A visit to Exbury Gardens

On Monday this week I had an opportunity to get out of what are now becoming all too familiar surroundings and to take some pictures with a couple of good friends from Eli Lilly. Robin and I had already spent an enjoyable day up in London back in May and were both keen to go out and do something else together. This time we were joined by Susie, another friend with a keen interest in photography. Our little band of photogs was steadily growing!! Anyone else care to join the party? I must say that going out with friends who share a common interest is so much better then going out alone and with my growing disability more of a necessity.

We settled on visiting Exbury Gardens, a place I’d not been to since 1984 but one which I’d had good memories of and felt confident in recommending to my friends. It was very much overdue for a revisit! Exbury Gardens are situated in the south of Hampshire down in the New Forest and are adjacent to the Beaulieu River. They are home to the world-famous Rothschild collection of rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias. The gardens, which were created back in the 1920s, offer over 200 acres of natural beauty to explore through a combination of walking, buggy rides and a steam railway.

We set off at 10:30am having first made a detour to the train station to pick up Susie, and then with the satellite navigation system programmed we headed off towards South Hampshire and Exbury. I sat there in the front passenger seat fascinated to hear this female voice coming from the electronic map display run off a string of instructions on where to turn and what exit to leave a roundabout at – and all with what appeared to be pinpoint accuracy. I’d never felt the need to have a Sat-Nav system all the time I was driving (being very much a traditionalist and quite happy with a 3 miles to the inch road atlas) but I must say it was a neat toy and no doubt had I not been forced to give up driving I expect I would eventually have bought one myself. I’m normally quite late in adopting new technologies!

We arrived shortly before midday and after a spot of lunch for which this time I’d remembered to bring a straw (a lesson I’d learnt from the trip to London because bottles of soft drink are now too heavy to lift), we decided it would be a good idea to take a buggy ride around the grounds first. That would give us an idea of the scale of the gardens and would enable us to make mental notes of interesting places that we could subsequently visit on foot later in the afternoon. We trundled along the pathways at a leisurely pace with a running commentary from the amiable driver. We saw rhododendrons of all sizes with some specimens really quite huge and obviously well established. Unfortunately we had missed their flowering season so only had green foliage to see but some of the leaves were massive. It was quite obvious that at the right time of the year the gardens would be a riot of colour and I made a mental note to try and come back next spring (and possibly this autumn too). Nevertheless despite the lack of mass displays there were sights to be seen and I found myself wishing that I could hold my camera up to my eye but unfortunately my arms have grown so weak and partially paralysed that I just cannot do much with them anymore when I am sitting down or in confined spaces such as in the buggy or a car. I really am quite helpless in those situations so all I could do was look on with envy as my friends clicked away whilst I just settled on admiring the lovely views. The gardens extend right out to the Beaulieu River and gave us a view of the numerous pleasure craft. Unsurprisingly the gardens are quite a popular venue for weddings and it has been known for the bride & groom to leave for their honeymoon aboard a boat moored at the nearby jetty. The buggy ride was scheduled to take up about 40 minutes of our afternoon but somehow seemed to swallow up twice that amount of time but no matter it was enjoyable anyway.

Exbury Gardens Guide-Spring


Exbury Gardens Guide-Summer

Before settling down to take some photos we headed off towards the rather grand sounding Exbury Central Station, the starting point for a 20 minute excursion on a 12¼” gauge railway featuring coal fired steam engines. The railway is a relatively new addition to the gardens and certainly wasn’t there when I last visited. We had some time to kill before departure so took the opportunity to try and get some photos of one of the steam engines sitting on a turntable outside the engine shed. I’d not taken any photos for over a month and in that time my arm and shoulder muscles had continued to weaken to the point where I found it almost impossible to hold the camera to my eye for more then a few seconds even when bracing my elbows against my body. I just about managed to get a couple of shots but even then managed to drop the camera once although fortunately the camera was on a strap around my neck. What makes it worse is that I now have to keep lowering the camera to make adjustments to the settings. Picture taking is a painfully slow process. I wish there was some way to have the camera on a swinging arm mounted to my shoulder. Anyone who ever saw the film Predator may remember that the alien had a shoulder mounted gun – well that’s what I want – only in camera form for a different kind of shooting!

