Arley Station, Severn Valley Railway, Arley, Worcestershire, DY12 3NF
The heart of the Severn Valley Railway
During the early Edwardian period, Arley station master Mr George Batchelor strived to cultivate what he hoped would be “the prettiest station gardens on the network” and by all accounts he indeed did achieve that goal. Whilst we wouldn’t even attempt to emulate or match his achievements, Arley’s present team of gardeners do hope to uphold and maintain that traditional Great Western Railway sense of pride and dedication within our station gardens to the same extent that once motivated station master George and his staff all those years ago.
Arley station is situated in a very picturesque, quiet unspoilt and tranquil corner of north Worcestershire and it is good to be able to be a volunteer in such a wonderful location among such good friends and colleagues here on the Severn Valley Railway.
The gardens at Arley are situated behind the down platform on the southern side of the station and run the whole length of the site, encompassing a sizeable picnic area. There are one or two aspects regarding the gardens which can be described as “problematic”. Firstly the site is generally inclined to the northeast, this aspect is very evident on a cold mid-winters day when the sun hardly 'kisses' the ground, just skirting the upper branches of the surrounding tree canopy, frost persisting right through the day at times! Secondly the far western end of the picnic area being the lowest point of the garden, does suffer when heavy autumn and winter rainfall combines with the natural field water drainage toward the river to make certain areas very boggy and virtually unworkable for lengthy periods. They do say that a gardener's best friend is his soil, and this is very true for Arley given some of the environmental problems, the base soil is on the whole superb for general cultivation needs and being slightly on the acid side of neutral it allows us to grow a wide variety of plants. There are one or two areas where cutting excavation has piled up rubble and clay deposits just below the surface, but we won’t worry too much about that.
As volunteer time is always limited, the station gardens are by their nature, informal. Anything more formal in such a rural setting would look very out of place. Akin to a 'cottage garden' we try to maintain them in a state of controlled (well almost) chaos! Keeping weeds under control in a rural environment such as Arley is a near impossible task and a sensible balance has to be struck between what we would like and what is achievable. We therefore allow cultivated and natural to exist side by side within the garden, Rhododendrons, Roses and Hellebores, Nettles, Ground Elder and Cow Parsley, you’ll find them all here! Additionally we have to contend with the ravages of moles, rabbits and even the odd deer, so please do bear with us and understand if some areas appear a bit jaded, or even at certain times eaten!
Sitting writing these notes in the middle of a July heatwave with the temperatures nudging 90°F, the dry conditions beginning to take its toll on the herbaceous borders, it reminds us all just how much we are dependent upon natural rainfall, no amount of 'artificial' watering with the hose pipe will ever come close to that of steady rainfall. Along the way we will have our successes and failures, some years the garden will look better than in others, some plants will thrive whilst some will 'peg-out' never to be seen again, but then that’s gardening!
Within the following notes I’ll attempt to highlight some points within the gardening year that I believe will be of interest. I am bound to have missed out something, so please forgive me, better still do come and have a fantastic journey on our heritage steam hauled trains and see Arley station for yourself.
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The Severn Valley Railway is operational every weekend and daily through mid-season, with Arley station exceptionally busy during December when we are the venue for our “Santa Specials,” always an exciting time. With all the Christmas lights and decorations put away, you could be forgiven for thinking that winter could be rather dismal and bleak out here in the 'sticks'. Well to be honest, arriving on a cold winter's morning for a day's volunteering, when the weather has closed in, it can be quite 'bracing'. However, given the bright crisp, brilliant sunshine of a January day, you would be hard pressed to find anywhere better to sit and marvel at the views across our valley and the village.
If you are tempted out of that cosy, warm, steam heated train, arm yourself with a hot soup or steaming beverage from our kiosk and take a wander around the gardens and station. There are at least three varieties worthy of note in the garden during January which when combined with a drink will warm the heart too.
