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Westonbirt Arboretum

The business of looking at trees

Refreshed, we plunge into Silk Wood to pay Westonbirt's oldest tree, a 2,000 year old lime, a visit. The atmosphere is markedly different in former working woodland. In contrast to the Old Arboretum's tree menagerie, this is a tree safari.

Say ‘Westonbirt’ to just about anyone in the west of England and you’re rewarded with two things; 1) a dreamy sigh and 2) a promise to pay the place another visit as it’s so beautiful. Expectations are, therefore, high. We turn off the A433 and instantly join a queue of cars waiting to get in, park up alongside throngs of families and make our way in, peering up and wondering if these are the trees we have come to see. The visitor centre, shop and rather good restaurant connect the Old Arboretum to the right (a squarish patch of semi formal woodland cut through with Victorian avenues) and Silk Wood to the left (no relation to the 1983 Meryl Streep movie of the same name). While all this bustle and commerce isn’t quite the isolated rural idyll I was expecting, I needn’t have worried. The Arboretum’s 17 miles of paths and over 600 acres are more than enough to get lost in. Once we’ve eaten our sandwiches, we rate the whippets in order of cuteness and set off in the direction of the Old Arboretum to get down to the serious business of looking at trees.

The Old Arboretum has Victorian grandeur down to the roots of its tilia europaea. It was established during the heady days of the early 19th century when gentlemen botanists plundered an ever-broader empire in search of new specimens. Robert Holford (1808-1892) planted the Arboretum on an estate inherited from an uncle so fabulously wealthy, it’s rumoured a wheelbarrow full of gold was found forgotten in a cellar. It’s basically Holford’s vision that survives to this day, including some of his original imports like a rather impressive Monterey Pine. His son George continued his work but died without an heir in 1926 leaving the estate to be broken up and left to deteriorate. The Arboretum got a new lease of life in 1956 when all 240 hectares were handed over to the Forestry Commission. The words ‘Great Plant Hunter’ look like an odd reprint these days, but all around us, the leafsome magnificence is evidence of the commercial power and celebrity status of botanical Goliaths such as David Douglas (who established the Douglas fir in Britain among 200 other species) and Ernest ‘China’ Wilson. Their leafy booty was awaited with breath more bated than anything we reserve for Gaga or Rowling’s latest offering. Thankfully, the Victorian edges have softened over the years and the trees are stars of the show. Favourites are the naked pines with a distant frizzle of needles that look like they have been drawn by a three year old, the tree that looks like a tree dressed up as a tree (trust me, you’ll know it when you see it), and the giant loopy sequoias that are delightfully and unexpectedly spongy to the touch. We swing back for a caffeinated pick-me-up via an entertaining encounter with a specimen sporting a curtain of spiky foliage spookily reminiscent of Whitney’s do in I Wanna Dance with Somebody.

Refreshed, we plunge into Silk Wood to pay Westonbirt’s oldest tree, a 2,000 year old lime, a visit. The atmosphere is markedly different in former working woodland. In contrast to the Old Arboretum’s tree menagerie, this is a tree safari. Wilder and more relaxed, children squeal and hounds pant through the falling leaves. We follow signs to the ancient lime with anticipation, rounding a corner and …. oh! What’s this? The lime isn’t a tree at all but rather a thicket of stems no wider than my arm. I read the plaque and learn about coppicing and feel somewhat sheepish about my visions of a tree with a trunk broad enough to be encircled by 20 men, boughs buckling the flagstones of heaven and roots cracking the ceilings of hell.

Stinging with naivety and footsore from two hours tramping, we seek out the National Japanese Maple Collection. This, and the Acer collection, is the sole reason many come to Westonbirt on an autumnal pilgrimage in search of a fiery display to rival New England’s. When we arrive, the leaves are just turning. We lay out our waterproof jackets on the damp grass, break out the cereal bars and all is right with the world. Laying back, I squint up into watery sunshine and think, “Well, isn’t this nice.” I would also label the Arboretum impressive, informative, interesting and inspiring, but, for me at least, its niceness is the best bit. As I ponder how nice it is to spend the day walking, chatting, playing and being among such beautiful trees, a thought crosses my mind: Those flat whites were actually uncommonly good – is three in one day too many?

Identifying trees
Most specimens are identified and labelled with black plaques attached to the main trunk or low hanging branches including everything you need to know. The tree’s ID number is top left, while the year of planting is top right. The Latin name is included on all plaques while the common name only appears on those trees that haven’t been ‘adopted’, so you might need to hunt around for an unadopted specimen if you don’t know your fagus from your quercus. The bottom left displays plant family and bottom right, country of origin. If you stumble across a blue plaque, you’ve found one of Westonbirt’s 80 plus ‘champion’ trees that are the tallest or largest of their kind in Britain.

Other Arboretums around the world
Trsteno Arboretum, Trsteno, Croatia: An aqueduct provides water to this ancient arboretum close to Dubrovnik. Founded in the 15th century, this Italian style garden and arboretum survived earthquake, war and urbanisation. Its oldest inhabitants are two ancient planes over 500 years old just outside the arboretum proper.

Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts: Part of Harvard University and established in 1872 when the university’s fellows inherited part of the Arnold estate. One of the largest and best established of North America’s arboretums, it forms the second link in Boston’s so-called Emerald Necklace.

The National Arboretum, Canberra, Australia: The 2003 bushfires that ravaged the landscape around Canberra provided an opportunity to fulfill Burley Griffin’s original 1911 plan for Australia’s new capital city. This work in progress grows yearly towards its vision of 100 forests and 100 gardens.

Wuyi Mountains, Fujien Province, China: This ‘natural arboretum’ and botanical hotspot is a world heritage site covering almost a thousand square kilometres with flora varying according to altitude. Botanists have been carrying out research in Wuyi since at least 1873.


Westonbirt Arboretum
Westonbirt Arboretum
Westonbirt Arboretum
Westonbirt Arboretum

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