Angela Rixon and Peter Crook report from Dorking U3A’s April day out to Exbury Gardens in the New Forest
Jean Williams and her team arranged our April outing to include tickets to ride the narrow-gauge steam train around the grounds of the famous Exbury Gardens.
The cloudy morning gradually brightened as the coach travelled into Hampshire and after a couple of hours we trundled across cattle grids into the New Forest National Park, passing grazing native ponies and making way for a herd of impressive white cattle.
On arrival at the gardens a guide boarded the coach to give an introduction to the history and layout of the 200-acre Exbury estate.
Exbury was first purchased in 1919 by Lionel Nathan de Rothschild, a keen collector of rhododendrons and azaleas, which he excelled in hybridizing to satisfy his creative streak. His sons and grandsons continued in this tradition, resulting in the achievement of many prestigious horticultural awards, and to this day the estate remains under the stewardship of the Rothschild family.
With 22 miles of pathways to explore within the vast woodland garden complex, our party soon dispersed in different directions, either towards the formal gardens, the Beaulieu River walk, the Jubilee Pond and woodlands, or to the station. Carpets of bluebells and primroses lit up some of the woodland glades and a vast meadow of daffodils provided bright banks of colour.
Promised displays of rhododendrons and azaleas were sadly missing as the massed bushes were still in tight bud, though the occasional blaze of purple and crimson from some of the Japanese varieties brightened the winding pathways. Magnificent magnolias and delicate cherry blossom braved the chilly breezes, and even without massed floral displays the visit was made more than worthwhile by the size and variety of the splendid trees; pride of place surely being awarded to the great American pine soaring 123ft into the azure sky.
The rock garden, said to be the largest in Europe, was constructed with stones imported from the same quarry as those used to build Stonehenge. The boulders appear as a natural outcrop arranged by a giant hand, and the meandering pathways through the area reveal a myriad of fascinating features, including aloes – and mosses and lichens provided a paradise for nature photographers.
This outstanding feature can also be enjoyed from the comfort of the unique steam train ride. Lionel de Rothschild always dreamed of having his own railway, so commissioned the layout of a 12½in-gauge track encompassing the rock gardens and passing through woodland glades and across meadows, with bridges, signals and two stations.
On the 1¼-mile journey, which takes 20 minutes, today’s visitors travel in small carriages towed by one of the three steam engines built especially for the Exbury line.
All too soon it neared 4pm, time to board our coach for the journey home, but some of us had wisely factored in the opportunity to sample the exquisite New Forest ice creams, or perhaps to purchase a souvenir shrub from the plant shop.