Friday, 29 January 2016

Biddy Spies Snowdrops at Welford Park

It would be a hard heart indeed that was not moved by the sight of snowdrops. And is there anywhere better to see them in all their springtime glory than at Welford Park, just outside of Newbury?

Many people will have heard of Welford Park because of its link as a venue to one of my favourite TV programmes, The Great British Bake Off. Privately owned Welford Park is only open to the public for a few short weeks each year while the snowdrops are in bloom, but how lucky we are that the owners open the gates to their grounds and share them with the rest of the world.

Last year a friend and I visited on what proved to be a very wet day indeed, but it didn’t dampen our spirits, nor those of the other visitors. (Unless there has been a particularly dry spell, I would recommend taking wellies or something similar to change into.)

There is a decent, hard-standing carpark (and a nice man to guide you to ensure everyone parks tidily). Then it is a short walk along a bark track to the booth where you pay your entrance fee and collect a map to guide you round. Dogs on leads are welcome too.

Naturally we started with coffee in the tea room – once the laundry. A lovely team made us very welcome and served us filter coffee and very good homemade cake. More substantial snacks and light lunches (baked spuds, soup, sandwiches and hot daily specials) are served too.

There is only a small handful of tables in the Old Laundry Tearoom, but a much larger offering in the marquee on the lawn where dogs are also welcome.

You can stroll at leisure around the grounds admiring the snowdrops, spending as much time as you wish, and there are occasional seats if you want to shelter or just sit and gaze at the snowy drifts. The first glimpse through the trees in the Snowdrop Woods where the snowdrops look like, well, snow, is absolutely breathtaking. And when you get closer, I defy you not to stand and stare and drink in the view!

Welford Park has an annual plant fair during snowdrop season– which last year happened to coincide with my visit, and I’ve been very pleased with my baby irises. In 2016 the plant fair is on Thursday 25 February, and stallholders make a donation to Macmillan Cancer Support, so a brilliant opportunity to get great plants and advice from the experts – and all in a good cause.

There is a small giftshop, which amongst other things sells Welford sausages from their own farm. (The husband was very pleased when I took some home and we both thoroughly recommend them.)

This year Welford Park is open to visitors Wednesday to Sunday 3 February to 6 March, 11am to 4pm (closed Mondays and Tuesdays). Do go. It’s wonderful.

More details at

Photo: The Snowdrop Woods, Welford Park, Berkshire

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Biddy at Highclere Castle

Although I have been to various events at Highclere Castle over the years, I had never got around to doing the tour, and when old friends from Hertfordshire said they were coming I took the opportunity to meet up with them there last summer.

As you probably know, Highclere Castle is privately owned by the Earl of Carnarvon and only open to the public for a few days each year. Pre-bookable tickets sell out almost as soon as they become available, so you need to keep a look out on the website and get in there as soon as you can (the next round of tickets for summer visits 2016 become available in February, so pop it on the calendar now if you want to go).

However, you can turn up on the day and it is highly likely that you will get in on a day ticket, but if you are tied to a certain day or travelling any distance a pre-booked ticket is much the best option. Tickets are timed for entrance to the castle, with a morning or afternoon option. This is a great idea, as numbers are limited so that it is never too crowded.

The castle itself opens at 10.30am, and I arrived on site around 10.15am … enjoying the leisurely drive through the grounds and, as I approached the castle, being directed to a parking spot. There were already a good number of cars parked, and people waiting for the castle doors to swing open. I had half an hour to kill before my friends arrived, so made my way round the back of the castle to the tearoom (oh what a surprise I hear you cry!) and enjoyed a coffee sitting outside, looking over the glorious landscape. 

I am sure Highclere Castle was a popular visitor destination even before it became the star of Downton Abbey … but certainly the TV programme made it an even bigger attraction. There were visitors from many different nations enjoying seeing Downton ‘in the flesh’ so to speak. The series of Downton shown in late 2015, however, was the last – going out on a high, always a good thing in my opinion, though of course many people are sad to see it go. How wonderful that Highclere Castle has been able to benefit from the experience, and I am sure will continue to enthral visitors who love the programme for years to come. But it is a great experience, whether you are a Downton fan or not.

There are various levels of tickets, which may differ year on year, but for £20 I had entrance to the castle, the Egyptian Exhibition and the grounds. As you can spend all day here, it is well worth it. There are several small tea room areas for light snacks and lunches, but when I left in the early afternoon some people were thoroughly enjoying picnicking in the grassy carpark, so that is yet another option.

You stroll from room to room around the castle at leisure, following a natural route, and are able to linger in each room as long as you wish. There are helpful and friendly guides in each room to answer any questions, and all were happy to offer up their knowledge.

I had been longing to see the Egyptian exhibition, and was mighty impressed with the area it covers and the vast collection. I would say you need an absolute minimum of an hour to see it, and even then would not be able to examine every artefact. There has clearly been a lot of time and effort making this a fabulous part of the Highclere experience and hats off to those who have made it so. I particularly loved the sensation of peering into the gloom to get a feel for what the 5th Earl and Howard would have seen he made his great discovery.

Leave time to stroll the grounds … you really do need to spend the day here to get maximum benefit. However, the drive as you leave the estate takes you on a different route, so you actually get to see a lot of the grounds. Although so close to the A34, the peace is almost deafening. It really is another world, and must be a wonderful place to grow up and live … quite magical in fact.

Biddy x