NEW FOREST: Exbury Gardens

Steam train lr
By Tim Saunders
Spending time with family is the way I enjoy marking a significant birthday. And for this milestone occasion we make our way to Exbury Gardens deep in the New Forest.
It has been persistently raining for the past week and it really is risky deciding to spend an entire day out with such questionable weather. The sky continues to be grey and threatening but we are blessed with absolutely no rain whatsoever during our trip.
Exbury boasts 200-acres of informal woodland gardens and it allows my wife Caroline and I to sort of relax while the children roam. But you can never truly relax. They seem incapable of sticking to the paths and much prefer stamping in puddles off the beaten track which results in Henry (2) quickly shouting “Help!” He is in water that is almost covering his boots and about to fall over. Thankfully we reach him in time. Some bushes do bear berries and again little ones have to be monitored so that they avoid picking them.
The miniature steam train runs every hour on the hour between 12noon and 4pm and as we have arrived at just gone 11am we decide to visit the Five Arrows Gallery to see some local art which leaves us just enough time to get to the Exbury railway. One of the engines is called Eddy after Edmund de Rothschild whose idea it was to include this popular attraction in the grounds. It’s a popular attraction with only a little space remaining when we arrive but we squeeze on for the 15 minute ride around the gardens. This is a great way of exploring the grounds allowing you to see parts of the gardens that you might otherwise miss. It is a definite hit with Henry. “I’m enjoying this,” he declares to mummy, who is sitting at the back of the train while the girls and I are in the middle carriage. We stop about half way round to restoke the fire and here we find out that the railway was built between 2000 and 2001. Two narrow gauge style 0-6-2 tender tank locos were built specially for the line by the Exmoor Steam Railway. The railway is a member of Britain's Great Little Railways. The highlight of the trip for the children is when we pass through quite a long dark tunnel. It is hard to beat the sound of the driver’s whistle and the ensuing sound and amounts of steam. It is clear that Henry is very fond indeed.
Our little children don’t forget their stomachs for long and Heidi is soon asking “When’s it lunchtime?” We have brought a picnic and it is good to see that there are a choice of benches dotted throughout the gardens. We pick one in a quiet secluded spot and tuck into our homemade ham salad sandwiches with a dash of mayonnaise; a family favourite. Harriett, Heidi and Henry each have their little bags with their sandwiches, crisps and apples and thoroughly enjoy the independence of choosing what they will eat and when.
Afterwards we have a stroll and marvel at the wonderful displays of azaleas, rhododendrons and hydrangeas.
It strikes me how user-friendly this venue is because most of the paths are tarmac so that wheelchairs and pushchairs can easily make their way along them.
As we leave we can’t help but have a look around the plants and shrubs that are for sale and we select an orange azalea. We’ve not had much luck with azaleas in the past with two dying so we’re hoping that this one’s provenance will stand it in good stead.
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