More than just a collection of rare trees, the National Arboretum at Westonbirt has an identity and atmosphere created by its maturity and immense variety. Changing in mood with the seasons, there is always something here to delight the senses in colour, shape and beauty.
Westonbirt Arboretum lies just a few miles south of the market town of Tetbury in the Cotswolds, and covers a total area of 600 acres, providing a rich wildlife habitat and a diverse community of wild flowers amongst the trees. It is crossed with a network of over fifteen miles of paths and rides, linking glades, while carefully laid out drives, originally created for carriage rides, are aligned to provide spectacular vistas.Planted in the mid nineteenth century, in the great age of plant collecting, by Robert Staynor Holford (1808-1892) the arboretum was following the Victorian fashion for displaying newly collected trees from around the world. Holford was a wealthy industrialist, landowner, art collector and landscape enthusiast. He had re-built the grand new mansion Westonbirt House (on the opposite side of the road from the arboretum, and now a school) and started planting the arboretum in the 1850s. The first trees were planted to the north of the new ornate lodge gates designed by Lewis Vulliamy.
Today the arboretum continues to be carefully managed by the Forestry Commission with new planting each year, and trees of all ages mingle together with some of the original mature planting dating from Holford's time. The oldest tree deep in the heart of Silk Wood is a Lime estimated to be 2000 years old. The soils of the arboretum vary and support a wide range planting in different areas. The moist acidic soil of Savill Glade allows the rhododenrons, azaleas and camellias to display their riot of spring colour, while magnolias, less fussy, bloom all through the arboretum.
Trees of all sizes and shapes include the giant Wellingtonias and the Western red cedar introduced from America in the mid nineteenth century, and planted by Robert Holford. The original acer Glade was begun in 1875 by his son, George, who was Equerry to Edward VII, and the Royal family were regular visitors to Westonbirt at that time.The arboretum also displays to good effect some buildings making use of the timber. The Great Oak Hall is a medieval-style cruck frame barn, completed in the year 2000 and constructed from timber harvested from Silk Wood and other local woodlands. The restaurant is built of larch wood from the arboretum and has a 'living roof' of sedum, while the shop is built of Douglas Fir with a wooden shingle roof.Open all year, the arboretum repays a visit in any season.
At its stunning best in the autumn, the trees burst into an astonishing variety and depth of colour which lasts for almost two months, peaking at the end of October when the Japanese maples steal the show. In winter the red-stemmed dogwood, Cornus alba, gives some colour, while the grand and intricate shapes of the trees are outlined against the sky. At nightfall before Christmas, the trees are lit, turning the arboretum into a magical wonderland. Spring flowering includes flowering cherries and the handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata, introduced by the plant hunter E.H. Wilson from China a hundred years ago, while the glades of Silk Wood are carpeted with native bluebells. These are followed by golden laburnums and Indian horse chestnut in early June, which brings the trees into the full leaf and tranquil shade of summer. Do come and explore.