Take Sensible Shoes, Wear Fabulous Sunglasses…
The New Forest is one of my favourite places on earth, and Exbury Gardens is one of the jewels in its crown. Situated on the banks of the Beaulieu River, and part of the breathtaking Exbury Estate, the gardens are open to the public from March until November. Whether you’re a local or you’re visiting the area on holiday, I’d definitely recommend you stop by to see one of the most spectacular collections of its type in the country.
You could spend all day at Exbury and not see everything (believe me, as this is from personal experience!), so I decided to put together a list of my top ten things to see and do there, so you don’t miss out on some of my favourite parts of our visit! (Please note, the gardens are ever changing, and different varieties will bloom in different months of the year.)
1. Take The Train
The tickets cost £4.50 on top of the current entry. The railway was opened in 2001 and recently extended through the ‘Summer Lane’ section that takes you up past Dragonfly Pond.
You’ll also get a really neat view of one of the many themed areas – the Rock Garden, which is the largest man-made one in Europe! It’s also one of the few interesting trains in the New Forest for selfies, as far as I’m aware – although if you know a better one, please let me know.
There are wheelchair accessible carriages, and seating in sections of 2-4 passengers, so you can share a carriage with your family – or just your significant other. Like your handbag.
2. Indulge in Elegant Eats
Once I work out where I’m going, my second question is what I’m going to eat when I’m there. Options for food vary depending on the season at Exbury, but there are are a couple of places to eat, including Mr. Eddy’s Tearooms, which serves a variety of food including afternoon tea and lunch between 12pm and 2.30pm, plus The Five Arrows Gallery, as well as other kiosks here and there.
We had a slice or two of delicious cake while we were there, but there are more savoury treats to be enjoyed too, of course! Mr Eddy’s also shares space with the gift shop, where you can pick up Caroline de Rothschild natural soaps, which are handmade in the Old Dairy on the estate with gorgeous ingredients. I fell in love with the Spiced Orange, which smells just like Christmas morning with its mix of sweet citrus and cinnamon scents.
But if you’re going to the gardens, you really should think about taking a picnic! Of course, no one can count on the weather, but if it’s a sunny day you can’t beat popping along to one of the little dedicated picnic areas with a hamper in tow like we did – or if you don’t want to lug your things into the garden (but trust me, it’s not that far), you can use the picnic tables at the very front of the entrance instead. Not as picturesque, though!
3. Admire The Architecture
Although Exbury House is not open to the public, you can walk through the gardens right to the doorstep, and admire the glorious building surrounded by cherry trees and covered in wisteria. (Just remember it’s a private residence, of course, so don’t actually walk up to the doorstep!)
There’s also an absolutely breathtaking wisteria vine covering a seated area inside the Sundial Garden – whatever you do, don’t miss it when it’s in bloom! It’s also right near the Tennis Court Tea Garden, which is a really beautiful place to grab an ice cream when the sun is shining, and another picnic venue!
When you’re visiting Exbury, you’ll almost certainly cross Gilbury Bridge a couple of times – a graceful, understated structure that covers not a babbling stream as you would expect, but a road! Surrounded by gorgeous foliage and blooms, it’s a perfect spot for a glorious photo.
4. Walk The Woodlands
Exbury Gardens is one of the most distinguished arboretums in the country, with trees that have been cultivated on the site since 1729. There are three wooded areas: Home Wood, Yard Wood, and Witcher’s Wood, which is reached by walking down Lover’s Lane.
Generations of landowners including the Mitfords and Lord Forster contributed to the wealth of specimens which Lionel de Rothschild built upon when purchasing the estate in 1919. My favourite fact about Exbury Gardens is that Lionel employed sponsored plant hunters to extend his collection!
Keep a look out for outstanding specimens like the History Tree (a felled tree with labels on its growth rings for various landmark years), The Wiggly Tree, and the Redwood tree planted during the 1860s. My favourites were the beautiful Japanese maples dotted around the gardens, adding a vivid splash of scarlet here and there.
5. Hitch A Buggy Ride
One of the best ways to see as much of the gardens as possible during your visit is to hitch a ride on Exbury’s fleet of golf buggies! Don’t worry about it eating away at your step count if you’re going for a Fitbit record, as there are 20 miles of pathways in the gardens – if you come away with less than the required daily amount of 10,000 steps, something’s gone wrong somewhere…
The driver will take you on a sedate tour of picturesque areas and you’ll be able to get a quick-stop tour of some of the places you’d like to pop back and visit in more depth later.
The buggy tours are £4.50 per person, paid for separately from the rest of your ticket. Your guide will be able to tell you some more information about the gardens, as well as pointing out other areas that you should come back and visit at other points in the year!
