Bedgebury Pinetum and Forest, home to the national conifer collection and managed by the Forestry Commission, is just off the A21 near Goudhurst, yet many, even locals, may never have heard of it. That always surprises me because Bedgebury is home to some of the most rare and unique trees, both conifer and deciduous, from around the world, set in a breathtakingly spectacular landscape. No matter what the season, it is always a wonderful time to visit. Individuals, families and groups will all find something of interest, whether you want to walk the dog, run a half marathon or just ‘treebathe’ in the Pinetum; Bedgebury has it all.
Here, you can marvel at giant redwoods that grow to be ‘tallest trees’ or ‘largest living organisms in the world’, or monkey puzzle trees whose seeds cannot be frozen in the Millennium Seed Bank so they have to be grown in great numbers to preserve them. Nor is it just trees that take centre-stage at Bedgebury; some of the rarest flora and fauna in the south east make it their home. As if that were not enough, there are miles and miles of walking, running and cycling trails for those with energy to burn and acres of children’s play for those who just want to have fun.
Bedgebury is not just a beautiful arboretum, or a forest packed with outdoor recreation adventures. It is also a highly regarded site of tree conservation that works with its well-known international partners to help save endangered conifers around the world. The Pinetum’s nursery is particularly good at coaxing hard to propagate seeds to sprout. Its conservation miracles are many. A few years ago, Bedgebury achieved a world first when it managed to grow, from seed, the extremely rare Vietnamese golden cypress. You can see a specimen of this rare conifer, as well as other similarly rare trees or conservation miracles, as you walk round the Pinetum.
Bedgebury’s propagation expertise is the reason that it has been invited by Botanic Gardens Conservation International to join a major project currently underway to help save the critically endangered Mulanje cedar, the national tree of Malawi. Bedgebury has also been working with the well-known local charity, Starfish Malawi, to engage local schools as well as schools in Malawi with tree conservation issues.
To work here is a privilege and a joy; I get to spend time on site all year round and every time I take a walk I find something new and beautiful to wonder at. On a still January day, when the skies are grey and bleak, the reflections of the skeletal swamp cypress in Marshal’s Lake can be spectacular when offset by the vivid reds and yellows of the shrubs that line the banks. If the skies are blue and the air is crisp, then the Lake and its reflections are magical!
The Pinetum in the winter is beloved by birders who come every year hoping to catch sight of the shy hawfinches or elusive crossbills that roost here in the winter. Once the branches are bare it is also easier to see the iconic firecrest with its startling colours and bandit eyes as well as the myriad other birds that roost within the arboretum. For the extremely lucky few who attend our bird-ringing demonstrations, there is the occasional magical close encounter when a rare or extraordinary bird is gently trapped, measured, recorded and freed again.
As the days get warmer, the first of the rhododendrons start to show flashes of colour from late January, although they are not at their best until April or May. This is when one secluded part of the site, the Glory Hole, is a riot of colour from its collection of azaleas and rhododendrons.
Until then, you can admire the more unusually coloured cones which start to develop by March on some of our rare and special conifer trees. One of the most colourful is the bright pink cone of the tamarack larch which gradually turns brown as it matures.
In the summer the place really rocks! Literally, if you consider that there are normally two pop concerts on the site each June! In nature terms, this is when Bedgebury truly comes into its own. The unusual mix of conifer and broadleaf tree varieties that grow side by side, and the underlying acidic soils provide a rich and varied habitat for rare and beautiful flora and fauna. Bedgebury boasts plants such as the endemic English eyebright, the lemon scented fern and the parasitic wildflower, dodder, that grows on heather, all of which are uncommon in the south east. You can also find more common wildflower beauties such as bluebells, goldenrod, devil’s bit scabious, tormentil, heath milkwort, bee orchids and common spotted orchids.
Bedgebury is probably the only place in the south east where you can find 6 different species of bat! Given that there are only 18 species in the UK, that’s considered pretty good going. The same is true of our butterflies… in the summer up to 25 of the 59 UK species can be spotted, including the rare grizzled skipper. Regular bat and butterfly walks on site give experts and the uninitiated alike a chance to see some of Bedgebury’s wildlife show-stoppers.
On sunny weekends, in summer and winter, parts of the site can be very busy. Some come for the children’s play trails, others for the bike hire and mixed-ability mountain bike trails. Others prefer to enjoy tree top adventures with Go Ape. Day trippers and annual members walk the seasonal trails, and picnic blankets can always be found dotted on the grass banks. Fitness fanatics rub shoulders with dog walkers and everyone converges in the café for refreshments and to enjoy its beautiful lakeside views. Yet there is always space and peace to be found on this 2,500 acre site.
My favourite time, when I can pretend that the Pinetum is all mine, is midweek during term-time at around 2.30pm when the pre-schoolers have gone home with their parents to collect elder siblings. For a couple of hours, the place is devoid of people. Once again, I can sit on one of many strategically placed benches around the site and breathe in the calm.
Autumn comes again too soon, and the trees start to change colour spectacularly. Bedgebury has an amazing autumn display because of its mix of conifer and broadleaf trees. Yes, even some of the conifers change colour and drop their needles for the winter! The most spectacular of these are the swamp cypresses and dawn redwoods that turn the most amazing bronze and rust colours in readiness for the winter storms which finally strip their needles. Marshal’s Lake reflects a glorious melange of reds, golds and browns before it settles again for the calm of quieter winter days.
A year, made up of the four seasons, across twelve months, is still not enough to take in all that Bedgebury Pinetum and Forest has to offer. Thankfully, it all starts again every January! This year again, I know that Bedgebury will be unique in every season.
Mina McPhee, The Friends of Bedgebury Pinetum
The Friends of Bedgebury Pinetum is a charity that supports the Forestry Commission in its management of Bedgebury as a world-class centre of conifer research, conservation and education, as a landscape of rare and endangered flora and fauna, and as a site for high quality, healthy recreation. It is funded by membership subscriptions, sponsorship activities and donations. For more information about the Friends of Bedgebury Pinetum visit www.bedgeburypinetum.org.uk
Bedgebury Pinetum and Forest, Lady Oak Lane, Goudhurst TN17 2SL. Tel: 01580 879842
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