DAY OUT: Exbury Gardens

Henry Heidi and Harriett Saunders at Exbury steam railway lr
Henry, Heidi and Harriett Saunders in front of the steam railway at Exbury Gardens


By Tim Saunders

Research shows that spending time outdoors improves blood pressure, boosts mental health and can even reduce the risk of cancer. Exbury Gardens in the New Forest immerses visitors in nature and lifts their spirits.
This national treasure is celebrating 100 years since the 200 acres of prime Hampshire land was purchased in 1919 by Lionel de Rothschild, of the famous Rothschild banking family, who set about creating a horticultural delight. Known for its azaleas and hydrangeas and its springtime display, overtime this parcel of land has been divided into specific areas to showcase the beauty of plants, flowers and trees.
No sooner have we arrived we discover that the steam engine departs from Exbury Central on the hour and we only have a few minutes to spare. “Let’s go on the train,” pleads Henry (3). How can you possibly refuse? We break into a brisk dash and get into the last remaining carriage.
The steam puffs, the whistle blows and we are off. The older passengers are reminded of the trains of their youth. A delightful trip shows us a small portion of the Exbury Estate. Various metal sculptures of a gecko, a centipede and others can be seen in the landscape. On the train everyone’s mobile phones come out for photo and video taking but it is good to see that that is all they are used for. As we pass the Dragonfly Halt it is a joy to see such a variety of these creatures hovering above the water.
When we stop at Exbury North the train is oiled and the guard alights to tell us a fascinating story about how the railway came about. We learn that Lionel de Rothschild had four children, including Mr Eddy and Mr Leopold. “The Rock garden, built in the 1930s, was at the time the largest rock garden in Europe,” reveals the guard. “The rock was brought from Wales. In order to move it, some of which weighed several tonnes, the contractors built a small railway and a steam train moved the rocks around the garden.
“Mr Leopold had a fascination with steam trains. He decided that he’d like a steam railway in this garden. But he didn’t think his father would appreciate this. So being a dutiful son he went to work at the family bank in London. When he retired he pursued his idea. So he decided to build a 2ft gauge railway. The planners opposed this and it was only after the sixth rejection that the project was allowed. Mr Leopold went on the Exmoor Steam Railway and, impressed, asked them if they could build one for Exbury.” The rest is history.
Our last visit, a little over a year ago, when Henry was tiny, requiring a great deal of carrying, made for a difficult day. Thankfully, this time round he has grown up enormously, running and walking for the best part and thoroughly enjoying himself. All of which means that we do, too.
We head into the gardens and near Azalea Drive find some welcoming benches for our picnic. Here the children, thanks to the Butterfly and Bee Summer Worksheet, issued on arrival, spot a variety of butterflies including the Gatekeeper. Throughout our visit we are introduced to more such as the Small skipper, the Ringlet and Grayling.
Glancing at our map the children notice the play area so we have to go and visit that next. It’s a very pleasant summer’s day, 23 degrees Celsius, and when passing beneath the tall trees there’s always some welcome shade. It is mind boggling to think of the initial vision and the amount of work that has gone in to creating this paradise. As we head to the play area we walk beside a river and spy yet more dragonflies. Harriett spots a water boatman, too. The trickle of the water and the peaceful surroundings provide a tranquillity that can be hard to find in this busy world in which we live.
To the delight of our children we eventually arrive at their preferred destination where considerable time is spent swinging and climbing. Caroline and I are even allowed a few minutes to rest and talk on a nearby bench. “We must visit Five Arrows Gallery and Centenary Garden,” she insists. So we amble over Gilbury Bridge savouring our surroundings as we go. There’s a local art exhibition in the gallery, which inspires us all. Outside Henry spots a massive metal sculpture of an insect.
We walk past a tree, which has a delightful heavy scent engulfing the surrounding area, and is a haven for red-tailed and white-tailed bumblebees, honey bees and black bees.
Making our way through the Herbaceous Garden there are more fascinating plants including Teasels and a very tall flower, whose name I do not know, unfortunately. Just over the path in front of Exbury House, which wouldn’t look out of place in Bath, is the Burmese Bell, hanging from a massive tree. Henry, on my shoulders, is able to make it ring by using his hands and then hitting it with a stick. What a great idea.
Ahead is the delightful Beaulieu River and along the way is the Sundial Garden and Centenary Garden. Unfortunately, after this, it is time to leave. As soon as Heidi gets in the car she is asleep.
We have only really touched on a third of what the Exbury experience offers. It is possible to purchase family membership (between March to November) that allows two adults and up to three children to visit whenever they wish for £84, an excellent way to see Exbury in all its many colours throughout the seasons.
An excellent day out for all the family.

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