24 October 2016
So far this autumn has been decidedly subdued so, when Commando suggested a trip to Exbury Gardens today, I wasn’t exactly hopeful. We last visited in Autumn 2015, just after we returned from Canada. Then, the trees might not have been as startlingly bright as those in Toronto, but they were beautiful all the same. This year I had the feeling everything would still be green. I was wrong…
Maybe the autumn fairy came in the night and sprinkled colour while I wasn’t looking, or it could be because the wonderful gardens at Exbury were planted with seasonal colour in mind? Whatever the reason, we’d barely entered the garden before our senses were assaulted by a riot of colour. As ever, the maples were at the centre of it all with their flame red leaves. The underplanting of hydrangeas added contrasting pinks and purples, with a few splashes of starry white for good measure.
As we strolled slowly along the winding paths we discovered some of the maples had decided brilliant gold was a better colour while others had opted for coppery hues. Around every corner we seemed to find a new delight with puddles of colour decorating the ground as well as the branches and the odd leaf fluttering down around us.
When we approached one beautifully bronzed tree, Commando noticed something strange lurking between the branches at the base. It looked like a jar of some kind so we went to investigate. What we found reminded us that Halloween was just around the corner. The jar, labelled Bone Dust, contained a curious green gloop and a tiny human skull. Either there was something very odd going on in the New Forest or we’d stumbled on some kind of Halloween prank. Little did we know what lay ahead…
We walked on, wondering who’d left the jar in the crook of the tree and if there would be any more elsewhere in the garden? Before long the jar and its contents had been forgotten, overshadowed by the beauty of the greens golds and reds all around. These stunning gardens, belonging to the Rothschild family, are considered some of the finest in Europe and cover two hundred acres. Obviously, we wouldn’t be able to see everything in one afternoon but Commando, who was in charge of the map, had a plan to lead me through the parts of the garden we hadn’t seen last time. Pretty soon he’d found the rock garden.
Steps made from chunks of stone led us down into a shallow bowl containing the largest man made rock garden in Europe, covering two acres. Sadly, autumn is probably not the best time to see this part of the garden. Built in the 1920’s and 30’s by Lionel de Rothschild, the majority of the trees are coniferous so autumnal hues are few and far between. In spring the rocky outcrops are bursting with pieris, dwarf rhododendrons and spring bulbs.
Even so, there were odd clumps of cyclamen, some late flowers on a yucca and one hidden spray of rhododendron flowers that hadn’t yet fallen. Besides these, the shapes of the different shrubs and trees and the interesting, moss covered rocks, made for a pleasant stroll.
Beyond the rock garden we came upon the tracks for the Exbury Steam Railway. The 12 1/4 inch gauge railway offers visitors trips around the north east corner of the garden and I was worried about getting too close to the rails. Commando, who’d sensibly looked at the train timetable, assured me it would be some time before the next train passed by so, feeling a little nervous, I followed him along the edge of the track. We hadn’t gone very far before we came upon some grinning skeletons sitting at desks reading books. In normal circumstances they might have been scary but one was wearing sunglasses and the other a trapper hat. Something about that made me chuckle. Obviously we’d stumbled upon a Halloween trail of some kind.
On the other side of the tracks the field beyond the trees seemed to have a witches coven gathered in it and, hanging in the trees, there were skulls, lots of skulls. Further along a witch on a broomstick was hovering beneath one of the trees. Thankfully, I’m not of a nervous disposition, although she did make me jump. We carried on along the side of the train tracks, slowly getting used to the peculiar, zombie like creatures we kept bumping into. A few looked as if they might once have been members of staff, or were, at least, wearing their old clothes.
One tall pine had a rather beautiful copper centipede climbing it and a stopped to take a photo. It wasn’t until later, when I was going through the photos, that I realised I’d also captured a vampire bat hanging from its head. Nearby, under an old oak tree a mass of skulls on poles might have been a warning but we ignored it and carried on. Perhaps they belonged to victims of the giant spider we found near the railway bridge a little way along the track.
The bridge was our cue to leave the railway line behind and go back to the authorised trails. Commando, the keeper of the map, said there was an ancient tree, the Doomsday Yew somewhere nearby. A tree that has been standing since the time of the Domesday book in 1086 sounded like something not to be missed so I happily followed along. On the way there was some glorious autumn colour to slow us down, along with a couple of level crossings where Commando shouted “train,” when I was half way across. This made me jump more than any of the scary creatures we’d seen along the railway track, although, by now I should be used to this trick because he plays it whenever we cross a level crossing.
When we finally came upon the sign for the Doomsday Yew we also found a sign warning us bees were nesting in the tree. We walked ahead cautiously, listening carefully for buzzing sounds. The tree, when we came to it, certainly had enough holes where bees might be nesting but there were none bumbling about so we went for a closer look.
A very careful peek into each of the holes I could reach showed no sign of bees or that bees had ever been there. What I did learn, was that the wide and contorted trunk of the tree was more or less hollow. If there had ever been bees, they were either long gone or much higher in the branches.
The tree wasn’t quite what it seemed. According to the sign on the grnarled trunk it was around three hundred years old rather than nearly one thousand. Still, that’s pretty old for a tree, even one that seems more air than wood, and it still had enough strength for a few red berries.
On the way back to the trail, we bumped into a very well dressed young witch. If she knew the secret of the tree or the bees, she was keeping it to herself though, so we walked on.
The trail we now found ourselves on was just one scary thing after another. Every turn showed us otherworldly sights, odd creatures, buried bones, diabolical skulls and even spider like skeletons. A sign told us we were in the zombie zone. From then on, things got even stranger.
The first inkling came when a witch we passed actually cackled. Not only that, but her eyes flashed. We’d become quite used to witches in the trees by now but the maniacal laughter and glowing eyes was something new.
Soon after this Commando found some skulls in a tree who also had flashing eyes, closely followed by a skeleton under a bench who also waved his arms about and another cackling witch, this one dressed in purple. By the time we got to Gilbury Bridge, near the entrance and exit, we’d become quite used to all the weird and wonderful creatures and even the skeleton of a dead gardener in a wheelbarrow, a net bag full of skulls or another giant spider in a tree couldn’t phase us.
The bridge itself was home to a couple of giant spiders and some skeletons. We stopped for some final photos and headed towards the exit. As autumn walks go, it had been a peculiar experience, but I suppose that’s what you get when you go wandering in the woods so close to Halloween.
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