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The wonders of Westonbirt

July 27, 2019

We welcomed Rob Head, a volunteer guide at Westonbirt to our main meeting this month. It was an appropriate choice (despite the record breaking heat!) as 2019 marks the Forestry Commission's (recently renamed Forestry England) hundredth birthday and local-to-us Westonbirt is its flagship national arboretum.

Rob told us about the Holford family who started their tree collection in the 19th century on the part of their vast estate we know as Westonbirt today, 600 hundred acres in total. He explained the different soil types mean it's an ideal place to plant all kinds of trees as their differing requirements can easily be met.

Silk Wood was originally a productive, coppicing part of the estate with paths forged through it by the Holford family. Today, the coppice nature of Silk Wood is still there, but later features such as the Centenary Glade and the aerial walkway are starting to give it a different look and feel. The wider pathways called Rides (like the one shown top right) in the Old Arboretum, are so-called because the Holfords used to inspect their estate on horseback or by horse and open carriage. In between the two (Silk Wood and the Old Arboretum) are The Downs which are more open in their nature and the undisturbed grassland is host to lots of wildflowers, including orchids.

Rob had plenty of tales of the Victorian plant hunters who brought back seeds from all over the world. Two of them stood out:

  • How the Chinese tricked us by supplying Camellia japonica plants instead of the tea producing Camellia sinensis. British plans to establish tea plantations in India were scuppered temporarily, and a craze for collecting and hybridising the pretty floral species started instead

  • Ernest Wilson's search for the fabled Handkerchief Tree (Davidia involucrata) were thwarted after searching and travelling thousands of miles in China (with a VERY dodgy map as his only guide!), only to find the tree had been chopped down just before his arrival and a house built from it beside the stump. Later finds and seed collection defeated propagation experts including those at Kew who threw them away in disgust. Tree seedlings were found later growing on the compost heap where the seeds had been thrown!

Rob rounded off his talk with scenes of Westonbirt through the seasons, which showed there is plenty to see at any time of year, not just colourful autumn.

AND FINALLY, we selected the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust as our chosen charity for September's proceeds from our refreshments and raffle. Don't forget to bring your purse!

Elsewhere this month the Theatre Group enjoyed two very different visits; an outdoor production in the gorgeous setting of Corsham's almshouses of Shakespeare's The Tempest by the cycling Handlebards, followed by a trip to Bristol for lunch and a matinee performance of Calendar Girls the musical at the Hippodrome. Tears and laughter were the order of the day with the latter, and it was a superb advert for what the WI has to offer!

The Crafty Crew tried their hand at felted pictures with impressive results and Our Town re-discovered the art of copperplate writing with pen and ink (and stained fingers!) under the tutelege of Miss Squire at Sevington's Victorian School. We also provided some of the choir members and audience for Wiltshire WI's centenary service at Salisbury cathedral.

There were mixed reviews at Book Club when they discussed Colson Whitehead's prize winning The Underground Railroad and the Flexi Club returned to Grounded, one of their favourite haunts for morning coffee.

NB There's no formal meeting next month, though there is the option for a return visit to Carolyne's farm. Let her know if you'd like to come so she has an idea of numbers. Otherwise, have a great summer holiday everyone, and we'll see you in September!

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