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When is an Arboretum Like a Swedish Furnishing Store?
Westonbirt Arboretum (Gloucestershire)
Member Name: koshkha
Westonbirt Arboretum (Gloucestershire)
Advantages: Great Place
Disadvantages: Far too many people - and rather expensive for a walk in the woods
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.
Summary: Nice, but much too busy for me.
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