Getting to the National Botanic Garden

Colin Miles asks how we can improve communications in Wales without destroying what we came to see

Back in 2003 when we were looking to move to south Wales, I well remember the words of one estate agent who said, “The Welsh are only just realising that you don’t have to live next door to where you work”. Looking at the topography of much of Wales, it is easy to understand the problems of travelling any distance before the advent of the motorcar and why this attitude arose. Unfortunately it seems to be deeply ingrained and I am still surprised by comments such as I get when travelling into Swansea to play Badminton – a mere 13 miles – “Oh you’ve come a long way”. For someone who has lived ‘near’ London for much of his adult life this is like ‘living next door’.

Another aspect of this, which is evident when you travel to many Welsh tourist attractions, is that many of the access roads are single track with passing places. Wales is a beautiful country with magnificent scenery to match anything you will find in the world. But travel isn’t easy and the dilemma is, of course, how do you improve access without destroying that beauty?

One answer might be public transport.  Even a relatively small mini-bus is capable of replacing several cars. And then there are the trains – at least what remains of this once extensive system. And, thinking just a little bit further there are the planes which bring the overseas visitors to this glorious country.

I work as a volunteer at the National Botanic Garden of Wales and the problem of increasing visitor numbers has exercised me considerably over the past few years. At the Garden we are lucky in that we are very close to the dual carriage A48, unlike other places such as Picton Gardens, where buses have to negotiate long narrow lanes. Unfortunately, however, we don’t have any direct public transport to the Garden from the major towns and cities, in particular nearby Swansea. Places like the National Wetlands Centre at Llanelli, Aberglasni Gardens and Dinefwr Castle suffer similarly. Several attempts have been made to improve public transport access but without any success.

One of the ideas behind the initiatives that have taken place concerning public transport is that by reducing the number of cars on the road we help the environment. Laudable as this may be, that effect will be infinitesimally small. Far more important is the fact that the increase in fuel prices has had a serious and damaging effect on both the economy and the ability of people to travel anywhere.  Families think twice before making the ‘longer’ journeys and it profoundly affects the many unpaid volunteers on which so many institutions like the National Botanic Garden, the National Wetlands, Aberglasni, Picton Gardens and so on depend. As the manager of one centre said to me, “Where previously a volunteer came in twice a week, now he comes just the once”. Perhaps the French idea of reducing fuel tax isn’t so daft after all.

One initiative that has occurred in the past couple of years has been the Towy Valley Explorer – ‘the-bus-that-meets-the train’. This is a minibus service linking Llandeilo station on the Heart of Wales Line to Parc Dinefwr, the National Botanic Garden, Aberglasney and Dryslwyn Castle. It only costs £5 for adults, £2.50 for children, is free for under 5’s and comes with up to half-price entry to the attractions. Unfortunately it only operates on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the summer months. Admirable as it may be as an attempt to bring people from places like Shrewsbury, Cardiff and Swansea to these attractions, the numbers using the service is pitifully small.

From the beginning of the year to the end of August we only had 35 admissions to the National Botanic Garden as a result of Towy Valley Explorer. One reason for the low take-up last year was the need to pre-book by 4pm the previous day. This year you have until 8.30am the same day to book. The reality is, however, that that is still not good enough as people often decide where to go at the last minute. And this year more than ever those decisions have been weather dependent. (We desperately need better weather forecasts but that’s another matter).

The other reasons why this particular service has failed come down to time, money and convenience. In order to get to any station from your home it takes time, and then you have to park and pay for that if you travel by car, or otherwise are dependent on public transport or a taxi to get there. Then there is the travel time, both by train and then by bus.  For a family of two adults and two children you really have to be very patient and very hard up to go through all the palaver that this involves.  Nowadays most kids, for better or worse, aren’t used to these kinds of inconveniences. So the car is the only logical answer – and the economics don’t really stack up either.

Are there any solutions? In the short term given the current economic climate, probably not. But one thing that has become evident in what has been a very difficult year is that all the attractions are becoming increasingly desperate to attract trade. The result seems to be a race to the bottom which isn’t good for anyone, and it is doubtful as to whether it actually doesn’t increase visitor numbers overall.

Another issue is conflicting attractions. Arranging events which don’t conflict with other events on the same day seems to becoming increasingly difficult. You arrange an event well in advance on a day where nothing else is happening only to find nearer the time that several other events have also been arranged – or there is suddenly a rearranged rugby or football match – ok, nothing you can do about that.

My experience during the past few years is that although there are many admirable transport initiatives, we aren’t actually very good at coordinating and working together. And it is not just at the local level, but the national and, I think even more important, the international level as well. My recent attempt to garner funds for a particular venture was rejected partly on the basis that the National Garden of Wales wasn’t sufficiently national in what was described as ‘UK terms’.  Elsewhere there have been comments that Wales hasn’t connected sufficiently with and taken advantage of the Olympics, and I would certainly second that. Here was an opportunity to connect with the wider world and show that Wales is more than just the ‘most beautiful part of England’.

One way forward would be if attractions throughout Wales actually tried to work together and plan their events – and advertise them jointly to the wider world. Of course, as I know only too well, most attractions simply do not have the manpower to do this on their own. Which is where the tourists boards and others at the national level need to step in.