The railway station itself was quite charming and was decked out in authentic looking posters from days gone by. Susie was as pleased as punch that one of the carriages on our train was emblazoned with her name! The whistle blew and we were off – over a small bridge and through a long tunnel. A group of tall Sunflowers made a colourful display alongside the railway track and here and there were metal and moss animal sculptures. We passed over a viaduct, made a short stop at Exbury North adjacent to the American Gardens and then continued along our way catching glimpses of several ponds and a lake before heading back along the tree and shrub lined route. All in all it was a very pleasant experience. There is something about old steam trains!

Exbury Gardens Railway Map

Time sure flies when you’re enjoying yourself and by this time it had become obvious that we would not have time to see everything on foot. Instead we settled on revisiting several features that we thought offered opportunities for photographs. First up were a few exterior shots of Exbury House itself and then on into Home Wood where there was a large pond full of huge carp that swam towards us. Judging by the amount of photos she was taking I think Susie was determined to take a portrait of every single Carp in the pond :D. There were also some friendly ducks who seemed more then willing to pose for us. Robin got some cracking shots of them but I didn’t have a long enough lens to fill the frame. We then followed a little stream to a small bridge where I watched the water tumble across the stones before ending our day photographing some beautiful blue hydrangeas.

Exbury Gardens Map

I knew that there was no way I was going to be able to hand hold my camera for so long once we started to take pictures so I switched to using a small lightweight travel tripod I’d brought with me and was itching to try. It’s nowhere near as solid as my ‘proper’ tripod but then again that is just way too heavy for me now. However, even using a tripod when you have limited upper limb movement is not without its difficulties. Even though the tripod only extends to 1 metre it is still quite a challenge for me to raise my arms up that high to operate the controls, and because I am loosing the precision dexterity needed to adjust such small controls it makes it even harder. It’s only when you have to compose a picture with a tripod mounted camera do you realise how time consuming it is compared to hand held photography where it is possible to make subtle adjustments to straighten out the horizon or improve the framing almost intuitively. Compare that to using a tripod whereby you need to continually make adjustments to the height of the legs or swivel the pan head to get everything level, constantly bend down to peer through the viewfinder and adjust the zoom ring to fill the frame and then pick up the whole camera/tripod assembly and move it to another location. The whole thing turned out to be a very frustrating process and I became a little dejected at how few pictures I was able to take and how many photo opportunities I lost because I am slowing down and cannot respond to a situation quick enough. It was even more frustrating when the following day I noticed that a few of the shots were not that sharp. I’m guessing that the act of pressing down on the shutter release caused the camera to move slightly on what is really only a fairly flimsy tripod. In future I’ll have to look at using a remote camera release.

The trip to Exbury proved that I am loosing the ability to go out photographing on my own. I’m at the stage really were I need an extra pair of hands…or two – a support team! I even need help putting the camera strap over my head these days – just cannot raise my arms high enough. But despite all of that it was a great day out in the company of good friends and for me a most welcome change of scenery. The weather was very kind to us and we were lucky that there were so few people about. In fact at times it seemed like we almost had the place to ourselves – it was so peaceful. Ideally it would have been even better if there were more flowers in bloom but I am not all that familiar with flowering seasons for specific plants – I just enjoy looking at them and marvelling at the near infinite variety of Mother Nature.

As the MND spreads it is making my life an increasingly difficult challenge. I hate the way this disease is systematically dismantling my life, taking away everything that gives me some joy in life. Naughty neurones – go to your room! 👿

I don’t really have much in the way of photos to post this time but I know that Robin & Susie took plenty, particularly of us so I may be able to upload some of those in a companion gallery along with a few of my own. Stay tuned!

Before I go I would like to offer my heartfelt thanks to both Robin and Susie. It was great spending the day with you folks and I really enjoyed it. Thanks for all your help, kindness and consideration, for ferrying me around, carrying my camera kit, for being patient whilst I tried to take a shot and for generally looking after me. Thanks too for all the photos you both took of us. Look forward to being able to do something together again soon. Oh, and an extra thank you to Robin for doing all the driving.


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