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A Walk in the Woods: Wonderful Westonbirt

Visiting Westonbirt Arboretum, Gloucestershire

Every year, as September gives way to October, MrElaineous and I start to have heated discussions about a very important topic: when do we go to Westonbirt, the national arboretum? Too early and there’s not much autumn colour. Too late and the colours are faded and most of the leaves are on the ground instead of on the trees. It feels like we need the prognostication skills of Goldilocks to pinpoint when will be just right.

As it was, October had turned into a busy month for both of us, and the window of opportunity was starting to close. But, just last week, the stars were in alignment: a free day and good weather coincided, sending us scurrying into the beautiful Cotswold countryside.

We decided to shake things up a bit and go a different route than usual, which took us along country lanes and narrow backroads. Even with an unexpected diversion (US readers: detour), it was the right decision. Not only is the countryside stunning, but leaving the main roads took us through tiny, picturesque villages and allowed us to see flocks of pheasants, who added their own splash of colour to the journey. [As an aside, this distinctive bird of the British countryside is actually a native of China and East Asia; I’ll let you make up your own mind as to what constitutes Britishness.]

Pheasant, Wiltshire Countryside

We arrived early, beating the crowds and having the stars of the show—the brilliantly coloured Japanese maples—more or less to ourselves. If you’re thinking of visiting Westonbirt yourself this autumn, a few words of advice:

  • Stop thinking and go!
  • If possible, go on a weekday. Visit around opening time at 9:00 am or an hour or two before closing to get the best light and the fewest people.
  • If your time is limited, visit the Acer Glade in the Old Arboretum. If you have more time and energy, then try to fit in a trip to the Silk Wood as well, and be sure to see the treetop walkway along the way.

As we headed to the restaurant for a well-earned breakfast, my attention was caught by a flowering bush that was absolutely swarming with bees. The deep, buzzing thrum was almost hypnotic, and for a moment I felt like I had been transported from autumn to spring. And that’s part of the magic of Westonbirt—it’s just right any time of the year.

The Autumn Collection

Autumn Colours at Westonbirt Arboretum
[ If you have been following along with my daily posts on Facebook or Instagram, this might look familiar! ]

Growing up in Florida, plants consisted of flowers, palm trees, pine trees, and evergreen shrubs. There were two seasons—hot and hotter—but every building had air conditioning so most time was spent in a climate-controlled bubble.

So going to Bryn Mawr College​ in Pennsylvania as an undergraduate brought with it a host of changes beyond the usual freshman adjustment period. There was no air conditioning, so summers were warm and humid with no escape. Winter would dump inches of snow on us and we were still expected to go to class (so much for those fabled snow days I had only ever heard about). Spring would be a riot of blossoms. And autumn? A profusion of colours that, for a few weeks at least, would turn ordinary leaves into jewels.

One day during my freshman year I was picking up some fallen leaves to press—family and friends in Florida always talked wistfully about autumn leaves and missing the change of seasons, so my plan was to send them a few.  While I was choosing the most brightly coloured leaves, a friend stopped by to ask what I was doing, and the impression she gave was that leaf collecting was a little unusual. Indeed, I think she thought I had lost it.

So I explained to her what I was doing, and why. Her confusion turned to surprise. “Leaves don’t change colour in Florida? It’s green all year?!” It was a revelation: lack of seasonal variation was just as much a novelty to her as the changes were to me. Since moving to England, autumn at Westonbirt Arboretum​ is always one of the highlights of the year. I have, however, swapped collecting leaves for photographing them!

Besides the simple fact that there is a change of seasons in the UK compared to Florida, one of the things I have had to get used to is terminology. In the US, “fall” and “autumn” are used interchangeably, with the former being the most common. In the UK, however, autumn is the given name for the season.

Why the difference?

According to my good friend Google, “fall” was actually used in England up until the 17th century, and was short for “fall of the leaf” (which makes perfect sense since that is what tends to happen). It replaced “harvest” as the name for the period between summer and winter because more people were beginning to move into cities and the usual agricultural rhythm of the countryside started to be disrupted.

However, the British then decided to adopt “autumn” from the French “automne”. English settlers on the eastern seaboard of the US had brought the older phrase “fall” with them, so that remains in the States with other Old English words (spring, summer, winter), and the UK continues to use the slightly more modern “autumn”.

Ever wonder what makes autumn so spectacular?

Leaves contain the green pigment chlorophyll, which captures energy from the sun and turns it into food for the tree. However, the decreasing amount of daylight and cooler temperatures cause the chlorophyll to break down and allow the other pigments in the leaves—such as the yellow xanthophyll and orange carotenoids—to become visible. While this basic process is repeated year after year, the weather can affect the duration and intensity of the colour. The temperature, light, and amount of water the tree receives all have an impact. For example, low temperatures that stay above freezing will bring out the red of the anthocyanin pigment in maple trees, but an early frost can reduce the colour.