6. Discover the Burmese Bell
If there’s one thing we do well in this country, it’s eccentricity – which is why this Burmese Bell is exactly the sort of thing you should expect to find in an English country garden. Over 200 years old, its origins are shrouded in mystery, but it was brought to Exbury by the Rothschilds from their home in Gunnersbury in the 1920s.
Garden lore has it this bell was rung to let Lionel de Rothschild know it was time for lunch or dinner, as the tones would sound all the way through the grounds, even reaching the banks of the Beaulieu river. This bell was probably from or made for a Burmese temple, and its ring is supposed to remind the devout of the compassion of the Buddha. The Burmese Bell now hangs from an oak tree near the house, welcoming visitors to the glade – a beautiful centrepiece of the gardens and a great spot for proposals, or so I read!
7. Wander by the Waterways
If you wanted to know how far that Burmese Bell is said to ring, you’ll need to walk the stretch of the gardens down to the southern most point, to the banks of the river and Arromanches Plaque. It commemorates the role of Exbury House during World War II, when it was requisitioned to become the ‘stone frigate’ HMS Mastodon, one of the base of operations that aided in the success of D-Day. The plaque was taken from French town of Arromanche, which is where many of the troops who departed from the Solent originally landed. Arromanche now has a new plaque, but its old one has found a new resting place at Exbury since 2002.
You can view the Beaulieu River from the western pathways that run across Exbury Gardens, and there are great views of it from Daffodil Meadow. But you shouldn’t forget to stop by Top Pond, to see the Japanese Bridge and the cascades down from the Azalea Bowl.
8. View The Beautiful Blooms
If you enjoy taking macro shots of flowers you don’t know the names of, then Exbury Gardens is the place for you. It’s even more enjoyable if you think you might possibly know the names of some of them, and I can only imagine how much fun you’d actually have if you’re the type of person to say ‘yes, but which variety of Hydrangea is it?’.
Selfie-takers should take note that it’s almost impossible to find a bad background for which to take a shot at Exbury, and that the natural beauty is sure to enhance, rather than detract from, your own – well, in theory anyway… (And yes, I did take two pairs of sunglasses, and no, I’m not going to pretend it was an accident.)
The flowers in bloom will vary depending on which time of year you go. Now is the perfect time to see primroses, azaleas (and azaleas are really one of Exbury’s most stunning flowers), bluebells, camellias, cherry blossoms and rhododendrons.
9. Enjoy The Themed Gardens
All year round, though, there’s something new on offer from Exbury, and it’s the various themed gardens that offer some of the best variety. The Herbaceous and Grasses Garden near Exbury House doesn’t win any snappy name awards, but it’s designed as a ‘jewel-box’ that mixes colour, texture and interest year-long.
Another no-hoper for a naming award, the Bog Garden comes alive in autumn, thanks to its abundance of maple trees. Don’t forget to visit the Rock Garden, and when in season, the Hydrangea Walk, which was a few weeks away from blooming on our trip.
10. Bask at the Azalea Bowl
For sheer, jaw-dropping beauty, you cannot miss the glorious Azalea Bowl, which comes alive in the middle of spring in a riot of hot pink, deep purple, indigo blue and bridal whites.
Nestled amongst the ponds and streams that run into the river, the Azalea Bowl is one of the most beautiful displays I’ve seen in any gardens – impossible to capture its beauty on camera, it’s even more impressive in real life than I can ever show in pictures. Everywhere you look, there’s an embarrassment of riches as each shrub tries to outdo its neighbour with a display of saturated colour. (Check out the panoramic view here, on my Facebook page!)
Plan your own visit to Exbury Gardens
If all that piqued your interest, here are the details for planning your own visit!
Exbury Gardens are open from 20 March to 5 November and are located in the New Forest, near Beaulieu. You can reach the gardens by a variety of methods listed on the site, but the easiest way is by car with the postcode SO45 1AZ. The gardens are dog-friendly, child-friendly, and wheelchair accessible in parts.
Tickets can be booked in advance and are cheaper online – £14.40 for adults for garden and rail, or £10.35 for garden only. Tickets for children (aged 3-15 years) are priced £7.34 and £3.29 respectively. Prices on the day are £16.00 for adults and £8.15 for rail and garden, and £11.50 (adults) and £3.65 (children) for just the gardens.
April and May are the best months to visit Exbury, thanks to its rhododendrons and azaleas, but there’s plenty to see all year round.
Visit the Exbury Gardens website here for more information, and to book discount tickets.
View my Exbury Gardens album on Flickr here:
Sponsored post. My opinions and photography are my own and I never feature something I don’t genuinely like or recommend.