The bravest of all the plants on view during the early winter months must be Cyclamen coum. These hardy and charming 'little fellas' are native to northern shores of the Mediterranean, the Greek and Balearic islands, but are surprisingly happy here in the Midlands.
Often incorrectly referred to as corms, they are in fact tubers and once establishes will readily seed themselves down overtime creating a magnificent carpet of colour with shades of rose, white through to shell pink and magenta. They also have the added advantage of glossy, green, kidney-shaped leaves, often being beautifully marbelled with silver, really charming on the bleakest of midwinter days.
Here at Arley, Cyclamen coum appear to have almost perfect conditions in which to establish, planted beneath deciduous trees which provide slight shade during mid-summer and although remaining generally moist from autumn through to late spring the benefit from having a well-drained site.
Being dormant during the summer months (I hopefully haven’t hoed them out completely) they should be clearly visible beneath the trees of the bed opposite the main station buildings. I’m fairly sure that given the conditions, these charming, hardy winter-flowering Cyclamen will begin their welcome invasion of the surrounding area, possibly overtime even establishing themselves along the gravel edges of the platform as they begin to seed themselves down?
Hardy Cyclamen may be the bravest, but perhaps the showiest of all the late winter to early spring flowering plants we have growing here in the gardens at Arley have got to be our Hellebores! If the winter weather conditions are not too severe the display is usually very colourful indeed. A valuable addition to the palette in the depths of winter, when little else is emerging, even as early as mid-December our Hellebores are Garden Hybrids and are very tolerant of Arley’s soil conditions. Planted on the sloping bank of the main station bed, they benefit from the perfect drainage, although receive adequate moisture which constantly moves through the site. Shaded from excessive sunshine by the road bridge and the overhanging leaf canopy of mature trees, the developing flowers are also protected from strong, cold winds. The gentle slope of the bed also has the added advantage of allowing the plants to be viewed in all their glory from below. Hellebores are deep rooted, herbaceous perennials and require plenty of organic matter, such as humus or spent mushroom compost to thrive. A mulch of spent mushroom compost or similar placed around the crown of the plant during mid-summer, just as the new flower buds are developing gives them a boost. It is always a gratifying exercise to “whack off” all the old foliage around the end of December to reveal the emerging flower buds. Watch them develop and eventually come into bloom! People's perception of colour varies, what we would describe as dark purple, some people say they’re black? Doubles, anemone centred and the humble singles are all on view with some interesting colour combinations. If you love Hellebores you should find them interesting.
For sheer brilliance of colour, fragrance and form during the depths of winter you can do no better than the Witch Hazel. We do have a couple of shrubs currently establishing themselves, given time they will put on quite a show. The “spider-like” flowers of Hamamelis Mollis “Pallida” may be small, but en masse they are very striking, and on a still mid-winter's day their delicate scent can be detected from many feet away, immensely charming during the coldest part of the year for the times the weather conditions close in and make it rather uncomfortable to be out in the garden, winter flowering hanging baskets under the station canopy and tubs along the platform bring valuable colour into view from the carriage windows.
Snowdrops and specie crows provide a colourful bridge between late winter and early spring, the garden beginning to awaken from its winter slumber as the temperature and light levels increase. The golden yellows and brilliant whites of daffodils during early March are a delightful sight on a clear, crisp and sunny morning. Spring blossom within the garden and across the valley can be spectacular, the vivid fresh green of emerging foliage only adds to the colour palette.
We’ve recently planted a few trees which will not only bring spring colour, but have valuable basic and autumn characteristics
Prunus Tai-haku 'the great white cherry' when mature provides a dazzling display of white spring blossom, and welcome shade under wide spreading branches.
Prunus Sargentti may be less noticeable during spring, with its pale pink flowers rather insignificant, but during autumn its foliage turns brilliant orange-red.
Prunus Serrula too has flowers which are not outstanding, although you can’t help but love its peeling, coppery-bronze, mahogany-like bark.
Prunus amanogawa will never get in the way as it stands bolt upright and provides a welcome column of semi-double, pale-pink, fragrant flowers.
