World famous for its collections of camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas and more, Exbury Gardens are a delight to explore. With its own Steam Railway, children ’s play area and welcoming restaurant it offers the ideal day out for all. Read on to discover my adventures in the glorious 200-acre site and what I thought of the “magical place in the New Forest National Park”.
Welcome to Exbury
I arrived at Exbury Gardens and Steam Railway in Hampshire on a sunny September day. The gardens are well signposted and easy to find and there was plenty of free parking. I was excited as I entered the gardens and got my first peek of the steam railway! I instantly knew this was going to be a fun and interesting place to visit.
Before I take you round my adventures in the gardens I thought it would be important to tell you about the history of Exbury Gardens. The gardens were the inspiration and creation of Lionel Nathan de Rothschild who was an experienced horticulturist and created the gardens gorgeous designs. Lionel and one of his sons Edmund, were both awarded the highest possible honour by the RHS to celebrate their gardening achievements and today their legacies and gardening dreams live on at Exbury.
Glorious Gardens and Autumn Vibes
As I headed into the gardens I was greeted by copious amounts of lush green trees and easily accessible paths. Each way I looked there was an inviting path heading deeper into the gardens and I was grateful for my garden map to help me navigate and plan my visit!
First, I decided to explore the Bog Garden where I enjoyed reading about the Rothschild family tree and admiring the leafy colourful display. Given the time of year, the trees were just starting to change in colour which I thought looked utterly spectacular. I love Autumn, it’s my favourite season and this display gave me all the right feels!
Next up I took a look around the Rock Garden which had a well-placed bench for a sit-down. Here I enjoyed a moment of relaxation as I sat and admired the beauty around me and listen to the sounds of the steam train chugging along the tracks beyond.
Apparently, the Rock Garden took over four years to build – no mean feat by the sounds of things. I read on the Exbury Gardens website that it is probably the largest Rock Garden of its kind in Europe to given it spans over two acres!
I loved all the bright rhododendrons – so picturesque and pretty. Whilst I was walking around the Rock Garden a deep red leaf fell from the trees above and literally landed right infant of my feet. It remained me of a Canadian maple leaf and I just had to photograph it – a real symbol of Autumn in my eyes!
Next, I wandered around the Jubilee Pond and Jubilee Hill Cascade where I read all about Exbury’s connections with Royalty which was rather interesting! Again the Autumn colours bursting through the trees were so gorgeous I had to keep stopping every few paces to take more photographs! Be sure to check out the Exbury Gardens Instagram page for more pictures of the gardens.
After walking around for a while I felt it would be a good time to go on the guided garden buggy tour. Tours are run several times a day and cost £5 per person. They start from the entrance to the gardens and last approximately 40 minutes. I was joined on the tour by three other people and boarded the 12 seater buggy ready to venture deeper into the gardens.
Brilliant Buggy Tour
The buggy tour was chauffeur driven by a lovely lady called Jennifer who was very friendly and knowledgeable about the gardens. She guided us down a set garden route and was sure to point out certain trees, flowers and explained the different areas of the gardens. Jennifer was keen to impart her knowledge of the gardens and was able to answer any questions visitors had – she told us how the gardens were maintained by 8 full-time gardeners and a group of volunteers. With the gardens spreading across 200 acres I’m sure this is quite the project for them all!
As we passed through Camellia Walk and the host of beautiful camellias, Jennifer told us how Exbury have won an award for having them all labelled with their locations on a computer system – one of only 13 gardens in the world to have that accolade!
Jennifer took us down to the Winter Gardens and we stopped to enjoy the wonderful views overlooking the Beaulieu River. You can see all the boats floating around on the river and even pick out the Isle of Wight in the distance. Here you can see the Arromanches Memorial Plaque which commemorates the British sailors and Royal Marines who manned the landing ships and lost their lives during the invasion of Europe in 1944. The plaque is set in stone and is a lovely place to stop and reflect.
The buggy tour took us back up through the various different gardens and I made a mental note of areas I wanted to walk back to later. I really enjoyed the buggy tour as it was relaxed, informal and a great way to cover so much of the extensive gardens. I don’t think I would ever have been able to walk around them all in one day and feel if I hadn’t of gone on the buggy tour would have missed out on a lot! Jennifer was super friendly and the whole tour very relaxing and informative.
A Spot of Lunch
After enjoying the buggy tour it was time for lunch, so I made my way to Mr Eddy’s Restaurant and Cafe. The inviting restaurant is outside of the main gardens and so people can visit without paying the entrance fee to the gardens should they wish.
The restaurant offered a good selection of hot and cold lunches and a host of drinks and scrummy looking cakes! I opted for a caramelised red onion and cheddar tart with salad which was £7.50 and very tasty. I matched it with an elderflower & apple juice and sat outside in the patio area enjoying the afternoon sunshine.
