Mandy Brad­shaw looks at Westonbirt’s plans for the fu­ture

Cotswold Life - - NEWS -

Westonbirt Ar­bore­tum’s direc­tor An­drew Smith is glad to be back among the trees. He talks to Mandy Brad­shaw about his plans

Run­ning the na­tional ar­bore­tum is likely to be a ca­reer am­bi­tion for any forester but for An­drew Smith it was more straight­for­ward.

“I re­alised I needed to re­con­nect with trees my­self,” he says with a smile.

Af­ter 10 years or­gan­is­ing grant ap­pli­ca­tions and sys­tem man­age­ment at the Forestry Com­mis­sion’s Bris­tol head­quar­ters the move to Westonbirt gave him the chance to get back to a closer re­la­tion­ship with na­ture.

And it’s some­thing that the ar­bore­tum does well. It may be one of the world’s finest col­lec­tions of trees and a cen­tre known for its re­search but it’s far more than that. Thanks to the pic­turesque plant­ing style adopted by its founder Robert Hol­ford, it is more gar­den than hor­ti­cul­tural col­lec­tion with trees po­si­tioned to give con­trast­ing shapes and colours rather than in their botan­i­cal fam­i­lies. Some ar­eas have ser­pen­tine paths, giv­ing tan­ta­lis­ing glimpses of things ahead while other parts al­low long vis­tas through the site.

“It is very dif­fer­ent,” ex­plains An­drew. “It sits astride gar­dens and forestry.”

He joined Westonbirt as the direc­tor at a time of great change. The ar­bore­tum was part-way through a £6.7m project, 10 years in the plan­ning, that has al­tered the face of this fa­mil­iar Cotswold or­gan­i­sa­tion.

A beau­ti­fully de­signed Wel­come Build­ing had re­placed the ‘shed’ that served as the ticket booth and en­trance while the car park had been moved to al­low restora­tion work on the his­toric Downs. Yet, ar­guably the most ex­cit­ing el­e­ment of the scheme – at least from a vis­i­tor’s view – was still to be started: a 300mlong, 13.5m-high walk­way snaking through the trees into Silk Wood and giv­ing a unique view of the col­lec­tion. The chance to over­see its con­struc­tion and open­ing, along with a tree man­age­ment cen­tre and staff mess room, was, says An­drew, a “great op­por­tu­nity”. De­signed to be suit­able for wheel­chair users and pushchairs, the Stihl Tree­top Walk­way is a stun­ning mix of curved steel and wood with rail­ings that al­low ev­ery­one a clear view, in­for­ma­tion boards giv­ing facts about trees and a crow’s nest look­out point – nerve­jan­gling for those with­out a head for heights. “Some peo­ple were dis­ap­pointed at the amount of steel,” ad­mits An­drew, “but we wouldn’t have got the sen­su­ous curves if it had been wholly wood.” It has pleased the ex­perts though, pick­ing up sev­eral awards. These changes com­bined with favourable weather have had a mas­sive im­pact: Mother’s Day this year saw the ar­bore­tum “mobbed” with the sort of crowds nor­mally seen only dur­ing the au­tumn colour sea­son and the to­tal vis­i­tor num­bers for 2016 topped 500,000 for the first time. The walk­way has also changed the dy­nam­ics of the site with more vis­i­tors head­ing to­wards the pre­vi­ously of­ten over­looked Silk Wood not least be­cause the sky-high route with its

‘We’re us­ing trees as a back­drop to well­be­ing, build­ing per­sonal re­silience’

grad­ual in­cline is eas­ier to nav­i­gate than the orig­i­nal steep slope of the en­trance.

While wel­come, the in­creased num­bers have meant An­drew is “go­ing back to ba­sics” to make sure Westonbirt can cope. Al­ready there are plans to ex­tend the restau­rant and he is work­ing out how to en­sure less mo­bile vis­i­tors can cope with the now longer dis­tance from park­ing to the start of the trees; a buggy ‘shut­tle ser­vice’ is one op­tion.

