Listed as one of the ten best places in Scotland for autumn colour, Dawyck (it rhymes with oik), near Peebles, is one of Scotland’s three regional Botanical Gardens and lies down quaint, quiet lanes with the grand hills of Tweeddale looming mysteriously beyond. A light dusting of snow had fallen on the hills, and I stopped the car several times to take photographs. This made me late, but it was worth it.
Gloom descends at around three-thirty in these parts, and it was already two when I arrived at Dawyck. I bought a coffee from the tiny café in the main building, and armed with a map and my camera, made my way into the Gardens where I quickly and intentionally got lost.
Having been several times to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh, I think I expected Dawyck to be a similar version on a smaller, more provincial scale. It is, in fact, a completely different type of place, an arboretum, and once part of a country estate, now devoted almost entirely to trees.
The air was still and damp, and it seemed as though I was the only visitor, so desolate was the place. (Later it transpired that I had been the only visitor). The trees had lost most of their leaves, which lay in coppery piles alongside the paths, and thickly under the canopies. The only living creatures I saw were a pair of exotic-looking glossy black pheasants, which strutted confidently through the grass, and soon afterwards another pair of pheasants, this time the ordinary kind.
Dawyck Botanical Gardens was once part of the Dawyck Estate, and the gloomy, gothic façade of the old house graced several views, looking terribly like a Scottish Baskerville Hall. Parts of the grounds are private, and close to the house the woodland melted seamlessly into tantalising, chained off garden. There were large, mossy stone urns and even mossier stone steps lending themselves to the general burden of Victorian grandeur, but away from the house I could have been in any starkly beautiful woodland, this one distinguishing itself to the sharp eyed only in the number of non-native trees. The Botanical Garden was enormous, and soon I was as lost as can be, far away along the smooth, still paths, up and up the hill and further into the wood.
I ate a picnic of bread and hot soup from a flask while sitting on a moist bench, and idled my way through the woods, before remembering that the place closed at four and I was at least half an hour from the main building. I reluctantly began my return, taking a different path from the one I had come along, stopping to read briefly the instructive boards that described the nearby trees, fungi and wildlife. I passed over a little bridge and beside a small pool beside which stood an enormous and ancient larch tree, and then found myself in a beautiful birch wood, followed by some breathtakingly beautiful sorbus trees full of berries red, white, or pink, whose branches were entirely covered in curly green lichen.
My lasting impression is one of solitude, stillness, damp and closing gloom. Of carroty trees and old moss, of snaking paths and knee-deep dead leaves, and of hurrying back to the main building and reaching it just as the clock struck four and the receptionist was coming out to look for me, still regretting that I couldn’t have stayed another hour, even though as light was fast disappearing
Dawyck Botanical Gardens, near Peebles, is open daily from 1st February to 30th November and entry for an adult costs £6.50, with reduced rates for concessions and children, and free entry to Friends of the RBGE.