefit.
~Dogs and Trees - a Great Combination~
The arboretum has two main areas - the Old Arboretum which contains (as the name suggests) the older trees and Silk Wood which has more recently planted trees. Dogs are only allowed in the Silk Wood side of the arboretum so if you're taking your four legged best friend, you'll not have too much choice about where you go. On this particular day, it seemed like everyone who had a dog brought them along. It was a bit like going to an outdoor Crufts and I fell in love dozens of times every hour and stopped to chat to lots of very happy bouncy dogs.
I can't tell you how many acres or hectares it is - and if you're anything like me, you'll probably find it hard to imagine such size anyway - but I can confirm that the Forestry Commission recommend taking about an hour to 90 minutes to go round the Old Aboretum and 2 hours or so to cover the 'Silk Wood'. We were there for about two and a half hours and covered both sides in that time.
Maps are provided and these suggest the best trails to follow depending on the time of year. We obediently set off into the Old Arboretum following the path markers marked 'seasonal trail', mostly because my sense of direction is pitiful. Unfortunately this meant we were part of a large pack of tourists and opportunities to get any photographs without dozens of people in them were few and far between. I love a good walk in the woods but I love it because it's a way to get away from people. At times it felt like being in an IKEA store on the first day of the sales as people jostled their way around the trails.
The show off trees of the Autumn trails are definitely the acers and many younger trees have been planted amongst the older 'show' trees to bring colour and interest at this time of year. The Old Arboretum is well laid out for people with wheelchairs or baby buggies and is almost entirely flat, making it perfect for those who are not so good on their feet. By contrast, Silk Wood is a bit more rugged and rougher underfoot, especially if like us you take the short cut across a field with a steep drop followed by a steep climb. Although the trees are a little less varied and the paths less well laid out, I preferred Silk Wood because there were a lot fewer people and a lot more dogs. Highlights on that side include the National Japanese Maple Collection for which we rushed the second half of our visit and were a little disappointed that they were mostly quite young trees. Take your map with you as it's easier to get lost in Silk Wood because it's much bigger than the Old Arboretum.
In between all the walking and looking at trees, you'll no doubt have some other needs to fulfil. Be sure to have a pee when you're in the central area where all the shops, restaurants and food stalls are, since once you get in amongst the woods I doubt they'll appreciate al fresco peeing against the trees (and there are so many people you shouldn't expect any privacy if you try it). My husband and I shared a veggie burger and a bottle of Coke from a food stall but otherwise we kept away from the restaurants and shops and decided not to fight our way into the information centre.
I didn't hate our visit to the arboretum but I would certainly have enjoyed it a lot more with a lot less people so if I were to go again, I'd aim for a weekday outside the holiday season.
Last year saw the BBC Autumnwatch programme base their studio at The Great Oak Hall at Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire for a couple of weeks. While this was on I would rave at anyone I could find about how they should watch it and go there - but I was a little biased because you see I got married at Westonbirt last year.
I've lived in the west for a long time, moved here when I was 4, have done some moving about all over the place but have always returned here and in all that time I had never even stepped foot in Westonbirt Arboretum. When I met my husband on the bus back in 2009 we became firm friends and I knew he had been to Westonbirt and he had shown me photographs on his phone of the wonderful colours on display during the autumn with the maples and acers. I've always loved autumn and the amazing hues and tones and richness that abounds in that season. In late 2009 we got together and talk soon swiftly turned to marriage and one night while joking away he said to me 'Lets get married at Westonbirt' and we both thought for a moment about how lovely that would be (me still not having been there at this point) and then we thought - 'hold on, do they even do weddings?' thinking best not get our hopes all set on something that could never be! But after a quick look online to the Friends of Westonbirt website we found that you can indeed get married there. http://www.fowa.org.uk/venue_hire/weddings_and_civil_partnerships
The Great Oak Hall - the setting for Autumnwatch's studio is the venue for civil ceremonies. It is an absolutely gorgeous building, expertly crafted and can hold about 80 people. They have a dedicated wedding planner (currently a lovely lady called Lucy) who will talk to you about your big day and help everything run as smoothly as possible. They provide you with a host who will welcome your guests and can help with a little of the organisation on the day - ours was a gem of a woman called Sylvia. Westonbirt do have their own catering service if you wanted to have the reception there too, or even just a champagne/canapes reception before heading off somewhere else. We opted not to do that as we were on a budget.
