Trees of Whipsnade
Visitors driving to Whipsnade Zoo pass a hidden gem, an arboretum planted in the form of a cathedral. Autumn is a good time to visit this spiritual spot, when the leaves change colour and drift from the trees, says Abigail Hamilton-Thompson
Just off a road used by visitors to the UK’s biggest zoo, a surprise lies hidden in waiting.
Whipsnade tree cathedral is made up of a collection of trees and hedges intersected by avenues. It was created by former soldier Edmund Blyth after the First World War as a legacy to lost comrades and to inspire faith and hope.
THE FOUR SEASONS
The site, donated to the National Trust in 1960, is four miles south of Dunstable, off the B4540 (after passing a church on your left, turn right into Bushey Close). Memorial services are still held here – and, occasionally, weddings.
There are chapels that represent the four seasons: the Christmas Chapel is represented by the Norway spruce; the Summer Chapel by whitebeam; the Autumn Chapel by beech and field maple; and the Easter Chapel by cherry. There is also a Lady Chapel, which contains an Atlantic cedar. The cathedral has a cross formed by transepts with avenues of tulip and chestnut. You can see a plan of it at www. nationaltrust.org.uk.
It is an amazing place, particularly dressed in its autumnal colours and with sunlight streaming through the trees. In each chapel there are benches on which to rest, but it is rare to see other visitors here – which means this idyllic setting retains its tranquil ambiance. Alongside the cathedral is a fruit orchard, which was planted by the local community.
If you venture along Icknield Way, next to the cathedral, you reach Chute Wood (managed by the National Trust as a wild play area – including drums and scramble walls) and Dunstable Downs. Here the chalk grasslands are home to orchids, rabbits and other mammals such as muntjac, badgers and foxes. Look up to see red kites soaring above and listen out for skylarks. Rest for a cuppa at Chilterns Gateway Centre (01582 500920 ) and don’t forget your kite, as this is a superb place to fly them.
Autumn sees fallen leaves strewn across the floor of the Easter Chapel – the grandeur and peace of a forest can often feel like a cathedral but at Whipsnade, the woodland was deliberately planted in the form of one