There is a sign that I have passed on the M4 more times than I care to remember. I've always thought, 'Oh we must visit there in the Autumn, it must be beautiful then.' or 'I bet The Boy would love to explore there.' but it's not been a real possibility as we've always been on the way to somewhere or rushing back home after a tiring day out. When we lived in Reading for three years, we passed the sign on our monthly return home and I thought then it must be amazing to visit there, and that was in 2001!
Finally we had the opportunity to explore the mystery behind the sign for Westonbirt Arboretum when we headed down for our Butlin's Ambassadors holiday at the end of March. I arranged for us to visit Westonbirt the day before our holiday started and we decided to stay overnight in Basingstoke as it would ensure we weren't rushing.
Westonbirt Arboretum is well signposted from junction 18 of the M4 and takes a further twenty-ish minutes to reach beyond the motorway. There is a pay kiosk upon entry to the main drive, and then a good size car park with ample parking for all. The site is massive, far bigger than I ever imagined which seems silly to say considering it is a large forest and woodland!
The circle above shows the main reception area with Westonbirth Restaurant, forest shop, visitor services, education centre, toilets and an excellent play area for children. To the right of this circle is the Old Arboretum, and to the left are the collections (Japanese Maple, Oak, Cherry collections) alongside the longer paths and trails. Unfortunately we didn't get to explore this section because what I haven't said is that it was -3°C that day.
Yes, that is a minus symbol.
Even though we are hardy explorers and were all togged up in everything we owned, it was the type of cold that chilled to the bone. Nonetheless we persevered and did explore the Old Arboretum and the children's play area. First of all though, we were invited to sample the wares of the Westonbirt Restaurant.
The restaurant has recently seen a changeover, at the time the manager and chef had only been there a manner of weeks, and is an incredibly pleasant and trendy venue with huge wooden tables, floor to ceiling windows (with frosted leaf patterns embossed on) which overlook the site and provide a light and airy place to eat.
The Boy had a child's version of the 'Calcot fishcakes' which is usually served with tartar sauce and a mixed leaf salad, but for him they served it with tomato sauce and a pot of fresh peas. This couldn't have been a better dish for him to have if the chef had been a fly on the wall in our house! The Boy loves salmon and mixed with the dill, it smelt and looked delicious (and this from a vegetarian) and he wolfed the lot down.
Mr. TBaM had the 'The Cotswolds Platter' which was a much nicer version of a ploughman's than I've ever seen. Served on a wooden platter (as all the meals were) it included Woodchester ham, a local pork pie and double Gloucester cheese and was served with homemade chutney and Hobbs House bread and butter. The quality of the items were excellent and very filling, he really enjoyed the taste of everything, especially the cheese (different to the standard orange Gloucester cheese in the supermarkets) and he said everything worked really well together.
I was served with a delicious Spring vegetable risotto with fresh asparagus and parmesan. I'm a sucker for a good risotto and this was definitely one of them; the arborio rice had just the right level of crunch to it, the asparagus was very fresh along with the other Spring vegetables, and it was very creamy.
Full of sustenance we set off to brave the cold and explore the beautiful woodland park. First off was the 'Exploratree' adventure and interactive playground for under fives.
Designed to completely encourage children to explore the forest, there are crawl tunnels, a wooden tree house, play saws (made from wood, no sharp edges) and trees which are perfect for climbing in with their low level branches. We spent a good half an hour here with The Boy playing with all the different parts and exploring and discussing why there were saws and what they were used for.
There are a few interactive elements to the Exploratree park as well:
The wooden tree wall is interactive and encourages the children to question and observe the wildlife in the trees, while there's also a fantastic xylophone made from wooden planks.
After a while we needed to charge around and practise our climbing so we went to explore the Old Arboretum.
We only managed a small section of this part of the Arboretum as The Boy was actually starting to cry and turn as blue as his suit with cold (-3°C remember?) and so we had to turn back unfortunately.
We will be returning to Westonbirt Arboretum in the next month or so to take advantage of temperatures in the positive double figures. Especially because I also wanted to explore the nature play trails hidden amongst the trees of the Old Arboretum and Silk Wood (aimed at 5-11 year olds), where the children can build explorers' dens, balance and clamber over fallen logs, and plan expeditions in a tree fort. I particularly want to find the mystical troll bridge!
Westonbirt has four excellent seasonal play booklets with a multitude of activities to encourage natural play like weaving sticks and treasures together, an insect treasure hunt and many more wonderful ideas. There are also a host of family events coming up over the next few months like Bug World, Forest Folk and Tree Potions.
Entry into Westonbirt is £8 for adults and £3 for children aged 5-18, under fives go free (between March – September) and there is half price entry on Wednesdays in April and May 2013. This is a really reasonable price for entry into somewhere which could easily occupy a whole day, and the half-price entry would be perfect to help children complete the Fifty Things To Do Before You're 11 & ¾. (They also have a Quality Badge awarded by the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom)
Now we've been once, I'm not sure why we took so long to get there! We'll definitely be visiting what must surely be a jewel in the Forestry Commission's crown?
We received free entry into the Arboretum and a meal at the Westonbirt Restuarant in order to complete this review. My opinion is honest and unbiased as always.