Shady adventures at Westonbirt Arboretum

In a flight of spontaneity, I find my car involuntarily turning towards the brown signs that lead me to Westonbirt Arboretum. Turning into the carpark, I was instantly glad I had come.  Trees are truly magnificent. Their dazzling shapes, presence and personalities, and the cool, stippled light they provide.  It is a steamy hot July afternoon and I can’t wait to wander amidst their shade.  Here at Westonbirt there are 18,000 trees and shrubs to find and I am going to meet a few of them.

My tree quest begins in the Old Arboretum, an arena of giant, theatrical mature trees planted by a wealthy enthusiast, Robert Stayner Holsford who, in 1829, envisioned his own mortality and planted the carefully chosen selection as his memorial.  Drawn in by this stately avenue of diversity, my gaze first comes to rest underneath Quercus Rubra; a giant of oaks.  Its boughs spread high and wide with streams of sunlight tripping gently through its large scalloped leaves.  It reaches skyward in direct competition with its closest neighbour, the towering black pine whose dark greenyness is home to a family of goldcrests that flit and sing like tinkling glass.

My footsteps lead me past beeches, willows, cherries and chestnuts, miniatures and giants, feathery foliages and architectural wonders, and then they come to rest beside Platanus Orientalis, a plane tree to you and I, with its flaking, aboriginal bark and bright hand-like leaves that sit proudly on boughs so large they curve in large waves towards the ground. I stand beside its trunk and look up and up again to its summit.


Just above the ground, small heaths, meadow browns and ringlet butterflies skitter past me.  “Sorry”, they say, too busy, can’t stop”.  They are too caught up in the sweet smell of the fragrant Ligustrum (privet) that cluster around the path.

I follow their fluttery path to the Cotinus coggygria, or smoke tree, which is in full performance today.  Fine feathery wisps of flowers tinged pink in the sun’s spotlight; misty and delicate against the sea of blueness behind it. Beyond, the pines stand still and stately and I linger within the snarly shapes of the ageing Cypress copse reminiscent of more exotic climes.  A few more footsteps and I am amidst the delicate, elegant Acers that flutter whimsically in the breeze; each leaf a work of fine art.

Remembering the old copper beech I used to play under as a child, I eventually come to rest within the red hues of this one.  Tall, stealthy, dark and bold.  Inside here the light dims and the air is cool. Beneath its spell, the understory is strangely green; a morphing tree of great extreme where blackbirds flit to escape the intensity of the afternoon heat.

My next encounter is with a paperback maple with its red, flaky bark that gives way to fine transparent branches that drip with dainty leaves and fronds of boomerang-shaped seeds. In a childlike whim I pick one off and cast it into the blue sky to watch it helicopter in the breeze.  Suddenly I am aged ten again with a whole world ahead of me.


As the seedhead hits the ground, I fall back to reality and saunter slowly on, I am drawn to the celebration of light that is the old birch, Betula ermantii whose bark shreds like ribbons from a trunk at least two metres in dimension.  Above me is a canopy adorned with tiny triangular leaves that glitter in the shifting July heat.  I sit a while under this light-strewn shade.  How I love old birch trees.  I would gladly take this one home with me.

Ending my adventure in the Old Arboretum, my feet come to rest under the weeping silver lime, strident, evenly heart-shaped leaves that flow like water towards the ground; its tiny flowers hanging like chandeliers beneath its shapely boughs.  What a journey this has been.  I wonder about Robert Stayner and his crew of explorers and plant collectors.  What adventures they must have had in their mission to create this astounding collection.

Finally, I make my way over to the Westonbirt tree-top walk and towards the 2,000 year old small-leafed lime; one of the oldest trees in Britain.  It stood here when the Romans first arrived.  What a world it has beheld.  The lime owes its longevity and appearance to its long association with man who created its circle of eighteen stumps and stools with traditional woodland skills handed down generation by generation.  Rather than reaching upwards, the tree steps outwards filling the space around it. Without doubt there are fairies within its kingdom.  Listening carefully to their singing, I can hear them calling me inside its ancient empire.  Amidst the leafy walls, sun beams and tiny sun circles dance on its floor; now a carpet of yellow leaves shed in the scorching heat.  Blackbirds, nuthatch, chiff-chaffs and blackcaps make their presence felt whilst foxgloves cling to its many old stools and stumps.  I ponder the woodmans’ hands that have played a part in this circle of ancient life.

Leaving the magic behind, I meander back to the car, so glad that I have made their acquaintance and so glad that I stopped at Westonbirt.  I shall return here again in the autumn for another conversation with these most beautiful collection of trees.

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