Sunday, October 07, 2007

A Day at Exbury

Fawley must be one of the ugliest places on earth.

The Exxon refinery is the largest in the UK. With its intricate pipework knitting, ugly containers and distressed buildings it might have been the model for the sets in Blade Runner. It is plastered onto the end of Southampton Water, opposite the Isle of Wight and my vision of Hell on Earth.

Yet only a couple of miles away is the Heaven on Earth of Exbury Gardens.

On Friday the weather forecast said it would be a cloudless day and we took the opportunity to take the day off and go out for the day. We hadn't visited Exbury for about 15 years, and when we last went Diane developed such severe hay fever that we had to curtail our visit. That was in May, so October should have been alright. Late April to May is the optimal time to visit Exbury, because the attraction is the world famous collection of Azaleas and Rhododendrons. The gardens are those of a stately home owned by the de Rothschild family. They comprise 280 acres with 26 miles of pathways. October sees the rhododendrons and azaleas in leaf but not in flower, but the attraction is the other trees turning red, yellow and gold. We had thoughts of New England in the Fall, but here, not thirty miles from our front door was its rival.

We arrived at 11 am and just sauntered through the gardens. We were there for almost 5 hours, just meandering along pathways. There were perhaps a hundred other people there, so plenty of solitude. At the furthest edge of the estate were delightful views over the Beauleu River and the Solent, on Friday, electric blue in color. In the sundial garden, walled in by Yew hedges, sun-trapped Cannas bloomed and strange sub-tropical plants flowered in bright blues and oranges with alien-shaped blooms.

Each member of the family seemed to have a hobby, for one it was rhodedendrons, for another it was steam trains. In the past five years they have laid a narrow gauge (12.5 inches) track and two steam trains pull passengers through part of the gardens only accessible that way. I have had fun helping to build my grandson's model railway, but this is the way that a really rich man does it.

Another family member has a passion for Nerines. These are sometimes known as the Spider Lily, Jersey Lily or Guernsey lily. originally native to South Africa, they can thrive only in the balmiest parts of England such as this. The temperature on Friday was in the low seventies. The collection on view was bred by a retired civil servant, now at 93, living in Switzerland, and his collection housed with the de Rothschilds for safe keeping.

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