The Winter Gardens are an Aberdeen institution. In a city deprived of family attractions, Duthie Park’s beloved gardens stand alone, impervious to the weather and the changing leisure habits of generations. Laser Quest, ice skating and bowling come and go, but the gardens are a perennial sanctuary where families can be dragged with nary a murmur of complaint. Capricious toddlers; sulky teens; cantankerous grandparents: take them to David Welch Winter Gardens, with the promise of ice cream should anyone demur.
Winter is coming: Duthie Park, AberdeenIs there a better family attraction in the city? The Fun Beach is fun – when there’s sun. The other 300 days of the year, the tourist mecca that’s touted on those brown signs approaching the city is dreich and riddled with seagulls, the vermin of the north-east. A month ago, I toured the Winter Gardens with my daughter’s class. Today, it’s mercifully just the two of us, with K serving as my botanical guide. I take notes and photos while she tells me where to point and click – in between talking incessantly about turtles. Despite their diminutive size, the park’s turtles are kind of a big deal, garnering more attention and well-aimed shrapnel than the coi carp.
It may be mid-June but Aberdeen is as grey as only a port named The Granite City can be. From the outside, the Winter Gardens are unprepossessing, with little to hint at the wonders that lie inside. Step over the threshold however and you enter a different world – several different worlds – where climate and geography become amorphous concepts. The gardens are best toured in a clockwise direction, starting with Temperate House, which sounds like a form of minimalist dance music. Enter this tropical zone and you’re instantly transported to a different continent but without having to suffer the long-haul flight and overzealous customs officers. Outside it’s 12ºC and fine drizzle; inside it’s pushing 30ºC and moist. Hot and wet bests wet every time.
Experiencing such extremes in Aberdeen normally calls for visiting the sunbeds. At the Winter Gardens, not only do you get to keep your clothes on, but it’s actively encouraged.
Coppers and robbers
Aberdonians aren’t known for their willingness to part with change, but to their credit, there’s a plentiful supply lining the gardens’ rock pools and rivers. Pester power is a remarkable force (note my own fiscal policy concerning such matters: Have all the coppers you like, kiddo, but you ain’t getting my silver).
A waterfall gurgles merrily, birds chirp and families converse in hushed library tones. It’s all very soothing. No wonder the Winter Gardens is such a popular wedding venue; today one of the greenhouses is roped off for this very purpose, its pathways patrolled by a phalanx of kilted gentlemen.
To the uninitiated, these spidery strands are some sort of tropical plant. To the somewhat initiated, this is Spanish moss. To the so-initiated-they-just-closed-a-Google-tab-on-the-topic, this is the moss that notoriously trapped Spanish invaders in its tendrils, until the indigenous tribes exacted revenge on the hapless men for having brought death and disease to South America. Sometimes, the most enchanting story is the one that’s unfolding before your eyes. At other times, the best story is all in your head. Google contains no record of the aforementioned encounter by the way, which was related by the head gardener during the Primary 4 school trip. Without its apocryphal tales, the Winter Gardens is only half as fun. As I take in the dense vegetation and low-hanging branches, I picture myself deep in the rainforest, panicking as the spidery strands curl ever-tighter and the hacking of machetes grows louder. You don’t mess with Spanish moss.
Welcome to paradise
For many Aberdonian families, a little piece of paradise constitutes a Westhill new-build with a Lexus in the driveway. For the less sybaritic and those who don’t work in oil, however, Temperate House is the paradisiacal epicentre of the north-east. Pungent flowers of every colour. Sticky green leaves. Ripe buds. For visitors who can’t bear to leave paradise without taking a piece, many of these strains are available as pot plants in the garden centre, ensuring that the only blooms which exit stage left are accompanied by a receipt. Contrary to popular belief, Aberdonians are neither tight-fisted nor light-fingered. The locals treat the Winter Gardens with the respect they deserve – or at least they do until they reach the carnivorous plants. Sure, it says “don’t touch”, but when there’s a venus fly trap goading you to poke your finger into the jaws of death, what are you gonna do? Expecting people not to touch the plants is like expecting them not to illegally download music. Fingering the meat-eating plants may be amusing, but it’s also a sure-fire way to kill them: mistaking your digit for a bluebottle, they’ll snap shut and consume themselves. If you only retain one pearl of wisdom from this article, make it this: self-cannibilisation = certain death.
While Temperate House is moist, Arid House is as dry as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. It’s like stepping from a cigar room straight into a sauna. The towering cactuses transport me to the Peruvian desert, or is it the outskirts of Albuquerque, an RV belching blue smoke just visible on the horizon? Wherever it is, it’s a long way from Aberdeen.
From the Arid House, we wander through the Victorian Corridor, Japanese Garden and Corridor of Perfumes, before our passage to the Fern House is halted by the nuptials that are in progress. K couldn’t care less about ferns, but she does care about seeing the terrapins – or turtles as she knows them. (For the record, a terrapin is a type of turtle – a “small edible turtle” as my dictionary puts it, although terrapins imported to this country are more likely to be at the mercy of flushing cisterns than reptile-munching families.) “The turtles are so important to me that I can’t miss them,” insists my eight-year-old. “If I do I’ll screech.” After circling the gardens a couple of times, we establish that the terrapins are indeed housed within the greenhouse that’s currently out of bounds.
“Should we crash the wedding?” I ponder. “They’ve got their whole lives to be married but we’re only here for one day.” “I actually will do it just for turtles,” avers K. My daughter is persuasive, but not as persuasive as ice cream, which lures her out of the building via the gardens’ most famous resident. McPuddock (who sounds like an amphibian burger) is a larger-than-life-size model prone to popping out of the water and startling unsuspecting tourists. A sign announces that he is presently sleeping, but we pay our respects nonetheless, with K tossing a few coppers onto the somnolent giant’s head. The rattle of change fails to stir him and so we depart for pastures where pocket change can buy more meaningful encounters in a cone. Goodbye edible turtles, ersatz frogs and suicidal plants. We’ll see you guys again real soon.