Needless to say once we had pencilled in our big day with them we came together to have a wonder around exactly a year before the wedding (at the end of September) just at the height of the autumn spectacle and we were not disappointed. With over 17 miles of pathways you need a whole day if not longer to really take it all in, which is what makes it such a great place to come back to. It has a section - Silk Wood, which you can take dogs into. A fantastic collection of japanese maples, limes, walnuts to name a few. They have brilliant little hidden activity areas for children, from a little hut which kids can make themselves out of planks of wood, wooden tiles etc to balance beam obstacle courses.
There is a childrens play area near the entrance along with a restaurant and cafe area. The toilets are always well maintained and the staff are friendly and helpful.
The entry into the Arboretum varies during the year. Currently the winter (Dec to Feb) entrance fee is just £5 for adults, £4 for concessions and £2 for children over 5. From March - Sept entry goes up to £8 for adults, £7 for concessions and £3 for children over 5 and during the busy autumn period the prices go up by another pound.
Although it may seem a little pricey, I think if you get there as early as you can and make the most of the whole day, you certainly get more value out of your pounds!
Westonbirt also host regular events, such as Treefest, Enchanted Christmas (where portions of the arboretum are lit up beautifully) and offer a range of regular events (check out the website for details - http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/infd-5y4f5k) as well as concerts - for instance this year they are having Will Young and Plan B in concert. They also have a garden centre for shrubs and trees which has a really lovely shop - this can be accessed separately to the main arboretum if you just want to go there rather than paying to get into the arboretum.
If anyone is thinking of an interesting different wedding venue this year I can highly recommend Westonbirt Arboretum. We got married on the last day prior to the busy autumn season - they stop doing weddings during this time, but right at the end of September (weather/global warming permitting!) there is still plenty of autumnal colours to be seen. It is cheaper to marry there in the week than at weekends, you get a very lovely personal service from the staff and you have a fantastic venue that people will remember. All your guests get free entry to the arboretum on the day, we made our day pretty relaxing and encouraged people to bring sensible shoes and make the most of it and have a wander around. Plenty of fantastic photo opportunities and some really cherished memories.
Westonbirt is certainly a regular place for us now, in the past two years I would say we have been about 4 or 5 times and each time we have really enjoyed it and we will certainly be no strangers there.
If there's one thing that defines the British countryside during the seasons, it's our beautiful trees. Regardless of the time of year, our distinctive countryside is a mass of colours and shapes created and presented by a seemingly endless variety of trees. At the risk of sounding a bit bonkers, I think there's something wonderfully spiritual about trees. Large, established trees that are older than anybody in your family seem to stand majestically, guarding the secrets of countless generations that have passed, and countless more to come.
One of the best things about a day out in the countryside, of course, is that so much is free. Woodlands, forests and country parks are accessible to all and, very often, cost nothing to get in. But you can't begrudge a penny of your entrance fee at Westonbirt Arboretum. Quite simply, it's just a beautiful, peaceful and therapeutic place to visit. Everybody should visit Westonbirt, at least once, and preferably once for each of the year's four seasons.
Westonbirt (otherwise known as The National Arboretum) occupies 600 acres of Gloucestershire countryside. Sadly, it's not really accessible by public transport, and you'll have to take a trip out in the car. It's nestled deep in the village of Westonbirt, directly opposite a historic school, some fifteen minutes from the M4. Leave the M4 at junction 18 and head towards Stroud, exiting onto the A433 and following the signs to Cirencester. It's slightly trickier and slightly farther from the M5 (maybe five minutes more) but in either case, the Arboretum is signposted from the appropriate motorway junction. Car parking is reasonably plentiful, although at peak times it does fill up a bit and the car park is essentially a field, so the surface can be a bit lumpy and bumpy. One word of caution here - Westonbirt is very popular with dog walkers and there seems to be a constant barrage of our canine friends hurtling around the car park, so keep your speed down.
The Arboretum is arranged in two distinct zones.
The Old Arboretum was originally conceived in the 1800s and is a dog-free zone. The Old Arboretum is home to literally thousands of species of trees, some of which are very rare, and is arranged in a relatively formal fashion. Paths and walkways are arranged around these gardens, and all the trees are labelled in a structured manner. All samples are named (both scientific and common names) and a unique number can be used for visitors to track species of interest. This number is also used by the park management team to manage the vast array of trees - it's worth bearing in mind that this is a huge and rare scientific resource, as well as a place of public interest.
