Park Wood, Hergest Croft, Herefordshire
PUBLISHED: 22:25 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:09 20 February 2013
Cessa Moore revisits one of her favourite places: Park Wood at Hergest Croft, a marvellous collection of rare and beautiful trees cultivated by three generations of the Banks family.
On a perfect May or early June morning, with that luminous sunshine which so often starts a summer day in Herefordshire, there is one place to which my thoughts always turn, and that is Park Wood. This magical place just outside Kington, near to Offa's Dyke path, is most easily reached through the wonderful garden at Hergest Croft, which itself is at its peak at this time of year. If you can tear yourself away from the fine collection of trees and plants at Hergest, and walk over the meadow to the wood, you will never regret it.
I first visited Park Wood on just such a day, many years past. I cannot grow rhododendrons in my garden, and know very little about them, which makes a visit to the wood a very peaceful affair, as I am not for ever thinking "I must have that" - I simply revel in the luxuriance of the planting, and the sheer beauty of the setting.
Over one hundred years ago William Banks began planting trees in what was already established woodland. He planted trees for shelter, to protect the rare and beautiful specimens he added later. This inspired work was continued by his son, Richard Banks, known affectionately as Dick, a renowned dendrologist and plantsman who added many unusual trees and shrubs, often growing them from seed that he had collected abroad. He instituted a programme of clearing the brambles and undergrowth, thinning out some of the shelter belt trees to make room for the new treasures from all over the world.
In turn Richard's widow, Rosamund Banks, continues to cherish and add to the collection; visitors will see whole groves of young plants, chosen with imagination and flare to complement the older trees. The collection is probably one of the best labelled in the country, detailing not only the botanical name but also the country of origin and date of planting, often indicating the donor if that is appropriate.
When you cross the cattle grid over the small stream at the gate of the wood, you have no idea of the delights to come. The path winds gently up a slope through plantings of young oak, growing quickly under the canopy of older trees. After a few hundred yards, the path broadens to a clearing, and there the wood unfolds in a blaze of colour, with tier upon tier of trees cascading down the hillside, their rivers of blossom like bolts of silk carelessly strewn across an eastern market stall, red, pink, and white, in many subtle shades. Immediately at your feet is a pond (I would call it a small lake), still and clear, reflecting the colours above, before emptying into the stream below down a rushing perpendicular waterfall.
It is not difficult to imagine yourself transported to the foothills of the Himalaya, and believe that Tibetan bells, and even monkeys, might be heard at any moment. The tall oaks and larches form a protective canopy and it is rare for these blossoms to be damaged by frost. Stand for a few minutes and just savour the colours, the different greens which offset them, and the shapes and shadows all around. The silence is part of the special feeling, broken only by the sound of unseen birds, and the stream wandering down the valley
There are three paths at different levels that wind round the lake, and you will want to take them each in turn: new views and perspectives open up as you explore, and each path has its own character and surprises.
The top path, known as Log Cabin, takes you high above the pond, so that you are above many of the trees with what really is a bird's eye view. Cushions of colour spill down below, and the pond can be glimpsed glinting through the branches. At the far end of the path is a group of Magnolia wilsonii, which the Banks grew from seed about thirty years ago. These trees are now so high that you can stand beneath them and look up into the beautiful pendant white flowers with their purple markings, scenting the wood in the warm sunshine. Nearby are some lovely birches and acers, their barks in a range of colours which seem to be particularly vivid in the spring.
The Chinese path, which is the middle one, has a particularly fine specimen of Rhododendron fulvum, with deep pink flowers and a fine indumentum - a coloured down - under the leaves. Many of the rhododendrons on this path have twisted stems reminiscent of an Arthur Rackham drawing, adding to the mysterious feel of this part of the wood. There are too many different types of rhododendron here to catalogue them all, but look out for R. griffithianum x barbatum, with deep red flowers, and R. white diamond, planted in 1928.
The stream-side circular path is a delight for children, winding through the lower growing shrubs and crossing the stream on narrow wooden bridges. Here you will find some fine examples of the Australian tree fern, Dicksonia antarctica, which spend the winter closely wrapped in a cocoon of bracken and wire netting, and when released in late spring put out their distinctive new shoots which resemble a bishop's crozier.
Below the pond is the area known as the Flower Fall. Here there are many new hybrids and a collection of young magnolias. It is in this part of the wood that one of the latest flowering rhododendrons, R. Polar Bear, with its scented white blossoms, can be found. The flowering peak in Flower Fall is slightly later than that of the higher ground, although in these days of climate change it is not always easy to predict with certainty the flowering times of any plant.
I have deliberately not larded this article with lists of names, because to me the whole glory of Park Wood is the total effect of the planting, the beauty of the contrasting colours and textures, and the exuberance of the growth of these special trees. It is a place to visit not only in spring but at any time of year: my grandchildren love going there in the autumn when the colours can rival those in May, and the fallen leaves carpet the ground, making a delicious sound as small Wellington boots scuff through them. But for me, May is the most special moment, and I try never to miss it.
Because of the naturalness of the design of the wood, with narrow winding paths climbing up and down hill, occasionally broken by steps of huge logs, it is sadly not suitable for wheelchairs. But a moderately able bodied person of any age can easily negotiate the terrain and enjoy the magic of this unique place. Take care of the environment in this wonderful wood: it is a privilege to be able to visit it, and we should be forever grateful to the foresight and imagination of the remarkable Banks family in planting and continuously adding to such a beautiful haven.
Park Wood can be reached by way of Hergest Croft, Kington (Mr. W.L.Banks) www.hergest.co.uk and is open from 21st March - 2nd November 2008, admission 5.50, children free.