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Yew berries - Dawyck Botanic Garden

Yew berries – Dawyck Botanic Garden

I think it might be a sign of growing older that time appears to have sped up. I now find myself saying phrases like ‘Where has the time gone?’, ‘Is it 5 o’ clock/ Friday/ October already?’ Things creep up on me now. I was horrified to see Christmas crackers and puddings in the supermarket the other day not because of frustration with the over-commercialisation of the festive season, but rather the realisation that Christmas isn’t actually THAT far away. Oh, and I woke up the other day in a cold sweat when it dawned on me that I have less than a month to finish the book.

Dawyck Botanic Garden

Dawyck Botanic Garden

September merged into October for me whilst on a trip to Scotland. We loved Edinburgh so much last year that we thought we’d go again. It was a fantastic break catching up with a friend, eating great food and taking in the stunning scenery. I do wish someone would invent teleportation though. Any journey which involves the M6 is a slog, and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s being stuck in a traffic jam. If it’s possible I try to plan a stop-off to beak up long journeys. Not only are they a way of seeing somewhere which I might not otherwise, they are essential for restoring the blood flow to my legs after a prolonged period in the car. Dawyck Botanic Garden is an hour or so south of Edinburgh, so it seemed the perfect place to stop for a walk and the obligatory cup of tea. Dawyck, a few miles outside the town of Biggar (stop the sniggering at the back), is an arboretum under the management of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. The collection, covering over 60 acres, was once part of the Dawyck Estate where, over 300 years, 3 successive families have planted and maintained a globally significant collection of trees.

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It was the fresh clean air which I noticed first. Now, it’s not as if I live in a polluted city choked by traffic exhaust fumes. Okay, sometimes the air in my village is a tad potent thanks to the silage the farmer has spread, but generally I’m lucky to be able to take deep breaths of clean Welsh air. There was something very noticeable though about Dawyck, it had a zing to the air that you get in alpine villages. It’s the sort of place that makes you feel as if you’ve had an expensive facial when you haven’t. Then you notice the trees. My, what trees! They were like green skyscrapers shooting up towards the clouds; there’s something awe-inspiring about such gigantic trees. I get a similar feeling when I’m on a beach and I’m faced with the vastness of the sky, clouds and sea; this is nature in all its glory and it’s fabulous. If you love trees you’ll love it here. The location, with the mountains, craggy hillsides and gushing streams, is unlike the other arboretums I have visited, which tend to have been created in more gently undulating landscapes. Thanks to the stunning surroundings Dawyck has some fabulous vistas. My favourite was looking down from the Beech Walk towards the privately owned house with its classic Scottish Baronial architecture and Trahenna Hill looming over it.

Dawyck House

Dawyck House

The Veitches were the first family to live at Dawyck, in the castle which predated the current house, and they started the tradition of tree planting. The Naesmyths who followed continued the legacy. This was a family with a serious interest in plant hunting and especially trees. Sir James (1704-1779) trained under the tutelage of the famous botanist Carl Linnaeus, and his grandson Sir John Murray discovered a new species of beech growing on the estate with an unusual columnar habit of growth; it subsequently became known as the Dawyck Beech. Sir John also funded the trips of plant hunters such as William Lobb and David Douglas. The Douglas Trail within the arboretum includes the famous firs named after him which are believed to be among the first to have been grown in the UK. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Balfour family became the new owners. Fred Balfour added to the arboretum including trees from North America and Asia. He too financed plant collectors in return for seed. He wasn’t just a tree lover though, under his ownership azaleas and rhododendrons, meconopsis and daffodils were planted to add interest to the gardens throughout the year. The Balfours still live in Dawyck House, but they gifted the arboretum to the Botanic Gardens in 1979.

Lichen covered trees at Dawyck Botanic Garden

Lichen covered trees at Dawyck Botanic Garden

In the clear unpolluted air lichens thrive. There were some trees which were so covered in lichen it was hard to tell what they were underneath the dripping, Gandalf-like lichen beards. A whole area is devoted to crytogams. Despite 4 years of studying horticulture I’d never heard of the word before – it means a plant which reproduces by spores instead of flowers and seeds, and includes mosses, fungi, liverworts, ferns and algae. The damp conditions make it perfect for mosses and the understory to the trees was a mossy equivalent of a shag pile carpet, deep, springy and verdant green.

The Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh are a world leader in the study of cryptogams. As part of this research a Scots Pine, planted from seed at Dawyck in the 1840s and blown down in the 1990s, is being studied as it decays to see which fungi and organisms make it their home. I find these elements of horticulture, the less glamorous side of it, fascinating. It’s easy and obvious why we adore flowers but I love that there are people out there who make it their life’s work to study the plants that so often go unnoticed.

Edinburgh panda

And so to the furry creatures mentioned in the title. It wasn’t part of the plan to visit Edinburgh Zoo but the rain came down and we didn’t fancy wandering around an art gallery. I did wonder if we’d made the right decision as we squelched our way to the entrance but I’m so glad we chose animals over Whistler and Monet. Of course, the pandas have grabbed a huge amount of attention since their arrival at the zoo. The will-there-won’t-there be the patter of tiny panda paws has disappointingly come to nothing. It did mean however that the panda enclosure was open to visitors once again. I have learnt from years of zoo visits not to get my hopes up about seeing any particular creature. I have stood in front of many an enclosure searching high and low for the advertised creature only to shuffle off still none the wiser as to what a slow loris looks like in the fur. We timed our visit to the panda enclosure perfectly. We arrived to be told by the keeper that the male panda had been lying on a plinth for 4 hours. Within seconds it got up, strolled along the back wall, then walked straight towards us so it was within inches of the fence, before disappearing inside and out of view. For the briefest of moments we got to see one of the most iconic creatures on the planet and closer than I had ever imagined.

Another creature, an animal I have wanted to see ever since I can remember, was even more obliging. Edinburgh Zoo is the only place in the UK where you can see koalas and it was such a treat to see them. Considering koalas spend 23 out of 24 hours a day asleep we were lucky to see to see one of them eating, stretching and climbing, albeit all done at a measured koala pace. It must have exhausted itself though because it too joined its fellow koalas for a snooze, but I’m not sure it can get any cuter than a sleeping koala resting its head on a paw.

P.s. Thanks to Wellyman for his fab photos.

Sleeping koala

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