Saturday, 6 December 2014

Wakehurst Place revisited

On 21 May last I published a post titled Wakehurst Place. Outraged of Mid-Sussex fumes. This was my response to finding that entrance barriers had been installed at this outstanding botanical garden, and that fearsomely steep car parking charges now applied. I thought the charges for car parking would choke off visitor numbers. The financial health of the place would then go from bad to terminal - to everyone's loss.

I should add that if you had paid up for annual membership of Kew, who lease the property from the National Trust, you avoided these new parking charges. But if not, then it would be £10 for any visit longer than two hours. And this is a place you can't see properly in under two hours.

Of course, you might wish only to have tea and cake at the café, or buy a greetings card or two. Say half an hour to do both. But even for this, they wanted £2, unless your visit was a mere 15 minutes, when there was no charge. I can't imagine what sort of galloping visit that would be. What can one do in 15 minutes? A delivery van could drop off a parcel, yes. And someone could use the loo, leaving at once. This kind of tariff imposed odd behaviour, and made no sense.

I'd gone to Wakehurst quite a lot over the years, in every season. In fact it was a great place if you wanted a decent stroll in well-planted and pleasant surroundings. In the past I parked and got in free, because I belonged to the National Trust - who, after all, owned the place. But I usually bought refreshments and purchased something from the shop - so they did make a few quid out of me even though I hadn't been stung for any kind of admission charge. But if it was now going to be at least £2 even for a quick visit, and quite possibly as much as £10, then I was not going to come again. They wanted too much. Which was a pity, because it was a beautiful and interesting place with very nice facilities.

I wasn't by any means unique in my reaction. There was a huge protest from other National Trust members, who all now had to pay for their parking (which was effectively an admission fee). A glance at the TripAdvisor website - search for 'Wakehurst Place', or use this link - will show the inordinate number of complaints, mainly about the car parking charges. There are also mentions of a general run-down in catering and shop goods, and bad staff attitude.

Then I heard that over the 2014 Christmas period, all visitors would be allowed to park free for an hour and a half. Ah, that made a difference! I decided to have a look at how things now were. This was three days ago, on a Wednesday afternoon. It was cold and grey, as you might expect for 3 December.

Well, I think the bad reports have been exaggerated. I got a cheerful reception. The staff were not looking angry or depressed. There were plenty of things on sale in the shop area, even if there was less on display than in previous years. The range of greetings cards was as excellent as ever - I bought these flowery ones, with future birthdays in mind. If you get one, you'll know where it came from!

The café was rather empty, but I have a photo of how it looked precisely four years before, on 3 December 2010, when it was even more devoid of customers:

Mind you, the weather in 2010 was colder still - in fact it had been snowing - so this really illustrates that visitor attendance at places like Wakehurst depends on simple things like the sun shining and the roads being safe. No place does well in bad weather.

Four years on, the café was still serving the usual range of nice-looking tea, coffee and cakes. The guy behind the counter was, like everyone else, cheerful and apparently busy.

Outside there were gardeners and other staff aplenty, engaged in setting up things for the various seasonal events, such as the forthcoming lantern nights. One chap was up to his waist in the lake, wiring up a paper water lily. The grounds and plants and paths were as immaculate as they had always been. No slipping of standards here. In fact I couldn't see any sign at all of cutbacks or lower standards being imposed.

The car park had been only half full, and I didn't expect to see many visitors walking about. But as I said, it was mid-week on a cold winter afternoon, with the daylight beginning to fail. So sparse attendance was no great surprise.

The restaurant was festooned with colourful Chinese-style lanterns. It was past 3.00pm when I got there, and the tables were mostly unoccupied:

But this was again just as you'd expect, considering the date and time of day. In previous years the restaurant had been similarly empty, as these late-afternoon shots from October 2008 and November 2012 show:

The restaurant had finished lunch, and there was no hot food to be had, but I could still get (and enjoyed very much) a decent pot of tea and a yummy turkey, crispy bacon and salad sandwich. No change in tastiness from previous years.

Here and there were boards advertising the winter events that Kew were putting on. For instance, the lit-up paper lantern evenings that were starting on 4 December. This is the leaflet:

It was free only for children under 4. Tickets for children aged 4 to 16 cost £4 each, and adults had to pay £8 each. This reveals what Kew feels the public ought to pay! That said, all tickets had been sold, which must prove something.

And what did I spend? £6.70 on my tea and sandwich, and £6.75 on the three cards, £13.45 altogether. That proves something too.

So it was clearly business as usual at Wakehurst. I imagined that the temporary concession on parking over the Christmas period was authorised to stimulate attendance from the general public, and wasn't specifically aimed at disgruntled National Trust members. But if some NT members turned up and spent money, as I did, then so much the better.

But I confess that once the current free-parking concession ends, I probably won't be back until next Christmas.

I was very glad to see that there were no obvious signs - yet - that reduced attendances since last April had led to a decline. But would this last? Impossible to say. Things will be all right if visitor numbers are better in 2015. Sussex is however stuffed with gardens to visit, and although Wakehurst Place is exceptionally good, it has a lot of competition. Little things, like an absurd car parking tariff, can (and obviously do) influence decisions on whether to go there or not. So Kew need to come up with a more sensible set of car-parking charges. Or lobby the government to fund its costs.

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