Saturday, 2 August 2014

Exbury Gardens

Gardens open to the public are great places to visit. Always peaceful and soothing, they offer visual treats as well as an opportunity for some mild exercise as you stroll around. Interesting plants; serene lakes; impressive trees; possibly statues and follies and other features; and in hilly country, a view. And at certain times of the year they are ablaze with colour, whether from flowers or autumn leaves.

Gardens also offer personal safety. For a trans person just beginning their transition, a well-known and important garden that is open to the public will be a safe and secure place to go. This was one of the first positive things that crossed my mind, as I looked at what transition might bring my way, back in mid-2008. I was dismayed at the reports of trans people being jeered at in public, and even beaten up. Where could I safely go, just to get out and have some sunshine, fresh air, and stretch my legs?

Answer: a country garden. Sussex was indeed full of them. But I could stick with National Trust gardens, as my Life Membership of the NT would let me get in free. There would of course always be that one sticky moment at the entrance, as I flashed my membership card - but whatever they thought of my appearance, they couldn't turn away a Life Member. And once in, I could seek out peaceful, secluded paths and walk about unmolested. I might meet other people, but the encounters would surely not be lethal, nor necessarily unwelcome. Garden visitors are not the type to beat people up. And there are staff about, staff who will have had diversity training.

And so I did seek out gardens as a secure alternative to just staying indoors. Even though it soon became perfectly clear that the dangers I feared were unlikely to come my way unless I did silly things.

Thus a very long tradition of visiting lovely gardens continued without a break. M--- and I, when together, used to visit the gardens we loved again and again. In Sussex, that meant Nymans, Wakehurst Place, Standen, Sheffield Park, and some places a bit further away, such as Sissinghurst - all of these being National Trust properties. It was traditional to use our cameras freely on every visit. You can easily see that I would have accumulated a vast library of botanical shots while with M---. I have not stopped doing so. Although living on my own, the tradition of going to gardens carries on.

On 22 June - in fact it was the last full day of my holiday - I went to Exbury Gardens, down on the Beaulieu River in Hampshire and therefore on the south-east edge of the New Forest. I hadn't been there since the 1970s, when I was living and working in Southampton. Earlier this year, Angie (of Angie's Aspirations) had posted a report on a recent family visit, when Exbury would have been at its best. It had reminded me that the gardens existed and that I hadn't seen them for a very long time. I'd be going two months later, and couldn't expect to see the same glories as Angie had; but it was a warm and sunny day, and it ought to be at least pleasant. I had my purse ready - it wasn't National Trust, and I'd have to pay to get in.

The car park was free - a good start! Next, I studied the price they might charge for admitting the Melford corpse. Hmmm. It was obvious that the place gave a reasonable deal to family groups, but fleeced single persons on their own. The admission charge appeared to be £11 for just myself, and that was simply to walk around the gardens (you could enjoy a miniature train ride if paying £15). No mention of concessions - a bit odd, that. I was well-used to claiming an over-60s age concession, and always had adequate ID on me to prove how old I was, if ever challenged.

And what was this, in small print?

Prices shown include a voluntary donation which will assist with charitable Garden projects. If you are a UK taxpayer, please complete a Gift Aid declaration and a proportion of your total payment will be returned to us by the Government. You will be asked to pay the donation inclusive admission price unless you request otherwise.

In other words, 'we have got charitable status for the gardens, and we not only want to charge you more than you need pay, but we can use the Gift Aid scheme to get extra cash from the government as well'.

I asked myself: who was this helping? This wasn't a charity that saved lives. And they were rather taking it for granted that one would meekly pay the so-called donation. And take on the bother of filling in a Gift Aid form. And (in consequence) nudge HMRC into checking one's current tax position.

I was a basic rate taxpayer, but I hadn't been asked to fill in a tax return form for donkey's years, not since 1994 in fact, which is before Self-Assessment arrived! I knew how long and complex Self-Assessment forms were - I'd had to complete two or three when winding up my Dad's estate in 2009. If I ever signed up for Gift Aid, HMRC might decide to send me a return form in response, so that they could 'review my affairs'. To protect myself from unnecessary form-filling - it was a matter of definite policy, in fact - I had always turned down all invitations to get involved with Gift Aid. There was no reason now to break such a long and successful habit.

