Westonbirt Arboretum has always been a place of seasonal pilgrimage for me since childhood. Although no longer West Country based, we still like to visit when we can particularly at this time of year.
Autumn this year has been wonderful. Last summer petered out into damp, windy days that dissolved the trees’ foliage into a soggy brown mess with minimal fanfare. This year though the weather has been kind. This year though the weather has been kind. The leaves, now they are turning and falling, are spectacular. Such as autumn as this merits a trip to an arboretum as large and impressive as Westonbirt.
This year we would be braving a half term visit to Westonbirt Arboretum for the first time -something I am having to get used to now that Roo is at school. Westonbirt itself had also undergone quite a lot of change since our last visit. The arboretum is now massively geared towards education and younger visitors. Under 5’s can take a small scooter or bike, there are family activities most days and even a dedicated app to design your own trail! I was particularly excited to visit the new treetop walkway that was opened earlier this year.
Unfortunately our initial reunion with Westonbirt got off to a rocky start. After a painfully long, slow drive to get there, I was met by queues to get in. When we did park it was within meters of the main road – something those familiar with Westonbirt will appreciate is about as far away as you can get from the ticket hall. We were grateful for Granny having the foresight to bring a picnic lunch for us all so we could avoid the cafe queues.
Instead we headed straight off to check out the new treetop walk. Oblivious to the pressing crowds, the girls absolutely loved it. They dashed from information board to information board, mugging up tree trivia on everything from the tone of violins to the extraordinary length of a woodpecker’s tongue! Beth peered through the side rungs at the tree trunks below and Roo couldn’t wait to get to the other side to explore the fantastic looking crow’s nest lookout that led up some narrow steps into a giant tree.
I wasn’t quite so impressed.The idea of a treetop walkway and the hype surrounding it had conjured up for me something a little loftier feeling, a little more natural and, well, a little more ‘tree-ish’. The treetop walkway’s modern metal rungs and choice of location, spanning what used to be the main entrance driveway up to Westonbirt, made it seem more like a cool but ultimately functional bridge designed for a city park than the exciting new approach an encounter with nature that I’d imagined.
The huge numbers of people on the treetop walkway meant a full-time job keeping tabs on the girls and disappointment for them when the queue to access the crow’s nest feature was too long. The bin overflowing with used coffee cups on the other side and the crowded designated play areas and start to the trail beyond spoke of other less welcome impacts of the new development. Gone was the secluded, peaceful vibe that had always drawn me to Silk Wood on those days when the more family-friendly trails of the Old Arboretum did not appeal. I confess to feeling a little nostalgic.
Luckily, once we had abandoned the play areas and main drag and followed our noses onto some of the smaller trails, we quickly lost the crowds. Where there were play facilties they were all natural and designed to get kids den building, exploring, balancing and getting grubby. The higlight for Roo and Beth was a slide hollowed out from part of a tree trunk. They came away with muddy bottoms and huge smiles.
The maple grove was as beautiful as I remembered and the children had a wonderful time racing around beneath the fiery drifts of scarlet leaves, illuminated by sudden streaks of autumnal sunshine and trying to catch the ‘raining’ leaves, as Beth put it. Even tiny Bear, who was just over a month old, opened his eyes to watch the light flicker through the leaves and enjoyed his unscheduled alfresco nappy change and feed!
At one point Beth and I followed a different path we thought would link up with Roo and Granny’s. We ended up losing them for the best part of 45 minutes! My phone reception during that time was zero. Despite the frustration of retracing our steps with a little walker whose legs were beginning to tire this lack of modern day communication made smile. In today’s world and no doubt a mere few hundred meters from hundreds of other people enjoying the same autumnal scenery, it is apparently still possible to get lost in the woods!
We made our reluctant way back to the bridge as the day was drawing in. Despite being tired the girls had to be persuaded. They could have stayed playing in the leaves all day. The crowds had thinned out and we got to finally climb the wobbly crow’s nest, enjoy the views a little more and take in the trees. We had run out of time to explore the Old Arboretum but we’d had a wonderful afternoon of fresh air and gorgeously colourful treescapes. The Old Westonbirt was still there – you just had to explore a little further afield to find it.
I still love Westonbirt Arboretum. The autumn colours were as spectacular as ever and we all had a wonderful day out. Our trip has fueled a whole host of autumnal crafts and activities I’ll be sharing on the blog here soon. I am also genuinely thrilled that so many families are heading to the woods for a day out, even though the weather was far from perfect. Westonbirt Arboretum is doing an impressive amount to engage children with nature and I suppose the increase in visitor numbers is merely testament that this new approach is working. It’s just a shame that in doing so it makes Westonbirt feel less intimate and infinitely more commercial albeit for a good cause.
In future though I will be making sure to make our visits earlier in the day and avoid where possible the peak times. In the meantime, the quiet beauty of the Oxfordshire beech woods is calling…
For more information on visiting Westonbirt Arboretum, please visit their website.