All Aboard Exbury’s Steam Railway
Next, it was time to take a ride on the Exbury Steam Railway. Train rides happen at different frequencies throughout the year so be sure to check the current timetable at the start of your visit to ensure you don’t miss this additional treat. The railway has its own little station which was adjoined with gorgeous decorate hanging baskets and painted a lovely navy blue colour. I boarded a carriage on the train and was joined by a couple and their small dog. Exbury is a dog-friendly attraction and dogs are welcome in the gardens along as they are kept on a short lead.
With a loud whistle and a puff of steam, we were off. The train got going and we passed through the Summer Lane Garden full of glorious trees and flowering grasses. There are views down to the Rock garden and various animal statues and displays along the route for children to look out for too. I really enjoyed the journey, there’s nothing better than a relaxing train ride out in the open being able to smell the steam engine and hear it choo chooing along. The dog in my carriage appeared to be enjoying the ride too!
We reached the Exbury South station where the train stopped, and the driver came out and told us about the history of the railway. He told us how it was 12 and a quarter inches and was opened in 2001. The railway was apparently the inspiration of Leopold de Rothschild and has been very popular with visitors.
For all those steam train enthusiasts out there Exbury offers a floor plate experience where visitors aged 17+ can ride next to the train driver and learn about how the engine works. This experience costs £50 and sounds like a great gift for a loved one who enjoys all things trains!
After enjoying the 20 minute trip along the 1 and a half mile track we arrived back at Exbury Central station and disembarked the train. Here, I was able to explore the Engine Shed which is full of information and displays detailing the history of the steam railway, other engines and various displays of train memorabilia. I enjoyed reading about the construction of the railway and hearing how it was built.
Relaxation and Reflections
It was time for me to head back into the glorious gardens. I passed through Witcher’s Wood over the Gilbury Bridge to the Sundial Garden.
The Sundial Garden is a small, formal garden which is full of gorgeous wisteria, roses and other pretty flowers.
In the centre of the enclosed garden is the sundial. Again this felt like another nice place to stop, reflect and take in all the beauty around me.
After all this walking and wandering around the gardens I was in need of some refreshments, so I popped into the Old Tennis Courts where I had a piece of carrot cake and a can of soft drink. It was still nice and sunny, so I was able to sit outside and enjoy the September sun.
I made my way slowly back up through the gardens, admiring the beautiful Exbury House as I went. What a stunning looking house – I certainly wouldn’t mind living there. The house is private and so not open to visitors, so I had to imagine what I thought it looked like on the inside!
I think I left my favourite part of the gardens until last – the Herbaceous Garden – it was so blooming gorgeous! There were borders full of delightfully coloured flowers and I stopped here to take many photos! There were so many bees dancing among the flowers and enjoying their sweet nectar.
There was no one else in sight at this current moment and I was able to enjoy this part of the gardens completely on my own. I think that’s one thing I really loved about Exbury – the fact the gardens are so big and vast that you can find yourself exploring the gardens alone feeling like you have them all to explore however you wish.
I made my way to the exit as it was getting quite late in the afternoon and I knew I needed to drive to Bridport in Dorset for my overnight accommodation.
Entry to Exbury Gardens and Steam Railway costs £15.30 for adults and £8.95 for children when tickets are booked online. They are slightly more when brought at the gardens themselves so book in advance if you can to save a few pennies! Family tickets are also available as well as season tickets for entry to the gardens all year round. If I lived closer I think I would seriously consider getting a season pass as I bet the gardens are lovely to explore all seasons of the year.
Exbury offers various events throughout the year too. With Halloween coming up Exbury has some spooky events planned included a ride on the ghost train and Halloween crafts. There are also some traditional Christmas events lined up including festive crafts, carol singing and the Postal Express train ride. More information about upcoming events can be found on the Exbury Gardens Facebook Page and website.
The gardens are dog-friendly, accessible and have good toilet facilities. There’s a children’s play area for the little ones too. With various places to eat (some season dependent), glorious gardens and a steam railway I’m not sure what more you would want from a day out!
I left Exbury Gardens feeling relaxed, inspired and with tired feet after all the walking and exploring I did! It had felt so good to immerse myself in nature and to explore all the different gardens. I loved the buggy tour and really recommend this to visitors planning to head to the gardens. I feel it really enhanced my experience and I was able to see and learn so much more about the gardens than if I hadn’t gone on the tour. The ride on the steam engine totally topped off the visit and added a sense of excitement and nostalgia – any excuse to step back in time and feel like a big kid!
I really recommend Exbury Gardens and Steam Railway as a lovely day out for all ages – there’s something for everyone of all ages and interests. I would love to return in another season and see what the gardens have to offer! No doubt I’ll be back to Exbury soon!
***Whilst entry to the gardens, the train ride and buggy tour were provided to me on a complimentary basis, all thoughts, pictures and opinions in this post are entirely my own***