In fact I was annoyed and defiant about the whole thing. What, pay £11? When the gardens could not possibly be as good as they had been in springtime? Outrageous. I felt justified in wanting to pay less. I was going to enquire about concessions, in case they existed but were not being mentioned. And I was going to ask what the price was if one didn't wish to make that 'donation'. They wouldn't like me doing either, but I didn't care. A Melford roused is a terrible thing, and I was sure they would crumple.

At the ticket office I was told firmly by a very pleasant girl that there was no age concession. I said that was very surprising, but so be it. I proceeded smoothly to the second point. I didn't want to make a donation. What then would I pay instead? She must have thought I was a mean, vicious old skinflint, but her politeness never wavered. It was £1 less. Only £10. This still seemed rather a lot, but I paid up without further cavil and consoled myself with having chipped a worthwhile £1 of the full charge. A small victory for the old and thrifty!

This battle of wills was soon forgotten. The gardens were very pleasant. They covered many acres, and included shady forested parts, open lawn, the odd lake, and a riverside section from which one could observe yachts and other boats. The paths were easy to walk on, and well signposted. The lawns were well-mown. The trees and shrubbery were neat and varied. There was a charming house. Behind a high hedge, an inviting café. There were very nice loos. The lakes were tranquil. The river view enchanting.

And I did see splashes of vivid colour here and there.

But there was far too much of this:

At one point a saw a big bronze bell suspended from a stout oak tree. Of course I couldn't resist a shot of myself looking up at it.

The gardens were so extensive that you could easily get away from other people if you wanted to. But on turning a corner, a lady seated on a bench overheard me saying to myself 'Is that the time? I'd better be getting back'. I caught her eye, and we smiled. 'A sure sign of approaching senility,' I said, sitting down with her. We chatted for a bit. She was a few years older than me. Her legs weren't so good. Her husband and sister had gone further down the path that I'd just emerged from (I had actually seen them). Her sister lived in England, but she and her husband lived in New South Wales, Australia. I remarked how I had met other people from Australia in my recent travels: a girl on the beach at Blundellsands; and a couple at the Pontcysyllte canal aqueduct. She was called Mary, her husband Stan, and her sister Jannie. And just then, they returned. The upshot was this picture of myself, Mary (in the middle) and Jannie, taken by Stan:

So another happy meeting of strangers. Mary and Stan must be back home now. I wonder if they'll ever find that picture on the Internet?

I spent about two hours at Exbury. I suppose that despite the lack of flowers, it was just about worth the tenner. And I did meet some very nice people.


  1. You skinflint Lucy.....LOL. Hope you spent that extra pound wisely. Good job that bell rope is secure! Had it fallen (God forbid) we'd have to call you a dumb belle (sorry, I don't know what came over me....tehe). Anyhow sounds like the ten pounds was well spent.

    Shirley Anne x

  2. Lucy,
    I agree with you, £11 seems a rather exorbitant fee for seeing gardens, and I think it is wrong for an organisation to automatically include an extra donation in the price - I took my daughter to Bristol Zoo and they did the same, put on an extra £5 to the joint entrance fee. Sounds like you had a great time though, and some lovely pictures - very clever ones of you looking up at the bell.
    I don't have an annual NT membership but an annual one, and I got them to change my name on the card so that "Mr" does not appear, and now it only shows my first initial, which is the same for Andrea or for male.

  3. I don't get it... if they're a charity then surely they can claim the tax back on the whole amount if you sign a Gift Aid declaration. So why the extra £1? On principle, therefore, we only paid £10 each (plus £4 for the puff-puff) when we visited and didn't sign a gift aid form.

    I'd never thought before of gardens being safe places for the recently transitioned, but you're quite right. The irony for me is that family politics dictated I dressed in male mode when we visited, which rather took the edge off things.


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