Colin Miles was educated Cheltenham Grammar School, attended Swansea University, studied Chemical Engineering at Edmonton, Alberta in Canada, and Hull, and lived in Hemel Hempstead between 1968 to 2004, before retiring to Llannon in Ceredigion where he is a volunteer at the National Botanic Garden of Wales.

6 thoughts on “Getting to the National Botanic Garden

  1. Whilst I sympathise with most of Colin’s concerns, I think the comment about lowering fuel duty misses the bigger picture, which is that the price of petroleum based fuels is on a one-way trajectory, and the only long-term solution is to find sustainable methods of transport. Increasing fuel prices increase the market pressure on making these alternatives affordable, as well as supporting the general taxation base.

    At the moment (and sadly) electric vehicles are not available in sufficient numbers for them to be affordable, certainly in the second-hand market, and the charging infrastructure is also not ready. So In the meantime we – the people of Wales – should continue to support public subsidy of public transport as a public good, and perhaps lend pressure to voices which support congestion charges in order to increase funding in this direction.

    Wales can lead the way, but not by following the path of lowering taxes on fuel. Tax the ‘bads’ (fossil fuel, waste etc), not the ‘goods’ (employment, green infrastructure etc).

  2. Yes but we don’t have a Tourist Board. It disappeared into the civil service with the Bonfire of the Quangoes, along with the WDA (as we plunged from best to worst in the UK in attracting foreign investment) and ACCACs (so leaving the Minister of Education exposed to charges of political interference when he disputed changed marking practices for GCSE). As the IWA has shown, the result of the bonfire is that there is less public information available and less scrutiny possible on key activities than when independent agencies had to publish reports and accounts. What a tragedy that Rhodri Morgan could not tell the difference between asserting democratic accountability and vanity-led vandalism. And what a bigger tragedy that today’s politicians don’t have the political courage to face up to an error and undo the damage.

  3. What about moving it up the M4 to where the people are, or its that too simplistic? Why is it that the Eden Project In former clay pit quarry is so successful when no-one can say that Cornwall has really first class road/rail connections. It’s succesful because of the volume of people visiting the west country, and in our climate there is need to fill time out, particularly in poor weather. It is another example of pet project funding in early days of the Welsh Government for Rhodri Morgan to show that devolution was working for the benefit of whole of this region of UK. It is all going to unravel in the next 10 years as our public services are going to have to retrench and deal with bread and butter issues, and not vanity projects.

  4. David Clubb – with all due respect I think you are whistling in the dark, and if the Government really does go for the wind and nuclear option, that is where we will be very soon. Car manufacturers are dropping electric cars because, as a Toyota spokesmen said “There is still no business model that can succeed on the market.” Instead, Toyota will focus more on hybrid models over the coming years.

    As they say, the main problem with electric cars is their lack of efficiency with the batteries, and there are no technical breakthroughs in sight.

    As for Eden, they ‘succeed’ through publicity though, unlike the National Botanic Garden of Wales, the vast majority of visitors do not return. And they have ‘proper’ transport to it.

  5. To me there are a couple of reasons as to why the Eden Project out performs the National Botanic Gardens.

    The main one I think is location: the Eden Project is as good as walking distance from the main Southwest London-Penzance rail line, is on the doorstep of a town (St. Austell), has the coast and beaches just a couple of miles further away, but is enough distance down the Southwest peninsula for people to think they are really having a holiday / break; Carmarthenshire is terrific, but I don’t think it has quite that attachment of being on holiday like you would have if on holiday in Pembrokeshire, as it is not that far away from the urban centres of Swansea etc. In terms of its location within Carmarthenshire itself, it is remote: though it is just a couple of miles from a good road, it is still 10 miles from Carmarthen which is the nearest town of tourist interest, and I don’t think there are the other bits of interest to a visiting family on it’s doorstep like there is at the Eden (i.e. town close by, bits of coast etc.).

    The other thing that strikes me as exceptional about the Eden Project is it’s founding: Tim Smit comes across to me like a kind of James Dyson figure when I hear him talk business on the radio, seems switched on and with a fair bit of entrepreneurial clout. I don’t know much about how the National Botanic Garden was founded, but I think that the Eden Project would have an advantage commercially with the nous of him behind it.

  6. I have just attended a fungi day at the Botanic Gardens. This was a great event with very good speakers and Fungi walks etc and I found it most interesting. It was also an excellent way to showcase the gardens as a whole. I would say that the event was well attended (I’m not an expert) and that people seemed to get a lot out of it.
    The gardens may not be in the perfect place and it has been a dreadful season as far as visitors to most attractions are concerned but my feeling is that effort should be made in two areas. Firstly promotion. The gardens must make more people aware that this excellent facility exists both through the locale, throughout Wales and throughout the UK. And the price structure. It’s a bit too pricey for repeat visits especially for families. I’m not suggesting that it’s not good value. With the fungi event I would say that it was exceedingly good value but I’m sure that you would get many more repeat vistis from say 100 mile radius if a different price structure could be employed. Say a percentage discount for a second visit.

    A couple of minor points as well. There needs to be some staff training in the cafe. Smiling costs nothing and they need to be able to deal with queues more effectively. The Plant centre is under used. I am a grower with Welsh themed marketing and I have pitched twice to the plant centre only to never hear from them again. The stock is average quality to poor and the area is under utilised. I feel sure that this could be much improved by someone that understands garden retailing better. I hope that the points that I have made are valid and that they might be of some help.

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