Exbury Gardens & Steam railway is a beautiful 200-acre woodland garden, set in the south of Hampshire, just below the New Forest, near the edge of the Beaulieu River. We visited with our 3 children during October half term so we’re also able to book on to the Halloween train ride.
Author: Helena Chapman
Helena and her family received complimentary tickets for the purpose of this review
The Gardens at Exbury
Upon arrival, we were greeted with friendly staff in Reception, given our train tickets, a map for the gardens and an additional map for a Halloween themed trail. The children were offered Trick or Treat style sweets from a huge bucket which we thought was a really great touch as it was 31st October after all!
The children were excited to head straight to the Rock Gardens to start the trail. It had been well decorated with plenty of spooky decorations and a letter hunt along the way.
We then took a walk through the different pathways and around one of the three stunning ponds. The Autumn colours of the shrubs and trees were amazing! Beautiful seasonal changes in the borders with the contrast of bright reds and oranges of the changing leaves shined out even on the dark, gloomy day we visited. The huge Rhododendrons were starting to bud ready for Spring and the pathways were crammed full of Azealea’s and Acer’s.
Exbury holds the National Collection of Nyssa and Oxydendrum and some of the earliest planted Cedar trees date back to 1738! The huge Giant Redwoods were so impressive. We made our way around the map, heading for the great wooden adventure playground. We found huge woven rope swings, a slide for the toddlers and assault course style climbing equipment for older children all set on soft bark flooring.
With tummy’s rumbling, Mr Eddy’s Cafe was our next stop. The building was the former Smithy and was refurbished in 2018. We chose sausage rolls (£4.95) and Croque Monsieur from the menu, which included other hot and cold dishes. The sausage rolls were up there with the best I’ve tasted, sprinkled with a selection of seeds which added to the crunch and yummy flavour. There was plenty of seating both inside and out and later we found various picnic benches dotted around the gardens. You can even buy doggy ice cream for your pooches!
The Gardener’s were hard at work when we walked past the Herbaceous Gardens, tidying the plants and cutting back spent Summer flowers, although there was still plenty of colour and interest even at this time of year. Exbury offers Guided garden tours for small and large groups which would be a great way to learn about all the different plants and tree, including buggy tours available for £5 each.
We then focussed our attention on finding the bell! Hanging from an Oak tree near Exbury House hangs a beautiful, huge Burmese temple bell, which is believed to have possibly been brought back from the First Burmese War in the 1820s by Captain Marryat, who later wrote The Children of the New Forest. We were all mesmerised by it and wondered how many people it took to put it up there!
A little walk from there took us to the Centenary Garden and the neighbouring Sundial Garden which were built on the site of the old tennis courts. The Centenary Garden was opened by The Prince of Wales in July of this year to celebrate 100 years since the gardens were founded by Lionel de Rothschild. The planting and hard landscaping is contemporary in style and the kids had great fun walking around the edges of the circular sunken patio with a beautiful 5 arrows design embedded within.
We made our way through a wooden gated gap in the hedge into the Sundial Garden. This area is completely hidden from view, surrounded with really tall hedges. We found a tall pillar with numerous sundials all around the outside of it. The bottom of the garden has a hidden seating area which is almost completely covered with a huge Wisteria which would be amazing to see in late Spring when it flowers.
We loved the fact that lots of the shrubs and trees were labelled with their names. One particular tree drew the children’s attention with what looked like unripe strawberries growing on it which they’d not seen before. By looking up the name on the attached tag online they found out that the tree is called a Himalayan Strawberry Tree.
The gardens are an amazing day out for plant lovers but equally lovely as a day out with the family. There are so many pathways to explore and the chance to take part in adventure trails, bug hunting and scavenger hunts every day for children of all ages. During October half term there was pumpkin carving and face painting on offer for a small charge along with free spooky craft activities. Exbury organises themed family events over the various school holidays.
A big reason for our visit to Exbury Gardens was to experience the Halloween train. Exbury boasts a working narrow-gauge steam railway and a replica station. The train runs during usual opening days but puts on seasonal specials at Halloween and Christmas. Exbury have just opened up bookings for their Festive Express Railway Experience and to meet the man himself! (click here to book). These are ticketed events with an extra charge but the experience lasted just over half an hour and was the highlight of our visit!
The trains are housed in an engine shed where you can also have a look at photos, videos and other memorabilia.
We didn’t get time to explore the whole gardens as there’s a lot of walking to be done to see everything in one day for little legs and we needed to leave a little earlier than we would have usually so we could go Trick or Treating but this makes Exbury Gardens great for an annual pass. There was still plenty left to still see on another visit and the gardens will look so different during Spring and Summer.
At the far end of the gardens you can sit and enjoy the view across the Beaulieu River towards the Isle of White. The children really want to come back so they can feed the giant koi carp in one of the ponds. Apparently they jump out of the water to grab the food! In Spring I’d love to see the daffodil meadow and enjoy the flowering magnolias. If you enjoy art, Five Arrows Gallery houses art exhibitions and floral displays throughout the year
* Adult – £17.50 for gardens and train, £12.50 for just gardens.
* Children – £9 / £4
* Family (2 adults and 3 children) £54 / £29
* Season ticket – adult £45 / couple £80 / family £90 / single adult family £55
10% discount for online bookings and discounted price in Autumn
There was lots of parking available. Exbury Gardens is dog-friendly, even allowing them on the train. There are plenty of toilets at various points around the gardens including baby changing and accessible facilities. The gardens are also wheelchair accessible with the opportunity to hire them if needed. Wheelchairs can also be taken on the train.
We handed our tickets in to the Station Master on the platform and boarded the train, waiting with nervous but very excited children! Our hosts arrived – Boney the Skeleton and Batty the Vampire who put everyone at ease with their fun performance. The train ran along one and a half miles of track with spooky surprises and characters along the way. Our youngest who’s just turned 6 did find parts quite scary and it did make all the kids, including me jump at parts but great entertainment and good fun. Lots of laughs – really well done!
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