To the delight of our six-year-old son, we begin our visit to Exbury Gardens with a steam train ride straight out of Harry Potter, climbing on board at a charmingly old-fashioned little station. As we chug around in a loop of the top part of the garden, past a lush rockery and dragonfly pond, he spots weird and wonderful sculptures including a giraffe in an orchard, a giant metallic spider and a herd of wild boar.
In early October, Exbury is coming into a glory of autumn colour. Our littlest is enchanted by the sound of Witcher’s Wood where you look up to a fireworks display of magenta, rust and gold leaves, and even more interested in the many mushrooms at ground level, including a fly agaric toadstool straight out of a fairy book.
Lionel de Rothschild, a scion of the great banking family, bought the Exbury Estate on the banks of the Solent in the New Forest in 1919. He set about making a garden in the 250 acres of woodland, which to this day is renowned for its collection of rhododendrons and azaleas in Spring and hydrangeas and nerines in the autumn. It is still in the family and quite by chance, I bump into Charlotte Rothschild, the internationally renowned lyric soprano, who is dressed for a day in the garden, driving around in a golf buggy.
My favourite part of the garden on this whistlestop tour – hurried around by three impatient children – is the Centenary garden, opened last year on the site of the old tennis courts and designed by Marie-Louise Agius, Lionel de Rothschild’s great granddaughter. In autumn, this is a fabulously intimate space, brimming with frothy grasses and late season blooms: perovskia, gaura, persicaria and heavy-headed hydrangeas around a smart brick and stone circle. This garden opens into the even more secretive sundial garden, enclosed by high yew hedges, an explosion of colour with ‘Hot Lips’ salvias and bright yellow and red dahlias as well as unusual Tasmanian tree ferns. From here you step back out into woodland with views across to little sailing boats on the Beaulieu river.
Over in the Five Arrows Gallery, near the splendid neoclassical house where the current generations of Rothschilds still live – is a stunning display of Nerine sarniensis Jewel Lilies – which I will save for another blog. Here too are herbaceous borders and significant specimen trees including a pair of ash trees planted by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall.
There is so much more to see that I am determined to come back in Spring to see the rhododendrons and azaleas in their full glory, not to mention the alluring sounding Daffodil meadow. But the Little Weeds have disappeared for a hot chocolate and to the play area and the nights are drawing in, so I must join them, for the drive back across wild moorland where New Forest ponies roam.