An Exotic Experience

I’ve found yet another gem, folks. Today I had a meeting at Abbotsbury Sub-Tropical Gardens, so while I was there I thought I may as well have a look around. Wow.

I haven’t been there for years, and then I was somewhat distracted by small children, so I’d forgotten just how exotic it really  is.  From the moment you go through the entrance it’s like being on holiday, with palm trees, big lush banana leaves and jungly foliage, and especially with today’s sunshine it was authentically tropical.

The origins of the gardens begin with the creation of a mansion by Sir Giles Strangways in 1541, but the gardens as they are now are traceable back to the eighteenth century when Elizabeth, 1st Countess of Ilchester, built a walled garden to grow produce to feed the family & staff. Over time, this expanded beyond the walls, fuelled by the 19th century craze for plant-hunting, which took the family all over the globe collecting new and exotic specimens for their collection. Major changes include the demolition of the ruined castle, the gardens being used by the army during WWII, and the great storm of 1987  which enforced some major changes.

Because it is so tucked away in a valley on one of the warmest (and dampest!) points of the British Isles, the micro-climate means plants thrive there that would struggle elsewhere. The palms, tree ferns, gunneras and exotic Mediterranean shrubs give it a very foreign flavour, and there are many echoes of the Himalayas and China, with giant bamboos, red Chinese bridges, lots of rhododendrons and camellias and a Burmese rope bridge over a shady pool. Fittingly for the Jurassic Coast, it has quite a Jurassic feel in parts – the scale of some of the massive tree ferns and giant gunnera leaves make it feel quite pre-historic.

I thought it had a lovely balance of beautifully kept, manicured lawns and flower borders and wilder, fern-covered walkways with towering foliage and shady glades. Although obviously incredibly well looked-after, it doesn’t feel at all precious (overly tidy gardens, like overly tidy houses, make me nervous), and there are lots of different pools, lawns and walks to discover.

Without wishing to denigrate the hard work of all the gardeners, the star of the show for me was actually the view from the top of the magnolia walk, at the top of the garden. This is a wide grassy ride between the woods, ending in a spectacular viewpoint, from which you get panoramic views of the whole of Lyme Bay, from the tip of Portland right round to Start Point, and as a bonus you can also see round to St Catherine’s Chapel and its medieval strip lynchets which give the hill such a distinctive silhouette. Today was a beautiful clear, breezy, sparkly day, and the sea shining and larks singing were just magic.

Chesil, the Fleet & Portland

Because I so seldom do it, I’d forgotten just how relaxing visiting a garden is – everybody else there is so relaxed it all rubs off on you. No-one has anything else they should be doing, anything they’re rushing to do – they’re all just in the moment, taking in the sunshine, colours and atmosphere, and it’s catching. I seemed to spend half the time taking photos of happy Dutch people (with their own cameras – it’s not some weird fetish of mine), and everyone was just happy to be there.

When I was there, they were preparing for their first wedding in the new wedding marquee. They have a gazebo for the ceremony, and you can now hire the amazing new marquee – a permanent structure with transparent sides and roof panels that let in lots of natural light, and because of sympathetic planning it nestles amongst mature trees and borders as if it’s always been there. It will also be available for functions, and the team hope to start pop-up restaurants in partnership with Dorset Fine Dining, who were catering today’s wedding.

The plant nursery on the way out was very impressive too. It had a huge range of sub-tropical, tender and hardy plants, including many that can be found in the gardens, or lookalikes that give the similar effect but are hardier for other areas of the country. The prices were surprisingly reasonable, often just £5.99 for a sturdy specimen of an unusual variety in a large (2litre?) pot. You don’t have to pay entrance fees to get to the restaurant, shop or nursery, so it’s well worth a visit anyway even if you’re just going past on your way to Chesil Beach.

On a practical note, dogs are allowed on leads, about 50% of the paths are wheelchair accessible, and there is a childrens’ play area, and themed childrens events throughout the year, including a Halloween trail.

I was thoroughly won over by the gardens, and as well as wanting to go back in a different season, it’s made me want to get out and visit some more. Abbotsbury itself is a picture-postcard village,  and the area has incredible views, the iconic Chesil Beach, and ancient landscape features from the South Dorset Ridgeway. The South West Coast Path goes right past the end of the road, and the world-famous Swannery and lovely Children’s Farm are also brilliant days out. I can’t think of many nicer places to be on a sunny, blustery Dorset day.

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