A Day at Exbury Gardens and Steam Railway

I was delighted to recieve an invitation to visit Exbury Gardens in the New Forest.  I have been invited a couple of times previously but have never been able to attend, this year I was not going to say no.  

The invitation was to go to a press event so I did not pay to visit.  I am under no obligation to write about the day and my words and opinions are my own.

The day was exciting before I even got to Exbury.  The drive took me through the New Forest which I have never been through before.  Gosh, just gosh.  This is an ancient landscape like no other I have ever travelled through.  The age of the trees makes it feel special and then there are the huge open flat landscapes, which I confess, I did not expect to see.  Oh and the ponies, I got very excited by the ponies and may (did) shout loudly 'donkeys' at one point.  Good job no one else was in the car with me.  Yes I am that person.  

When I arrived at Exbury I soon realised I had no idea of the size, scale and sheer amazeballs of the gardens.  Think big, then think bigger.  Think colour and then think more colour.  Then find out the story behind the gardens and collapse in a small heap of brain-overload.
The first part of the day we were lucky to have Marie-Louise Agius as our guide.  Marie-Louise is a garden designer and RHS Chelsea Flower Show gold medal winner and is the great granddaughter of Lionel de Rothschild, the creater of Exbury Gardens.  Lionel bought the gardens in 1919 and set about a team of gardeners to double dig the area and the dig in tons of spent hops to increase the acidity of the soil.  This is a planned garden, so the wonderful planting schemes are not at all accidental.  Everything has been thought through even to the detail of how wide the paths needed to be to enable Lionel to drive his car around the garden.  Did I mention the garden is big?  It is over 200 acres so there is lots to explore.
The focus of our visit was primarily to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Azalea Bowl, one of the most idyllic settings in a garden I think I have ever seen.  A joy of water and colour from the maples, rhododendrons and azaleas that make this part of the garden.
If we hadn't have needed to keep moving to make sure we saw as much as we could, I think I could have sat here for hours to enjoy the peace.  The gardens are so large that whilst the car park can be full and it looks like there are a lot of people there, there is enough room for everyone to spread out.
We were being ferried around the gardens on a small buggy/bus and every few minutes we had to stop to admire something new.   Marie-Louise's knowledge of every part of the garden and seemingly every plant within it was awesome.  There were so many latin names being used that at one point I thought I was in a time-slip back to Roman times.
A passion for rhododendrons is understandable.  If you have the space and conditions for them then they are hard to resist.   This is a huge one: just look at the pink buds that open to cream flowers.  Also the flowers themselves we were encouraged to fondle gently: they are not as fragile as they look, but thick and waxy - a revelation.  Care has to be taken with such fondling as rhododendrons are poisonnous.  When checking this fact I found references to 'mad honey', which is honey made from rhododendrons and it is not a good thing - who knew!
On we went, we paused here close to the Beaulieu River, a private river owned by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu.  We were not here to see the river though and muse about the exclusivity of being allowed to have a boat on it; we were not here either to enjoy the haze of bluebells or think about how incredible it must have looked a few weeks ago when the narcissus were all in flower.
We were here to peer at the rare tiny blue native pulmonaria that has recently appeared by the side of a small stream.  They have been clearing bracken from the area and this has enable the pulmonaria to raise itself from its slumber.  Yes you can see mare's tail as well, they have enough space for it; here it is not a problem.
This is the Wiggly Tree, it looks like three trees, but it is all one huge tree with its central hollow trunk and two massive side 'suckers' one each side.  It is a Platanus orientalis and one of the most amazing trees I think I have ever seen.
Then it was time to go on a steam train ride.  This is the narrow guage railway that runs around part of the gardens.  The original railway was installed to enable the rocks to be taken up to the rock garden when it was being built.  Have I mentioned the scale of these gardens?  Just think about that for one second: I want to build a rock garden that will be so big I need a train to take the rocks up to it.  Crikey.
We went past the Dragonfly Pond which is a specifically intended to attract dragonflies, oh to visit when they are in flight.
There were many bluebells on our journey.
After a rather nice lunch we were set free into the gardens to wander as we will.  Here I say that you will need a map, you will need to keep an eye on the sign posts as there are many paths to follow and a huge space to explore.
I wanted to visit the Centenary Garden, designed by Marie Louise to celebrate the garden's centenary in 2019.  This is the Jubilee Pond, top tip - this was the wrong direction.  However a wrong direction is no bad thing as it meant I got to see even more of the gardens.
The Centenary Garden is worth finding.

It is formally arranged around this family crest.
It was these beautifully shaped ginkgos that got me very excited: aren't they wondrous?  I always think no matter how big or small a garden is, there is always something where you can get inspiration for your own garden.
Then I poddled through the herbaceous borders that are close by the house.  The house is not open to the public and is currently going through a large scale renovation project.
I found my way to the Rare Space Garden that is temporarily being housed at Exbury.  This garden was designed by Charlie Hawkes for the 2023 RHS Chelsea Flower Show where it won a gold medal.  The garden will be permanently housed at the Rare Dementia Support Centre in London as soon as the space is ready for it.
I paused briefly to enjoy the unused glass house nearby, I do love seeing the bones of an old glass house, and then I made my way to the plant sales.
Did I buy a plant?  Of course I did!  This is Rhododendron Nova Zembla, that I may have translated in my head into 'New Zombie' for no good reason.  I know where it will be planted and I will enjoy having a small piece of Exbury in my garden, a memory of a glorious day.  Worry not, this is not the invasive rhododendron ponticum that causes huge issues in some areas of the country; I expect it to be polite and well behaved.

What a glorious glorious day - even the rain held off for us.  I must visit again and I will.  A massive thank you to Marie Louise and Tom Clarke the Head Gardener for their generosity of time and knowledge and a big thank you to Emma Mason for organising the day.  

Take care and be kind.

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  1. It looks like a beautiful place. Thanks so much for sharing the highlights of your visit. :)


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