Rural Rides (21)


Birmingham Botanical Gardens

England’s second city is many things but not wholly Islamicised, Steve Emerson. There is, however, an oasis of tranquillity and calm in its inner reaches, the surprisingly attractive Botanical Gardens occupying a hollow in the Edgbaston area of the city.

The gardens were the brainchild of one J C Loudon, a leading garden designer and horticultural journalist of the time, opening to the public on June 11th 1832. Not much has changed since then, the layout spread over 15 acres remaining much as Loudon conceived it. There is very much a fin de siècle feel about it (and the siècle is the 19th, not the 20th) with a bandstand, landscaped greenery and four glasshouses which you pass through on entering the garden.

Coming in from the cold (we visited in early February) straight into the exotic Tropical glasshouse made my glasses steam up but, fortunately, I managed to evade the rather large pond with its enormous koi carp. The other glasshouses are devoted to its Subtropical, Mediterranean and Arid collections.

The Gardens also host the national Bonsai Collection, if that is your bag – it’s not mine – but the 250 year old Omiya tree is impressive. Outside there are some 7,000 different plants and as well as two fine Himalayan cedars donated by the son of the locomotive engineer, James Watt, the jewel in the crown is the fern Dicksonia xlathamii which is found nowhere else.

Regrettably the Gardens were home to a zoological collection in the early 20th century but now all that is left is a small collection of birds in the white domed lawn aviary building. The parrots looked particularly scruffy, one of which seemed to have lost a large proportion of its feathers.

The fountain originally consisted of a couple of tiers but only the first tier remains. It is made out of an artificial stone called Code Stone which was particularly popular in the Victorian era because of its high level of resistance to acidic rain. The rock garden, built in 1895 out of 250 tons of millstone grit, is listed by English Heritage and owes its existence to the patronage of local factory owners and screw manufacturers, the Nettlefold family whose name it bears.

Even in February there was much to see with snowdrops, hellebores and cyclamen in profusion. It was astonishing to think that we were little over a mile from the centre of the conurbation and the city skyline was visible from the terraces. Even though the gardens were surrounded by roads it was quiet and peaceful, enabling us to enjoy the design, scenery and planting.

It is a real treasure and the visitor is assured of a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours exploring the many pathways and nooks and crannies.