When I mentioned I was going to Winkworth Arboretum today, someone said ‘So, you’re going to see the cheese’. I thought that was a bit odd for a moment, but he was talking through a mouthful of fruit cake so I quickly realised that he’d actually said ‘trees’, which made a lot more sense!
Winkworth is actually the only arboretum managed by the National Trust, so if you like trees, this is certainly one for you ( if you prefer cheese, perhaps not… although they do sell cheese scones in the tearoom!) The history of a place like this is perhaps not as relevant as it is for the Trust’s stately homes, and Winkworth’s history is not extensive, but I do have to mention Dr Wilfrid Fox who established the arboretum after buying the land in 1937 and who handed it over to the Trust in 1952. There is a memorial to Dr Fox nestled among his trees, but this is highly understated and I think he perhaps deserved something a little more striking.
The arboretum is said to be best known for its autumn colour, so we were hoping to catch it at the right time. Unfortunately, I think we were still a week or two early. Some of the maples had obligingly turned to blazing shades of red, but the overall picture is still a little short of its full glory. I also struggled to find a perfect view for my top picture as a lot of the almost-ideal vistas were interrupted by encroaching branches (these tree things do have an annoying habit of growing!)
I was very impressed with the map and walks laid out at Winkworth as the various routes were easy to follow, with helpful coloured way-markers and there was plenty of information about which paths were suitable for those with less mobility or less of a desire to walk up and down a lot of steps! The arboretum has been built on a hillside, though, so if you want to take in as much as you can, you will need to do some ascending and descending. The Azalea Steps (of which there are well over 100) are said to be beautiful in spring – as the guidebook shows with some lovely photos – so if you visit at that time of year, you really ought to tackle them one way or the other. With no floral display to see today, we came up through the Bowl instead, which is one of the better spots for the autumn colour.
There are a couple of lakes at the bottom of the hillside and you can visit one or both depending on the coloured route you decide to take. We opted for the yellow route, which was the mid-distance walk, but we took a mini detour onto the longer red route to get a better view of the boathouse. There are a few small displays in the boathouse that are worth a look, with information about the fishing in the lakes and about Dr Fox’s efforts during the two World Wars. The Bowl actually owes something to WWII as the Ministry of Supply commandeered its larches, which were cut down to make pit props. Dr Fox was apparently dismayed at this until he saw the potential in the empty space and turned it into a grassy tree-lined area with views across to the other side of the valley.
One thing I would like to have seen at Winkworth is more information about some of the rarer trees that grace its slopes. A few trees had labels but as a botanical novice, I perhaps needed a little guidance towards the more notable examples. Arboreal experts with a favourite area of interest may like to head straight to the sections dedicated to specific types of tree, including hollies (40 different kinds), magnolias and sorbus (whitebeams and rowans). There is also a bluebell walk for the spring visitors.
The facilities at Winkworth are not extensive and are perhaps a little ‘tired’. The tearoom is located before you pass through reception and the toilets afterwards, which was slightly awkward for passing to and fro, although the lady at visitor reception seemed to trust in the fact that the people going backwards and forwards had already paid or shown her their membership cards. There is not a great deal of inside seating in the tearoom and a fairly limited selection on offer, but the staff do a very good job with what they have and everything was very tasty. While we waited for our soup, we could even see one avid cook preparing more home-made cakes and goodies behind the counter, which was a smart move on their part as the sight and smell of flapjacks heading for the oven gave me a craving that I just had to satisfy on the way back to the car!
I would say, though, that Winkworth perhaps deserves a little more in the way of investment to improve the visitor facilities. According to a log I have from 2013-2014, it welcomes just over 100,000 visitors a year, putting it within the top 75 of the Trust’s properties. I imagine a large number of those who come through the gates are local members and dog-walkers so I am not sure how many fee-paying visitors it welcomes each year. However, even if this is not many, I still think it deserves a larger restaurant and more modern toilet block, both of which would make it a more attractive proposition and a nicer place to linger a little longer
Don’t let any of that put you off, though; if you fancy a peaceful countryside walk, are not afraid of a few ups and downs, and are partial to cheese… sorry, trees!… then give it a go.
Highlights: Early autumn colours
Refreshments: Leek and potato soup with bread and crisps; pot of tea and a flapjack
Companion(s): Mum and Dad