What will this year bring in terms of autumn colour?

I have a suspicion that it may be more muted than usual due to the stress of the summer’s heatwave, plus a few early autumn storms are already knocking the leaves from the trees. But please feel free to enjoy these photos from past years to help get you in an autumnal mood—pumpkin spice latte optional!

[ If you’re interested in seeing even more of autumn in the UK, check out this earlier blog post about visiting Westonbirt Arboretum. ]
Autumn Colours at Westonbirt Arboretum

Wiltshire Round Up

If you have ever watched any television series, you’ll be familiar with the phenomenon of the clip show. These often string together the best segments from previous episodes, or perhaps are built around a particular theme. Welcome to the clip show in blog format!

This past summer I’ve been exploring closer to home and enjoying the wonders of Wiltshire, but in the not-too-distant future I will be heading off slightly further afield. Until I have a chance to share that trip, I thought I would collect all of my miscellaneous writings about Wiltshire into one place.

Take a seat, Manor House Hotel, Castle Combe, Wiltshire

To the Manor Born (published by Professional Travel Planner): I think everyone has a “happy place” they call upon when stressed, bored, or simply daydreaming. That location they mentally return to again and again to reminisce about good times, and which serves as a reminder to revisit in person as soon as possible. I consider myself fortunate to have several such places; some are located halfway around the globe and are more difficult to get to on a regular basis, but there is one that is practically on my doorstep: the Manor House in Castle Combe.

Exploring What’s on Your Doorstep (published by Visit Wiltshire): And speaking of doorsteps, it was wonderful to discover new places and revisit an old favourite this summer. From the Devizes Marina Café to Bowood House and Gardens, this trip was a great reminder that you don’t necessarily need to travel great distances to have a great time.

Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire

Discovering Historical Salisbury (published by Visit Wiltshire): I loved exploring the different time periods on offer in Salisbury, from the far distant past at the Salisbury Museum to the heights of the medieval cathedral to the Victorian architecture of Fisherton Mill (and its modern and very delicious cakes). If you have ever daydreamed about hopping aboard a time machine, Salisbury is the city for you.

Seduced by Salisbury: I enjoyed Salisbury so much I wrote about it twice! These are the immediate thoughts I jotted for social media that got “slightly” longer than anticipated.

Wiltshire Wonderland: This is a slightly different blast from the past. A few years ago MrElaineous and I went out to look for bluebells one evening and instead found a captivating countryside bathed in golden hour light.

Wiltshire Wanderings: Not only did we find bluebells during this early morning trip to the beautiful West Woods, but we also paid a visit to the standing stones at Avebury. While less well known than its counterpart at Stonehenge, it is an incredible place to visit—just watch out for the sheep!

Avebury, Wiltshire
Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire

Around Lacock: I first stumbled across the National Trust village of Lacock on television, standing in as Jane Austen’s Meryton in the famed 1996 production of Pride and Prejudice. Since writing this blog post, I am pleased to say that it has become part of my walking routine.

Delightful Devizes: One of the things I love about travelling is how it one trip often leads to another. A visit to the quaint market town of Devizes sparked even more explorations this summer, from the rolling fields of Somerset Lavender Farm to picturesque gardens in the heart of Somerset.

If you enjoyed this glimpse into the wilds of Wiltshire, please consider signing up to the mailing list to get the free eBook Off the Beaten Track: 7 Wiltshire Walks (a.k.a. The (Mis)Adventures of a Novice Walker). It is full of even more photographs of the English countryside … and a few outings that didn’t go quite according to plan!

Down the Garden Path

National Garden Scheme, Somerset

Although I have lived in the UK for nearly 15 years, I am still discovering new things on a regular basis. One such recent discovery has been the National Garden Scheme. While I had been vaguely aware of their existence before, I have to admit I had never actually visited one of the participating properties. What a mistake that was!

After visiting my first open garden earlier this summer, I was hooked: seeing how people had transformed their patch of land into an urban paradise was incredibly inspiring and photogenic—what’s not to like? The NGS website makes it easy to find any open garden in a given location, so after our trip to Somerset Lavender Farm, MrElaineous and I continued onwards to the nearest property.

The journey along this road is one we make on a regular basis since it was the way back to his hometown. It is, dare I say it, a bit dull. But at a certain stop sign the SatNav advised us to proceed straight ahead instead of turning right along our usual route. We did as instructed and it was like the car had driven through a portal to Narnia or, at the very least, ye olde England.

The winding road took us through picture-perfect villages, provided lovely vistas across fields, and, as we approached the village of Stratton-on-the-Fosse, we caught glimpses of a large church that seemed to have landed from outer space. I found out later that this was Downside Abbey Church and School, a Catholic boarding school and Benedictine monastery in the middle of the Somerset countryside.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Creative Commons

The Fosse referred to in the village name is not a river, like in Stratford-upon-Avon, but rather the Fosse Way, the path of a Roman road that once cut a fairly straight line from Ilchester to Lincoln, a distance of over 180 miles. Fosse is Latin for ditch, and it’s thought that a defensive ditch once ran here after the Roman invasion of 43 AD to mark the western boundary of the Roman Empire. Today it serves as district or parish boundaries in places, and some modern roads still run along its path, including the one that carried us through Stratton, past Downside, and even deeper into unfamiliar territory.

