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The history of Winkworth Arboretum

The path down to the Azalea Steps at Winkworth Aboretum, Surrey
The path down to the Azalea Steps at Winkworth Aboretum | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Learn about the story of Winkworth Arboretum, which began when dermatologist Dr Wilfrid Fox purchased 130 acres of woodland next to his farmhouse in Surrey’s Thorncombe Valley.

Who was Dr Wilfrid Fox?

Described as a man of ‘humanity, simplicity, understanding and humour’, Wilfrid Fox was a well-respected doctor with a great passion for horticulture. He was the driving force behind the Roads Beautifying Association, and even a member of a horticultural advisory committee to the King.

When the Thorncombe estate next to his country home was put up for sale in 1937, Dr Fox jumped at the chance to obtain the land so he could experiment with nature's autumnal colours on a large scale.

In a lecture to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in 1953, he explained what drew him to the site. ‘It was the remarkable beauty of the valley...quite unspoiled, of pastoral and wooded character, patterned with hedgerows and abounding in wildflowers, with gentle undulating hills on the east side and a steep slope on the west side – which is now covered by the arboretum – and the river stream winding between, forming two lakes which are the haunt of wildfowl.’

Sketching autumn colours

In 1937 most of the area was covered in scrub woodland, with several plantations of larch and Douglas fir. Dr Fox was extremely knowledgeable about how to affect his vision for the land and he began his work to enhance the valley's autumn colours by planting maples, oaks and liquidambars on the upper edge of the slope.

He drew his inspiration from the great landscape gardens of Westonbirt, Sheffield Park, Exbury and Leonardlees, whose owners he knew well. His intention was always to plant species that were to be found wild in their native countries, rather than horticultural cultivars.

One of the issues he had to face was how many of each species he should plant to achieve a good splash of colour. ‘It all depends on whether you look upon yourself as an artist using trees and shrubs to paint a picture, in which case it is easy to be bold, or whether you are a gardener and love growing all these beautiful things for their own sakes.’

The work was interrupted by the Second World War. Aged 64, Dr Fox took two ambulances into France, from where he returned at the Dunkirk rescue in 1940.

View across the Bowl in autumn at Winkworth Aboretum, Surrey
View across the Bowl in autumn at Winkworth Aboretum | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

The beginning of the bowl

On his return, the Ministry of Supply ordered the larches at the southerly end of Rowe’s Flashe Lake to be felled for the war effort. This resulted in a bowl-shaped area of cleared slope. Dr Fox saw the huge potential of this area and focused his planting on this ‘bowl’.

Dr Fox had only one employee. Much of the physical labour required to create the arboretum was carried out by his family members - including nieces, nephews and grandchildren of all ages - as well as unwitting friends and colleagues who came to visit. His granddaughter recorded that it was very hard work but great fun.

Growth and development

Dr Fox planted cherries, Japanese and other maples and azaleas for their autumn foliage, as well as a host of other trees and shrubs.

He was a particular expert on the trees of the Sorbus genus, including rowan, whitebeam and service, and in 1943 planted more than 50 Sorbus species on the slope now known as Sorbus Hill.

The Azalea Glade

Having been evacuated to Dorking during the war, the London staff of Dr Fox's family firm helped to create the Azalea Glade (near the boathouse on Rowe's Flashe Lake) in 1941. Dr Fox briefly gave the area the tongue-in-cheek name of The Hitler Glade, in recognition of the origin of his weekend workforce.

After the war ended, Dr Fox began to expand further beyond autumn colour, planting springtime species including magnolias and flowering crab-apples. He recognised the importance of planting for the future and said of the post-war Magnolia Wood: ‘it is a part of the arboretum which should be of particular interest to future generations.’ He declared ‘we have thought of posterity and planted long-lived trees.’ This selection included 10 different oaks and seven kinds of beech, as well as the huge southern beeches we admire today.

In 1984-5, the large Douglas Fir plantation in what is now Badgers Bowl was felled, and the area was planted around its periphery, leaving the present grassy meadow at the centre.

Visitors enjoying the view from the boathouse balcony at Winkworth Arboretum, Surrey
Visitors enjoying the view from the boathouse balcony at Winkworth Arboretum | © National Trust Images/Trevor Ray Hart

Securing the future

By 1948, Dr Fox was considering how to conserve the arboretum for the future. He offered it to the Joint Gardens scheme of the RHS and the National Trust, but there was an initial reluctance to accept it because it was in its early stages and did not come with any endowment. Ultimately the three local councils were persuaded to commit to a joint annual payment of £800, and with this as the sole source of income it was accepted.

Dr Fox donated some 65 acres in 1952 and added another 35 acres in 1957. A management committee ran the arboretum, with Dr Fox as its chairman, and National Trust and RHS members on the committee.

Dr Fox died in 1962 aged 87 and is buried in Eashing Cemetery.

‘Let’s go up the Arbor’

Dr Fox had always allowed locals to enjoy his woodlands, and the lakes were a popular spot for swimming and diving. Len Clark, a former Winkworth regular, remembers: ‘The arboretum was soon a favourite with our young sons. “Let’s go up the Arbor” became almost a family motto.’

‘Surely there are few National Trust properties which give more delight to the very young and the very old – with all those in between.’

- Len Clark, visitor and National Trust council member

Continuing a legacy

The National Trust took over full control of the arboretum on 1 January 1988. Since then we've continued to look after the land in a way that's true to Dr Fox's vision.

Visitors enjoying the view from the boathouse balcony at Winkworth Arboretum, Surrey

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