A bird’s eye view of Westonbirt
It’s well known in my family that I don’t do heights. I was the child who had to be rescued from the playground slide and the only pupil not to ascend the Eiffel Tower on a school trip. So saying I was going to try the new Westonbirt treetop walkway was met with wry amusement. Would I cope, they wondered, or would it be embarrassing for all concerned?
I must confess to some nervousness as I drew up for the official opening by BBC Countryfile presenter Ellie Harrison. After all, at its highest point the new Stihl treetop walkway is a dizzying 13.5m, or more than 44ft, off the ground with a crow’s nest encircling a black pine, a wire mesh section and wobbly rope bridge. All well outside my comfort zone.
In the end, I needn’t have worried. Such is the design of this latest addition to the National Arboretum that even I was barely aware I had left ground level.
This is achieved by the clever use of the ground’s topography, taking it over a natural dip in the land, and the way the wooden structure gradually slopes upwards, a factor that makes it easily accessible to all and not just the fully mobile.
Fittingly, it’s made of wood – larch and Douglas fir – and held up by 57 wooden legs, the highest 14m.
There’s attention to detail: the handrails are high enough to give a feeling of safety yet low enough for those below 6ft to see, while the railings underneath are designed to give a good view through for children or those in wheelchairs.
“You go on so many other features like this and you can only see if you are tall enough to see over the handrail,” comments arboretum director Andrew Smith.
He and the rest of the team are delighted with the result of what has been a long project. It includes the welcome building, which opened in 2014, and the Wolfson Tree Management Centre, which opened this week with the walkway; the Friends of the Arboretum raised £1.9m to fund this second phase.
“For several years people have been looking at visuals and the visuals don’t live up to the reality. It exceeds expectations.”
What took me by surprise was the sheer beauty of the thing. The lines are sleek and sinewy, the Siberian larch handrails have a tactile quality and the shape has an organic feel. True, the ground beneath still shows the scars of building but given time that will repair and once newly planted trees grow up the structure will sit comfortably in the landscape.
At 300m long – almost the length of the Millennium Bridge – the Westonbirt treetop walkway is believed to be the longest of its type in the UK yet because it snakes into Silk Wood with generous curves you can’t see more than about 50m at any one time. It’s a factor, believes Andrew, which fits well with the picturesque style of Westonbirt, started in the 1850s by Robert Holford.
“One of the features of the arboretum is its snaking paths. This has a ‘what’s round the corner’ type of feeling.”
In contrast, the start of the walkway, designed by Glenn Howells Architects, gives an unparalleled 360 degree view of the arboretum and the historic downs, now restored thanks to the relocation of the entrance and car park.
It also gives an unprecedented view of part of the arboretum’s world class collection. One of the first close-up encounters is with a magnificent Atlas Cedar.
“On that sort of tree the cones sit on the top of the branches so you don’t normally get to see them at ground level, unless they fall off,” says Andrew with a smile.
Westonbirt’s dendrologist Dan Crowley explains that more trees have been planted along the route, including walnuts, maples, alders and a hemlock.
“We’ve planted a black walnut, which will provide really strong autumn colour, and a big leaved maple from the West Coast, which will become a really big tree in the landscape.”
Yet, while these mature there is still plenty to see, not least from the information points with facts and figures about trees; I learned that elm is used for coffins, boat-building and furniture, grey poplar for matchsticks and European box in violin fittings.
It promises to be a huge draw but one that Andrew is confident Westonbirt can cope with; staff will be monitoring numbers for the first few days to ensure the walkway doesn’t get too crowded and it is designed to accommodate more than 270 people.
And what of the scary bits? Well comfortingly, the 10m-long mesh walkway is made of Elefant mesh and is narrow enough so that you can avoid it, although looking down on a tree below is an experience not to be missed. The rope bridge does wobble but has slats rather than being purely rope and was short enough for me to brave. I even ventured up onto the crow’s nest, which moves somewhat alarmingly in the wind giving a real sense of the trees swaying, and I didn’t need rescuing. In fact, driving away, I decided I had actually rather enjoyed the whole experience.
• The Stihl Treetop Walkway is open to the public from Wednesday April 27. Admission is included in the normal entry price. For details, visit Westonbirt Arboretum
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