Nec­es­sary changes they may be but some of the ar­bore­tum’s long-time vis­i­tors have very dif­fer­ent views.

“A num­ber of them do feel there’s been too much devel­op­ment now,” he says. “We’ve got to be care­ful how we go for­ward and re­spect those dif­fer­ing per­spec­tives.”

What is likely to be less con­tro­ver­sial are plans to cre­ate a new field lab to help in Westonbirt’s work on tree pests and dis­eases. It’s part of a world­wide drive to com­bat things such as ash dieback and threats to other trees, in­clud­ing larch and horse chest­nut.

As part of this move to con­serve the world’s trees, the ar­bore­tum is look­ing to ex­tend its col­lec­tion, adding more va­ri­eties of species it al­ready has and of­fer­ing a ‘home’ to trees from other coun­tries, help­ing to safe­guard their fu­ture.

Along with other UK in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing Kew and the Royal Botanic Gar­den Ed­in­burgh, Westonbirt is al­ready work­ing with ex­perts in China, Amer­ica and Italy.

It will also un­der­pin the Forestry Com­mis­sion’s po­si­tion as the coun­try’s big­gest tim­ber pro­ducer.

“We are try­ing to add won­der­ful trees of the fu­ture for tim­ber pro­duc­tion in the con­text of chang­ing cli­mate and pests and dis­eases,” ex­plains An­drew.

Grounded in sci­ence it may be but the growth of the col­lec­tion will not be at the ex­pense of the aes­thetic ap­pear­ance of Westonbirt.

“We need to de­velop the col­lec­tion but we’ve got to do that in the con­text of the hor­ti­cul­ture.”

Along­side con­ser­va­tion lies Westonbirt’s other re­mit: to ed­u­cate and con­nect peo­ple with trees. One suc­cess­ful com­mu­nity scheme, backed by the Her­itage Lot­tery Fund, has helped young peo­ple and adults with a range of men­tal health prob­lems.

“It’s us­ing trees as a back­drop to well­be­ing, build­ing per­sonal re­silience.”

There are also plans to fur­ther de­velop what was once the plant cen­tre. Now oc­cu­pied by a chair-maker who uses Westonbirt tim­ber, there may be wood­work­ing, wood-smok­ing and leather­work cour­ses there in the fu­ture, along­side a shop sell­ing wooden prod­ucts.

Yet all these changes are only se­condary to the Westonbirt’s real draw: the trees. And, de­spite most peo­ple think­ing of it only now when the ar­bore­tum is ablaze with au­tumn colour, there is some­thing to see in ev­ery sea­son.

Thanks to a band of acidic green sand that runs through the site, the ar­bore­tum is able to grow rhodo­den­drons and camel­lias, un­seen else­where in the Cotswolds, herald­ing the ar­rival of spring with a mix of strik­ing colours. There are beau­ti­ful mag­no­lias – in­clud­ing the stun­ning ‘Westonbirt Diva’ – and fresh new growth on the many ac­ers.

Wild flow­ers are another fea­ture, among them wood anemones, prim­roses and blue­bells while even the depths of win­ter have in­ter­est with the chance to fully ap­pre­ci­ate in­tri­cate bark and the shape of trees, some­thing that is ex­ploited to the full with the an­nual lights show.

There is, as An­drew agrees, far more than just au­tumn colour.

“Come with an open mind and pre­pare to be sur­prised,” he ad­vises.

Westonbirt’s 300m-long, 13.5m-high walk­way

Above: The ‘Westonbirt Diva’ mag­no­lia is stun­ning in spring Clock­wise from top left: Rhodo­den­dron race­mo­sum, Ac­ers are as beau­ti­ful in spring as they are in au­tumn, Westonbirt’s pic­turesque plant­ing gives it the feel of a gar­den

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