It was a warm spring day, and the gardens were a blaze of colour. We were surrounded by flowers, birds and – of course – trees. I was on a guided tour of Westonbirt National Arboretum, and I was discovering how much there is to know about trees and their environment.
What Is Westonbirt National Arboretum?
Westonbirt National Arboretum is one of the largest managed areas of plants in the western world, and it contains specimens of trees from every continent apart from Antarctica. It was originally the work of Robert Holford, who inherited the site in 1838 and wanted to create a harmonious landscape where he could relax and entertain his guests. He combined the then-fashionable principles of picturesque design with a collector’s instinct, gathering trees and plants from all around the world.
In 1956 the estate was acquired by Forestry England. Today it has around 15,000 specimens, with 2,500 different types of tree. There are five national tree collections, including limes and Japanese maples. The arboretum is popular with visitors but it is not just a leisure facility. It also does important scientific work, liaising with establishments such as Kew Gardens on research and conservation activity.
A Tour Of Westonbirt Arboretum
I went on a tour of the Old Arboretum, an area of around 130 acres with mature trees and formal paths. Our guides were Alan and Maggie, two of a large team of enthusiastic and infinitely knowledgeable volunteers. There is far more here than you could see in a couple of hours: they took us to the parts of the forest where the flowers were in bloom or where there was something else of interest to see (the environment – and therefore the route of the walks – changes from week to week).
We heard that the Arboretum has 146 “champion trees” – trees that are either the tallest or widest of their type in the British Isles – and that there are some trees that are endangered in their own environment. Each tree was labelled with its common name, scientific name and catalogue number.
We saw a tree that was once considered to be extinct, and a dead yew that has stayed in place because it is popular for photographs! And we learnt a lot of fascinating details, such as the fact that the earliest magnolia trees were pollinated by beetles.
Using All The Senses
The arboretum is a visual delight. The trees have been arranged to emphasise contrasting shapes, colours, and heights. Many of them were in full flower, the rhododendrons were out, and the ground was carpeted with bluebells and wild flowers.
But this is a place for all the senses. We could hear birdsong and the buzzing of insects. We were shown which plants to touch for their texture, which to smell, and which to avoid (because they were poisonous). We even stopped to taste the leaves of the Tasmanian mountain pepper, which was a bit hot and fierce. (There is a tasting on every tour, depending on what is in season, and in the autumn you can go on dedicated tasting walks.)
Something For Everyone At Westonbirt
Even if your horticultural interest is limited you will enjoy a visit to Westonbirt. Some visitors are attracted by the colours and the photographic opportunities; some make use of the running tracks; others are in search of a peaceful walk. It is easy to avoid the crowds: apart from the Old Arboretum, Westonbirt incorporates The Downs (an area of meadowland), and the Silk Wood, a massive woodland space with paths and trails.
Younger members of the family are well catered for. Entrance to the Silk Wood is via a high-level Treetop Walk, with a lookout platform and activity panels. You can pick up a self-guided family activity trail at the Welcome Building, and there is a children’s playground.
Then there is the wildlife. We saw butterflies and bees, a squirrel, and a hare running through the long grass. We were told that deer, badgers and rabbits also live here.
A Place To Return To
Westonbirt is very much a place to return to. There is far more to see and do here than you could fit into a single day. And the forest is everchanging – not just from one season to the next but from year to year, as trees are added or removed. No two visits will ever be the same.
How To Visit Westonbirt National Arboretum
- Westonbirt National Arboretum is 6 km from Tetbury in Gloucestershire. It is 20 km from Stroud, 34 km from Bath and 42 km from Bristol.
- Entrance charges vary according to the time of year (autumn is the most popular time for visitors). Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum are entitled to unlimited entrance for a year.
- Self-guided trails are available at the Welcome Building. You can also join a free guided walk at 11am or 2pm each day (except in the winter months). As well as the general tours there are wildflower and fungus walks, and tasting tours in the autumn.
- Maps showing the top sights in the garden are available from the ticket hall – these change every week or so as different flowers come out.
- There are level walks around the site, and mobility scooters are available. Have a look at the accessibility guide for more information.
- Westonbirt has a restaurant, café, and ice cream kiosk.
Thanks to Westonbirt National Arboretum for inviting me and my husband to enjoy a tour of the site.