Sun and sea in the Happy Valley

SUNSHINE blazes down on Magnolia Avenue. A Red Admiral flutters past. Azaleas and rhododendrons are in bloom, and green daffodil spikes scissor the banks. It’s January, but not as we know it.

This is Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens, a happy valley folded into the most breathtaking stretch of the Jurassic Coast, next to the Fleet Lagoon and the wide blue glory of Lyme Bay.

It’s blessed with its own micro-climate, which means it rarely gets a frost. So the flora and fauna are throwing a party in this, one of the mildest winters on record.

I can’t believe I’m getting paid to be here. (I work for Watershed PR, promoting Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens, among other clients, and today I get a guided tour from Curator Steve Griffith.)

Steve breeds pheasants, and scatters down breakfast seeds for them to squabble over. We pass the kookaburra enclosure. One’s hunched in the nesting box.

He points out red, pink and white camellias. We pause beneath the famous Caucasian Wingnut tree.

We sniff appreciatively at a big pile of dung, spread over one of the flower beds to help them retain moisture in the summer. (Lorryloads of manure get dropped off from the Ilchester Estates).

The views of the coast take my breath away. I can see from St Aldhem’s Head, all the way to Start Point. Sheep regard us impassively. St Catherine’s Chapel is framed by the winter branches, thanks to some skilled tree surgery every two years (a trick borrowed from Capability Brown).

Japanese birches thrust white limbs up to the blue sky. Close relatives of plants that grew 200 million years ago swamp the Jurassic Pond Garden.

These used to be the kitchen gardens for a castle, holiday home of Dorset noblemen, that fell down long ago. Steve shows me a catalogue of plants from the gardens in 1899, beautifully bound and privately printed. He’s working on his own database, and has listed around 2,500 species, but has only just scratched the surface.

I drink in the beauty, and drive back up the coast road to the office, my soul singing.


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