Saturday 31 August 2013

Review: Exbury Gardens & Steam Railway (New Forest)

Whilst we were on holiday in the New Forest we were lucky to be offered review tickets for Exbury Gardens and steam railway. It is not somewhere I have heard of before and to be honest, a garden might not normally be my first choice of place to visit with my 3 young kids. However we’d have been missing out due to my narrow mindedness and assumptions that my kids would like something more glitzy.

We found Exbury fairly easily, once you start to get close there are the brown signs that direct you in and I was surprised to find the car park practically empty and the place looked pretty deserted. Upon speaking with the receptionist I learnt that the key times for visits are April/ May when all the world famous rhododendrons and azaleas blossom. Looking at the brochure the colour in the gardens at that time looks amazing, really beautiful. Once autumn is fully here that is another key time for visits too as all the trees change.

It would then be easy to think that summer might hold nothing much for us to see but actually the gardens are interesting and well maintained at all times in the year. The Sun Dial and Tennis Court gardens are bright and beautiful and the trees offer a variety of shapes, sizes and colours all the year long. There were some unusual tree species like the Tulip Tree, Monkey Puzzle Tree, Mahogany Maple and weeping beech.

Buggy Ride
First off to we hopped on a chauffeur driven buggy for a guided trip around the gardens, this took about 45 minutes and we hopped off to look at the carp in one of the ponds and gladly listened to our guide tell us about the history of the gardens and area. He was also really knowledgeable about the species of plants on site and it was amazing to hear that just 8 gardeners tend the land on the estate (all 200 acres of it). The buggy is an optional extra and costs £4 per person, I thought it was thoroughly worth it and even the dog was welcome on the buggy.

The driver was such a friendly guy, both Miss E and Miss M took turns to sit with him and chat

Walks through the garden
There are 23 miles of walks through the gardens and they offer a whole variety of different landscapes, some by the river, others through valleys of rhododendrons and some through more formal gardens. I love the meadow with river view that in the spring is covered in daffodils and of course the kids love to run through the woodlands and more densely planted areas. The paths are generally earth and can be a little uneven but there are many that are suitable for those in wheelchairs or with disabilities.

There are lots of benches to be able to sit down and muse or of course it is great to take a picnic and spend some time there. We hardly saw any other people as we went around the gardens and it would be a great day for a romantic afternoon for two. Many people had their dogs with them and they are welcome on a short lead.

Steam Train
Of course for kids a ride on a train is always a highlight and the Rhododendron line did not disappoint. The journey takes about 20 minutes and you have a short stop half way round so the driver can oil this engine. The kids are invited to get off and go and have a look at the engine as he does it.

To make it more fun for the kids there are shrubs being trained into animal shapes and some animals made from metals around the track for the kids to spot, some of these are really great.
After the ride it is good to take a walk into the train shed and see the exhibit about how the railway came into being. I enjoyed the short video watching it is all being built.

Mr Eddy’s Tea Room
This is not cheap but the food and the portions are excellent, there is an abundance of inside and outside seating and the service is efficient and friendly too. I had a jacket potato with coronation chicken, salad and coleslaw for £6.50, the kids has sausage, chips and beans at £4.50 each and Dh had a cottage pie, new potatoes and vegetables for about £8.75. This tea room was nice enough that I’d happily travel back here again just for it. We didn't try any of the cakes but they looked excellent as well.

General Facilities
·     *   There is loads of free parking at Exbury
·     *   free wheelchair loan
·     *   a nice gift shop
·     *   well maintained toilets
·     *    very friendly staff

You can opt for an ‘all-in’ ticket from 10 June – 25 October and this includes admission to the garden a ride on the steam railway, a buggy trip and discount vouchers for the tea room and shop. These cost £16.50 per adult and £7.00 per child and include a voluntary gift aid donation. There are various separate pricing options available too, take a look online. 

In conclusion –
We all enjoyed our visit to Exbury Gardens and it is somewhere we would happily come back to. As we have just moved to a 220 acre estate ourselves my kids are now a bit spoilt for beautiful countryside to run around but I’d say if your kids do not normally have much access to such a lot of space then they will love the opportunity to explore this land and to let off some steam. Take a picnic and make a family day of it. I noticed you can do a family nature trail for £1.50 too and there are many special days and weekends at Exbury, I particularly fancied a mushroom foraging weekend break!

A big thumbs up from our family. 10/10, I can’t think of anything else I’d like to have found at Exbury.

I'm linking up this post to Fiona's Country Kids - click on the badge to head over and see what others have got up to in their Country Kids exploits.

 Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall
Disclosure: I was provided with free entrance, buggy ride and steam train journey for my family in return for this review. I have not been instructed what to write and I remain honest.
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