The woodlanders

Lou Leask and her sons find a family of trees.

Catherine Stebbings
Friday 25 October 1996 23:02 BST

The venue:

An arboretum is one of the best places to enjoy the colours of autumn, and the massive collection of trees at Westonbirt in Gloucestershire is hard to beat. It's as appealing for children as it is for adults: a vast area of lights and shades, shapes and textures, open spaces and secret places.

Westonbirt Arboretum was begun by Robert Holford in 1829. More than 4,000 species were brought here, many sought out by professional plant hunters working in remote areas. The arboretum eventually passed to the Crown in lieu of death duties and thence to the Forestry Commission. The planting, nurturing and conservation continue.

The Old Arboretum, with its huge cedars, delicate maples and acers, rhododendrons, azaleas and range of British and foreign species is a majestic tribute to Holford. In contrast to Holford's formal rides, drives and avenues the younger West Silk Wood has a number of important collections; willow, cherries, Japanese maples, elms, pines and conifers.

The Visitors

Lou Leask, freelance furniture restorer, took her sons Daniel, 7, Alex, 5, and Aidan, 3.

Lou: Having recently moved back to England after six years in West Africa it is a real treat to be here for the autumn. Our trip to Westernbirt was a perfect way to enjoy the autumn colours at their best, with the added bonus of the night time floodlit walk which was spectacular and very exciting for the children.

We thought about following a circuit but the boys were off before we had a chance to consult the map; it was easier to follow the flow of the children.

We went armed with bags for collecting fallen leaves, paper and crayons for bark rubbings, and a couple of children's activity sheets, but the boys found so much to do for themselves that we didn't use them. They discovered their first bamboo "den" - a huge clump of dense bamboo resembling a living straw hut with narrow openings - so games began.

It was so nice to find a place with no specific children's play areas. Instead, the whole arboretum was like a big adventure playground, offering complete freedom. The boys could go as far as they liked and still there was more space beyond. Something children rarely experience these days.

The evening walk through the Old Arboretum was particularly special. We wandered through this immense wood, a clear moon and a string of lights to guide us. The floodlit acers and maples looked stunning, their colours intensified by the reds and yellows of the lights. The huge sculptural cedars came alive with shadows.

It could have been formally educational but the children were so keen to explore that they showed little interest in the texture of bark, the shapes of leaves and the sheer size and shape of some of the trees. As a result we didn't collect anything but a rather dishevelled bamboo cane which became Robin Hood's staff, a ghost buster, monster slayer and brother beater.

Daniel: We had a really good time. I'd never seen so many trees. I liked looking at all the different shapes and the coloured leaves but most of all I liked the bamboo dens.

We played hide and seek, crawling over and under the trees and scrambling through the thick bushes, finding special secret places. I won the race around the pond.

I saw lots of grown ups and not many children. But I feel it is more of a children's place because they can play really good games here. I think schools should bring children here for nature trips to learn about the different trees, about the ones that lose their leaves and the ones that don't, the colours the leaves change to and the different seeds and berries they have. They could learn what animals and insects live here. I have learnt a lot.

We didn't see any animals but we did find some badger sets. I think the deer, squirrels, hedgehogs and other animals probably come out at night when they can get some peace and quiet.

I think the evening was the best time to come. When the lights went on it was really magical. It felt like being out at night with jewels hanging all around me.

Alex: I found a bamboo cane. I collected leaves. I lost my bamboo cane. It was really exciting when it got dark. The bamboo dens were great for playing ghosts. I am glad I am skinny because I could get in and out of them really fast

The Deal

Westonbirt Arboretum (01666 880220) is three miles south-west of Tetbury, Gloucestershire on the A4333.

Access: There is a huge car park a short distance from the entrance. Access through the arboretum is on foot only. Paths are well maintained and accessible for push-chairs and wheelchairs. The Old Arboretum is on the level, visitors to the Silk Wood should be prepared for a short climb.

Opening times: Grounds are open every day of the year from 10am-8.30pm or sunset if earlier.

Admission: Tickets sold on admission to the car park. Adults, pounds 3; Senior Citizens, pounds 1.50; children aged 5-15, pounds 1. Free admission Dec 1-23. Free map with the ticket. Dogs are allowed in some areas but not in the Old Arboretum, Visitor Centre or Cafe.

There will be an Illuminated Autumn trail 5-8pm next Thursday, Friday, Saturday evenings.

Visitor Centre: More of a shop than an information centre but there is a video showing seasonal changes at the arboretum. It is well worth buying the guidebook for pounds l.95. If you are there for the day the children may enjoy the worksheets devised for all age groups.

Plant Centre: An impressive selection of trees and shrubs for sale with helpful staff if you need advice. Open Feb-Dec, 10am-5pm. Order service for unusual plants available.

Courtyard Cafe: A good selection of hot and cold meals served outside in the courtyard close to the Visitor Centre, with a marquee during October and November. Good home cooking; varied menu includes soup and a roll, pounds 1.95; mushroom stroganoff, pounds 3.25; and a selection of jacket potatoes pounds 1.75-pounds 2.50. Open Feb-Dec 10am-5 pm (01666 880536).

Toilets: Next to the Visitor Centre and the Plant Centre. Baby changing facilities.

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