Mandy Bradshaw looks at Westonbirt’s plans for the future
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