Well-loved by nature enthusiasts and families from Gloucestershire and beyond, Westonbirt, The National Arboretum is an important botanical collection, as well as a stunning cultural attraction that attracts thousands of visitors all year round.
Dedicated to preserving it for future generations to enjoy, the Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum offers an engaging membership programme for people to help support ongoing conservation projects and the dedicated tree management team in their mission to safeguard the arboretum – as SoGlos hears from the charity's CEO, Emma Griffiths.
Can you tell us a bit about your role at Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum?
My role encapsulates everything involved in looking after the Westonbirt Arboretum organisation, but purely in terms of fundraising – we're a fundraising arm, if you like. First and foremost, understanding our charitable purpose and objectives drives everything we do at Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum.
As CEO, I have to make sure that we have a really strong membership programme and really consider the supporter journey. I also am heavily involved with keeping our board of trustees in support of us – that's something I work on consistently.
A membership with the arboretum includes a lot of benefits, but what we really want is for people to come along, explore and tell us about their stories and why Westonbirt is so important to them. For so many people it isn't just somewhere to go for a walk, it really symbolises long term family connections and holds precious memories.
Why is it so important for the arboretum to be available for future generations?
Westonbirt is different to other Forestry England sites. It's a managed tree collection and you can stumble across the most unusual trees. Going for a walk with one of Westonbirt's Volunteer Guides is just the most amazing thing to do because they bring it alive and point out things that you'd never even noticed before.
I've been coming here for years with my children and it invites you to open up your own imagination. For example, at the back of the arboretum you'll find a huge collection of birch trees and when my children were little, they found a way in and when you do it's almost like being inside a cathedral or something. With big trunk branches to climb on and sit on, we took some books to read and had picnics there and it became our little secret place. Over time we decided to hide chocolates around there for the children to find and from then on they became the Chocolate Trees. Even now my daughters are 18 and 20, they still come here and sit within the Chocolate Trees to just relax and reminisce.
So, it's more than just a walk and that's why it's important for it to be here for generations to come.
What are some of the threats to the arboretum and what is Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum doing about it?
There is, of course, climate change and the economic crisis – which means people may not have the money to support our work at Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum.
But the number one threat is disease. A number of years ago we had an experience with Chalara Ash Dieback and it's a disease that kills millions of ash trees in the UK. So, during a breakout, we have to lockdown the area because it spreads really quickly. Westonbirt took the approach to remove all its ash trees the last time it was affected, as it could have decimated large parts of the arboretum.
This massive area has been cleared and it's really heartbreaking to see, because it looks apocalyptic, really. There's signage to explain it all, so people are informed and we've decided to turn this into something really positive. Our joint vision between Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum and the arboretum is to focus on participation, conservation and education.
So, we're supporting the Silk Wood Community Project. This is all about replanting that area and we fundraised to help the arboretum build the Community Shelter, which is an amazing building on-site – in the sunlight it almost looks like a rocket ship. The idea is for community groups to come and get involved in working in the woodland to plant 15,000 trees to eventually recreate the area that was affected.
There are 2,500 different species of tree available to see at Westonbirt – how are they all looked after?
There is a dedicated Tree Team, whose responsibility, amongst many things, is to manage the register of trees. So, when you walk around the arboretum, every tree has a little name tag on it. They maintain a database of all the information on each species and specimen and continuously monitor their health.
The Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum have multiple funding programmes, including funding a student arborist every year. As you can imagine, not many people wake up and think 'I want to be a student arborist,' but what an opportunity, to work in The National Arboretum. We fund a placement to take them through the training and they are sometimes given the opportunity to stay with the arboretum once it is completed and become part of the full team.
We've also funded essentials to help support the team in looking after the site day-to-day, including a tree trailer that's designed to not tear up the ground and allows the team to get across the site and get things out safely; as well as plenty of other bits of kit to support them in their important work.
In short, they're the experts and we're their professional cheerleaders!
What can visitors do to help support the work of the Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum?
Memberships are the biggest activity that people engage with and most of our energy really goes into encouraging people to come and enjoy the benefits that a membership with the arboretum offers. That includes year-round access to Westonbirt, with up to four of your own children or grandchildren aged 18 and under entering for free; a 10 per cent discount at the gift shop, run by Friends of Westonbirt; early bird access to tickets for Forest Live concerts; and much more. For £42 per year, outdoor fun with the family doesn't have to break the bank.
We also have individual giving programmes. One of them offers the opportunity to support a square of the arboretum – there's a virtual map that you can access and you can choose a little area to sponsor and that ensures that little patch is protected. It also provides the feeling of having a little bit of ownership of a beautiful place.
You can also sponsor a bench, perhaps in remembrance of someone special. There is a waiting list for this, as it's very popular and a really great option for those who come here regularly.
Another programme we run is called the Leaves of Life and if you take part in that, you get a little metal leaf to either dedicate to someone, commemorate a birthday, a wedding or another special event. Each leaf stays on the Leaves of Life sculpture for years to come, to be visited at the Great Oak Hall in the heart of Westonbirt.
For more information on how you can support Westonbirt Arboretum, visit fowa.org.uk.
Membership price correct as of June 2023.