31 October 2015
Commando, the keeper of the map, knew exactly where he was taking me and, as usual, I was following blindly, enjoying the show of hydrangeas and the crunch and scent of the dead leaves beneath my feet. After a while I could see water sparkling through the trees. We’d reached the Beaulieu River, which borders one side of Exbury Garden. Through the branches of the oaks we could see small sailboats and the hazy trees near Bucklers Hard on the other side of the river.
Exbury House was requisitioned in 1942 and used as HMS Mastodon in the planning, arming and training of the D-Day landing crews. There was a sign near the water explaining this. For many of the men and women who took part in the D-Day landings, this view would have been the last sight they had of England, or so the sign told me. The thought of women landing on those beaches was something I’d never even considered but it seems they did although information about them is hard to come by. Certainly there were women there. British women were parachuted into France before D-Day to act as intelligence agents and there was at least one woman amongst those brave men on 6 June 1944. A female journalist called Martha Gellhorn stowed away on a hospital ship and came ashore disguised as a stretcher bearer. The women of the Red Cross, supplying food, water and other necessities were there too and the nurses of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. They may not have been in the first wave of troops and they weren’t there with guns but they risked their lives all the same. It seems a shame that their efforts and sacrifices have been largely forgotten.
Beside this interesting sign was a large stone bearing a plaque in remembrance of the sailors and Royal Marines of the British Royal Navy who lost their lives during those terrible hours. This was originally set into the Allied Forces Memorial at Arromanches at Gold Beach. Possibly I even saw it there when we were in Normandy visiting the beaches. When the memorial was replaced in 2002 it found its final resting place here at Exbury where it all began.
After standing for a moment reading the signs and thinking about those men and women we strolled along the leafy trail beside the river in thoughtful mood. Through the oak trees along the shoreline the river seemed peaceful and it was hard to imagine the urgency of those far off days when the place would have been filled with troops and landing craft preparing for D-Day. A tree, half fallen, it’s rootball ripped up but still somehow tenuously clinging, had been saved by the trunks of other trees nearby. It seemed a good metaphor for those landings somehow.
Soon enough the riverside walk turned away from Beaulieu River and the salt marshes and we climbed a gentle slope through the woods. The trees here were mostly oak and maple and the trail was thick with their leaves. As usual, it wasn’t long before Commando was way ahead of me, mostly because I kept stopping to take pictures.
When I spotted gem studded puffballs, lycoperdon perlatum, beside the path I got even further behind. For me these were a rare find, although I’m told they’re common in fields, gardens, woods and even along roadsides. Apparently, they’re also edible when young but I wasn’t about to test that theory. When mature puffballs explode and release their spores when touched and closer inspection revealed that one of the mushrooms did have a hole on the side. Whether this was caused by the release of spores or by something eating it I couldn’t tell. Either way I left the other alone to let nature take its course.
There was some running to catch up and, a few minutes later, we’d reached Lower Pond or Bottom Pond, depending of which guide you read. The water was murky and part of the pond was roped off where workmen are cleaning it and securing the concrete linings. In early November the gardens close for winter so I suppose this is the ideal time for maintenance work. We carried on across the stone bridge but, with the water so low, there wasn’t much to be seen.
Now we were skirting the edge of Daffodil Meadow where thousands of bulbs have been planted since World War II. Obviously, being autumn, the hosts of golden daffodils were nowhere to be seen but there were red berries to add a little colour to the green.
Soon enough the maples were adding to the colour. We came upon a whole group of them with leaves in brightest red and orange. Its hard to believe that most of this autumn colour is there all the time but we just haven’t been able to see it. The brilliant yellow and orange is actually the natural colour of most leaves but, during the spring and summer, the deep green colour of chlorophyll masks it completely. The trees use chlorophyll in photosynthesis, allowing them to absorb energy from light but, as the weather gets colder, the chlorophyll is broken down and the nutrients stored in the roots until spring. As the leaves lose their chlorophyll we begin to see the yellows and oranges that were there all the time. Towards the end of summer the sap cells of the leaves begin to produce another group of pigments, the anthocyanins. These give us the bright reds and are brightest in cold bright autumns.
This was where we got our last look at the river and headed off into the trees. Amongst them was bitter orange, poncirus trifoliata, filled with downy fruits. The little bitter oranges were still green but, even when they ripen and turn yellow, they’re too bitter to eat although some people make them into marmalade. Edible or not, they were the first I’ve seen growing outside in England.
With all the stopping for photos I was getting further and further behind even though Commando was dawdling along, at least for him, and kicking at leaves. Despite this I couldn’t help myself. The leaves were just crying out to have their photos taken as were the blue green lichen growing on the bare twigs. In the end I had to concede defeat and run onece again to catch up. Sometimes I wish he’d just wait for me.
Still, I shouldn’t complain because, when I did catch up I discovered the kicking about in leaves had all had a purpose. He’d discovered some interesting fungi. There was a whole group of them growing beside the path and, when I got closer, they looked like stylised flowers rather than fungi, with convex centres, wavy edges and deep splits. A lot of Googling hasn’t helped much with identifying them although they could be Clitopilus. Whatever they were I liked them and I was glad Commando found them.
A few minutes later he’d done it again and this time I was pretty sure I knew what I was looking at. For all the world it looked as if someone had been peeling satsumas or tangerines and scattering the peel amongst the leaves. I’d read about orange peel fungus on New Hampshire Gardeners’s blog and now I thought I was seeing it. Crouching to look thought I wasn’t quite so sure. For one it didn’t look quite as orange as I expected, although I couldn’t remember the photos I’d seen as much as I remembered the name. Once again I resorted to Google and I think I was right to think I was wrong, if that makes sense. Now I’m almost convinced that what I saw was Hydnum, or Hedgehog fungus. Of course I could be wrong.
Just when I thought all the fungi were over, Commando came up with more growing amongst the fallen rhododendron leaves. These were fairly unremarkable, small and brownish and I think they were probably waxcaps. Even so I took a photo because he’d gone to the trouble of pointing them out so it would have been churlish to ignore them. These were the last we saw because, a few moments later we were back at Gilbury Bridge and our walk in the garden was almost over.
We’d had a wonderful adventure in this enchanting garden although we hadn’t seen everything by any means. The garden covers two hundred acres after all and two hours of wandering about was never going to be enough time. Perhaps I’ll come back in spring for another look.