Late spring and early summer sees colour extend throughout the garden. Herbaceous perennials come into flower, a real sense of that 'cottage garden' theme that was mentioned earlier. Lupins, Foxgloves, Euphorbias, Peonies, Tulips, Iris, Lilies, Cornflowers, Lavender, Osteospermums, Aquilegias, Dicentra, striking oriental poppies and Cranesbill geraniums are all mixed together in that chaotic elegance. Hafer Shasta daisies, acanthus spinosa and roses all blend together to continue the subtle hues into mid-summer. Their colours begin to fade as the season moves on toward mid-summer, the “backbone” of summer colour provided by hanging baskets and tubs, always a talking point and a blaze of colour beneath the station canopy.
Otherwise known as “Hatley,” Arley was the setting for the BBC TV comedy series “Oh Doctor Beeching.” We salute that memory by continuing to plant up the “BBC bed” that they specifically created on the main platform with summer bedding each year.
Although the main flush of colour may be over in the herbaceous borders the gardens are by no means devoid of flowers through the summer months. A selection of shrub and hybrid tea roses continue to flower and provide ample blooms for station staff button holes throughout the summer. To name but a few we have William Lobb, Ludlow Castle, Winchester Cathedral, Buff Beauty and the powerfully fragrant Benjamin Britten.
In the interest of balance, we have both the red and white roses of the houses of Lancaster and York respectively along with the Rosa gallica var. Officinalis Versicolor (The Apothecary’s Rose – Rosa mundi) a delightful combination of both; Shrub roses are a particular favourite and more varieties are expected to be planted over the years. As well as flower, foliage also plays an important role throughout the year, the contrasting yellow and black of Sambucus “Sutherland Gold” and “Black Lace” provide a delicate summer bonus of both colour and form.
As summer draws to a close, a final burst of colour appears as Crocosmia, Japanese anemones and Hollyhocks continue to flower into autumn blending into the firey hues provided from Acer griseums, Liquidambar and Japanese maples scattered throughout the garden.
The gardening year isn’t quite over for just as the years foliage is collapsing and colour begins to “drain away,” we end where we began with the appearance of hardy Cyclamen, but this time Cyclamen hederifolium, (“The Autumn flowering Cyclamen”) beneath some of the oaks in the picnic area. As charming as their winter flowering partners, their delicate pink flowers appear before the heart-shaped, patterned foliage which persists throughout the winter. Almost evergreen in fact.
Winter begins to tighten its grip once more, the garden falling asleep, except for the tell-tale signs of emerging Hellebore flowers, the “cycle” beginning again! Many of the plants and flowers at Arley Station have been grown from the stock of Ashwood Nurseries and are available for purchase from their nurseries at Kingswinford.
Most gardeners it has to be said are a bit crazy, and to be honest I’m no exception!
One of the beds here at Arley was created in “a moment of madness” and seemingly develops at its own pace? I suppose that you could call it “The Engine bed” and is an attempt to create a small engine, tender and coach “Topiary” display! Planted up with Buxus Sempervirens (common box) encased within a chicken wire framework, it should (if all things go to plan), when filled-out and clipped to shape, develop into something to raise a smile!
“Arley madness” must be contagious as Arthur “Chippie” Hamson said, “I’ll make you an Arley running in board!” we now have advertising, signage, a signal and simulated track. I’m not quite sure who’s the craziest, Arthur or me? One thing about the chickenwire framework, at least the rabbits will be deterred!
We don’t strive for Kew gardens here, far from it. You’ll find weeds sitting along side cultivated shrubs and plants and no doubt one or two failures along the way. What you will find however is a very warm welcome and a beautiful station that all the volunteer staff are very proud to be associated with, so please do come and have a look around, you will be most welcome. Whatever time of year you visit “The Valley,” have a fabulous day!
As the gardens develop we’ll add to these notes periodically and keep you up to date with what’s going on.