The garden that the NGS website was leading us towards was very different from the suburban garden we had explored in Devizes. The Fosse Way gave way to narrow country lanes, and we found arriving at our destination was no less magical than the journey that preceded it. Perched on a hillside with a smattering of houses in either direction, the venue boasted three gardens in one location: a modern garden designed around a period property; a formal garden that looked like it came from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and a shady woodland walk.

The modern garden was a labour of love developed by the householder over the past three years, and a photograph album showed the transition from an empty, muddy field to its current state. Large beds of bright flowers, a household vegetable patch, and cosy seating areas had been incorporated around a charming stone house, the combination of antique and modern working well together.

National Garden Scheme, Somerset

From there we drifted into the neighbour’s property, which revealed a carpet of green lawn and beautiful formal borders. The Queen of Hearts and her croquet game would not have been out of place – it was easy to imagine the same English garden scene appearing anytime over the past 150 years. A short walk then brought us to a bubbling brook at the bottom of the property, and on such a hot day it was a relief to enjoy a walk in the shade through a small woodland.

I feel that there is a theme running through much of my writing this year, that of discovering new things practically in my own backyard. While technically further afield than Devizes or Bowood, this trip into Somerset was yet another good reminder that sometimes you need to step away from the established route and see where a new path can take you.

Life in Lavender

It is twenty-five miles between our house and MrElaineous’ hometown. Due to the “you-can’t-get-there-from-here” phenomenon, it takes us about an hour to drive there on winding country roads, which allows us to avoid the often grid-locked city of Bath, and instead takes us through picturesque towns like Bradford-on-Avon and small villages such as Faulkland.

I hadn’t paid much attention to Faulkland before, and there were only a few things that stuck in my mind when thinking about it. The first was architectural: one of the first buildings you drive past is the Faulkland Wesleyan Chapel. Although now converted into a private house, the unusual architecture of it is due to its origins as a Nonconformist (i.e. non-Church of England) church. Then there was the small village green, with two signs that I had read but not necessarily registered. One pointed to a lavender farm, the other was hand-written and cautioned drivers to mind their speed: “SLOW DUCKLINGS!!!!!”

It wasn’t until my Instagram feed began to fill up with shots of gorgeous lavender from across the south of France that it dawned on me that a local lavender farm would be an ideal place to explore. And so this was how I recently found myself standing at the edge of a sea of purple, listening to the deep hum of bees and watching butterflies flit from flower to flower – too fast for me to photograph well, but too beautiful not to at least attempt it.

The place whose sign I had neglected for too long was Somerset Lavender and it made for a perfect morning out. There are two large lavender fields to circumnavigate, a flower garden that, during my visit at least, was absolutely bursting with colour, and a café and gift shop where you could sample culinary treats and purchase great smelling souvenirs. One of my favourite bits, however, was the lavender garden. Twenty species of lavender are planted side by side, allowing you to easily see the difference in colour and shape … and perhaps pick out a favourite for your own garden.

What surprised me most was that the lavender fields themselves didn’t have much of a scent. It wasn’t until the flowers were crushed between your fingers to release some of the oil that the classic fragrance wafted out. Despite this, the lavender plants were absolutely mobbed by bees, and if you’re interested in providing food for pollinators, any of the lavender varieties are a good choice.

At one point MrElaineous and I took an unexpected detour during our visit, accidently ending up outside of the farm at a small pond with adorable ducklings that couldn’t have been more than a few days old. The second sign now made sense and I completely understood the sign-maker’s fondness for exclamation marks. The cuteness of these ducklings was enough to reduce me to a quivering pile of “Awwwww”, and I do hope all drivers in Faulkland take it easy near the pond. [And, in a separate public service announcement, bread is bad for ducks.]

Duckling, Faulkland, England

While on our diversion, Tuppence Cottage also caught my eye. I am a collector of fun house names, but have to admit it was the sabre-toothed tigers guarding the gate that were more noticeable than the name itself. I’ve seen statues of lions and dogs, but these were a first for me!

My view of Faulkland changed over the few hours we spent there, fleshed out by experiencing it as living village rather than a simply a place to drive through while going from A to B. It was a useful reminder about giving places a chance to show you their colourful side and their quirkiness—and how you should stop to smell the lavender whenever you have the chance.

If you’re interested in stopping to smell the lavender yourself, please check out Somerset Lavender’s website for opening information. And it’s not just lavender … keep scrolling to see the lovely flower garden! ]
Dahlia, Somerset Lavender Farm
MissElaineous Blog: Escape & Explore & Discover & Enjoy