The Old Arboretum is very gentle and relaxing. My grandmother particularly enjoys this part of the park, as the ground is flat and easy to navigate and there are plenty of benches on which you can rest and take in the surroundings. A route map is available from the gift shop, which guides you around the various trees and shrubs that are of interest. Particular favourites with all seem to be the enormous redwood trees and the ornamental monkey puzzle trees. It's a very curious place, strangely peaceful at all times and if you wander right into the depths of the trees, you can feel as though you are the only person present, even on a very busy day. The Old Arboretum is delightful in the summer in the lazy heat of the early evening, at that time when you only really have the energy to stroll, or bask in the sun's rays.
The newer part of the Arboretum is rather less formal and generally more appealing for families and dog walkers. It's much larger, with trails and walks to guide you through the various features, but more importantly, it feels like natural woodland. Although very carefully managed, it's less tended than the Old Arboretum and hides more surprises. This part of the park includes Britain's oldest known tree (rather less inspiring when you actually see it, in all honesty) as well as acres of walks and areas to explore. There's a much greater emphasis on 'getting involved' here, so there are regular demonstrations and workshops of woodcrafts and skills. The trails are of varying lengths and difficulties. Some are longer and hillier than others but most make their way to the centre of the park where a natural avenue cuts the old park in two. This side of the park is very popular with picnics; there are countless beautiful places to stop and have something to eat and drink.
This part of the park seems more seasonal than the formal arboretum. The autumn colours are world famous and crowds flock to see the blaze of reds and yellows occupying every branch. It's also lovely in winter, particularly during snowy or frosty weather when the structure of the tree is more visible and more dramatically positioned against the sky. Spring is probably the most uplifting season, as the weather starts to warm up and everything becomes fresh and green. In summer, the Arboretum provides a welcome shelter from the heat of the sun, with the large, leafy canopies keeping visitors cool. At any time of year, it's a photographer's paradise!
The Arboretum has a reasonably busy programme of events. Christmas is very popular, with early evening walks through the trees accompanied by festive lights and all sorts of other treats. There are also concerts from reasonably well-known stars (Keane, James Morrison and Simply Red are all scheduled for 2010). But it's the smaller events that are generally better regarded. There are wildlife days, when experts will take you on a tour around the park and the Dog Day (complete with mini-Olympics) is huge fun. There are also regular, sponsored charity walks to suit all abilities and ages.
The Arboretum has a small café, which will probably be expensive for most tastes, but offers a reasonable range of ethical and organic snacks. Needless to say, environmental issues are close to the Arboretum's heart, so all the litterbins are actually recycling bins and there's a strong emphasis on interacting with and supporting the needs of the Arboretum. My Dad goes mad for the plant selection too, with some very reasonably priced shrubs and plants, which (he swears) are pretty much guaranteed to thrive.
All in, it's a pretty wonderful place - but it's not cheap. Admission is £8 for an adult, £7 for concessions and £4 for children. For a family day out, it can therefore be reasonably expensive considering that's just the cost to get in and park. The Arboretum closes at dusk, so, naturally, during the summer, you can spend far longer in there and during the week, the ticket office seems to close fairly early, so if you just fancy a stroll for an hour or two, you can quite often get in for nothing. It should be noted, too, that a major public footpath runs the length of the newer side of the Arboretum and can be accessed without paying any admission at all.
You've probably guessed that this is one of my favourite 'days out' in the UK. I love the fact that the whole Arboretum seems very different at intervals during the year and you can keep coming back and almost feel as though you are visiting somewhere different. It's not cheap, but you can, at least, see where some of the money goes and it is exceptionally well maintained At the risk of sounding slightly gloomy, I've asked that my ashes be sprinkled here. I can't think of a more beautiful, romantic, spiritual place in the world and as final resting places go, it has everything. But please don't wait until you're dead to come here.....
Westonbirt Arboretum and garden centre is a wonderful area of trees. There are 18,000 of them from all over the world. The first was planted in 1829 and of course they are still being planted today. Westonbirt is in the Cotswold country side and you can wander along the 17 miles of waymarked trails or simply just sit and admire some of the oldest, tallest and even rarest trees and shrubs in the world. It is well known for its great displays of rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias and wild flowers. Dont think though that you can only visit in the summer or that the winter is boring here. To see it all after snow is wonderful. It is open every day of the year. Westonbirt has a good visitor centre and country gift shop where you can buy things at a very reasonable price. There is also a plant centre and the staff will help you plan which plants and where to plant them. You dont have to worry about taking a picnic although of course this is the ideal place as there is a courtyard cafe there. Some of the events they have are concerts, open air plays, festival of wood, illuminated trails, and of course at Christmas a beautiful woodland grotto.