Rob Cowen: A Noah's Ark of conifers just an hour south of London

Tales From The Trees

The last time I stood beneath a coast redwood, it was high summer in the wild Pacific north-west of America. Sun dappled its soft needle boughs. Birds flitted between higher branches, sweetening the air with song. But that majestic grove held an air of tension too: I was deep in bear country.

Today, the dangers are few. I stroke the hairy, orang-utan-orange trunk knowing the only threat is being caught in an icy rain shower before my wife and I can wheel our baby back to the car park. Not that we're in a hurry. Despite the leaden sky, Bedgebury National Pinetum is a riot of greens, a veritable paint chart for the colour. Everywhere the eye moves reveals a new enchanting shade. From the black-green fuzz of yew to smoky, blue-green Scots pines floating over a glittering ridge.

The park-like pinetum is vast, covering 320 acres in the kind of sedate manner you'd expect of a county famed for being England's garden. Buggy-friendly boulevards and boardwalks lead us from open sweeps of mist-shrouded cypresses to narrow, Narnia-like avenues thick with firs. Bedgebury is a Noah's Ark of conifers, preserving over 10,000 specimens, including rarities on the edge of extinction in the "natural" world.

Its creation owes a debt to an unlikely source: smog. In the 19th century, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew was deemed unsuitable for a new conifer collection. London's loss was Goudhurst's gain. Even in this weather, its marshy ground, hidden lakes and valleys are teeming with wild and not so wild life. A toddler runs past us fresh from a game of hide and seek. "I've seen a heron," he says, wide-eyed with wonder. I add his sighting to a tally that includes a green woodpecker sheltering in a sequoia. I never thought I'd see that an hour's drive from London. Even with the soft hum of the A21 occasionally drifting through the trees, it's easy to forget we're not deep in wild forest.

Experiencing the joy of woodland doesn't always mean strapping on hiking boots. As rain lances the landscape, shaking the trees into movement, we enjoy a front-row seat with hot chocolates and not a bear in sight.

* Bedgebury National Pinetum (Bedgebury Road, Goudhurst, near Cranbrook, Kent, TN17 2SJ) is open all year except for Christmas Day. There is no entrance fee but an £8.50 charge for parking a car. For more information visit www.forestry.gov.uk/bedgebury. The picturesque village of Goudhurst is close by. Stay overnight at the delightful 14th-century Star and Eagle Hotel (01580 211512; starandeagle.com). Double rooms from £98 per night, including breakfast.

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