Further West Country Rambling

It was quite a thrilling moment, crossing the Tamar to get to Cornwall. I hadn’t gone to Cornwall via that route since my first trip there, and that was only to have breakfast at a Little Chef after getting off a Brittany ferry in Plymouth.

Yes, my parents were trolling me – I had begged for years to go to Cornwall, inspired by Over Sea, Under Stone, naturally – so what did they do? They took me there for breakfast. And then drove home to Essex. I held that grudge against them for years.

I’d been to Cornwall a couple of times as an adult – one brief trip over the border from Devon during a weekend break, and a proper holiday there circa 2002, but neither trip had taken us over the Tamar bridge, so I commemorated it with this rather poor photo.

and found myself remembering a favourite line from ‘Over Sea, Under Stone’ – ‘What’s he mean, Logres?’ demanded Jane. ‘He means the land of the West,’ Barney said … ‘It’s the old name for Cornwall. King Arthur’s name.’

I have loyalties and affections in many corners of the UK – raised in East Anglia, family roots in Wales, very drawn to the wildest furthest bits of Scotland and islands in general – but nothing quite matches Cornwall for me for magic, and it was probably the influence of Susan Cooper which put the germ of it there.

I did also have a great fondness for Green Smoke by Rosemary Manning, which covers the most famous Arthurian and Cornish legends with a light touch, though it didn’t shy away from the more down-beat elements of Arthur (spoiler: there’s a big battle and it doesn’t go well for him).

I hadn’t thought of it for years, but as luck would have it, the holiday barn we stayed in had a copy, and the 5 year old was enchanted by it. (She’ll come to Susan Cooper in time, I hope).

View near our holiday barn, Tregear

I seem to have veered off the original topic, which was meant to be a holiday round-up – but there was a point in there somewhere.

My daydream version of Cornwall as a child was all tied up in magic and mystery and legend, all of my favourite things – the reality I learned from this holiday is that Cornwall has buckets and spades and holiday parks and heaving beaches and cafes of questionable quality, just like any other British seaside district.

It isn’t all mists and stone circles and empty cliff tops, which was much more the experience I had staying there in 2002 – of course, that was pre-children, and a very different kind of holiday. I hoped to find more of what I had loved about it back then, but searching for wild and lonely places whilst also trying to have a family-friendly holiday is a bit of a challenge.

Holywell Beach, nr Newquay

We certainly saw areas which looked like they’d seen better days, and plenty of inferior boxy housing going up – plus some very nasty mock-Georgian stuff on the edges of Truro, which has a new Waitrose, presumably put there for the horrid grockles like us (and of course we did use it.

I suppose what troubles me is that in Cornwall, the place which felt like home to me before I’d even been there, I know I am truly an outsider. In Wales, I feel at home because I can pronounce Machynlleth without fear and know to say diolch instead of thank you.

In East Anglia and the Kent/Sussex coast and the Lake District I’m in the places I spent my childhood holidays, so I feel very at ease. In Cornwall, though, I’ll always be a grockle. The question is how to do it without feeling too guilty about it.

Staying well away from the tourist hotspots and the coast was a big advantage – we were beautifully isolated in our holiday barn at Tregear, with the most complicated network of tiny lanes crisscrossing the fields to get us there (I was reminded of what Britain must have been like in wartime, with all the signposts gone – how do you navigate when every field and junction looks interchangeable?)

View from Tregear Barns

The location, despite its peace and quiet, was actually very well placed for driving to either the north or south coasts, (once we’d escaped the jumble of lanes) and convenient for Truro and that damn Waitrose. I had assumed we’d mainly stick to the south coast, but we ended up exploring both, and I had a proper sense for the first time of how different their characters are.

Perranporth Beach

The huge stretches of sand at Perranporth and Holywell in the north reminded me of Brittany, and diving into the waves at the Baie des Trépassés, aged about 15.

This time, I was practically the only person swimming (ok, jumping in the waves and paddling a bit) there rather than surfing, and it did make me wish I’d signed up for a body boarding lesson. Perhaps signs of a mid-life crisis but when I saw everyone but me doing it, I wanted to give it a go!

The south coast, on the other hand, was more like bits of Devon I’d been to years ago, and we found some pleasingly wild places alongside the more manicured and tourist-friendly. I was pleasantly surprised by Falmouth, which was much more upmarket and yachty than I’d realised – the place to go if you want to shop at Joules or Fat Face – but was still somehow a proper place, not all full of Hooray Henries, and the maritime museum is brilliant.

Falmouth Harbour

And I did, eventually find – or rediscover – the place that really owns my heart in Cornwall, Porthcurno, but that deserves a blog all on its own. Plenty more to follow!

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A West Country Round-Up

Autumn has blown itself in very promptly, with rain and winds accompanying the return to school, but seeing as we aren’t facing hurricanes here, I am resolving not to grumble too much.

Still, our summer holiday does seem rather long ago now, and I did want to capture a bit of it before I forget too much. This may wind up being a two-parter, though.

This was a fairly different holiday from the last two – we almost exclusively did without the buggy this time round. The scooters didn’t come out of the car boot a single time. This meant, a slower pace, a lot of children carried on shoulders and stopping and starting, but on the plus side, we could now tackle stiles.

Our first proper walk was to try and get down to the beach where we were staying, near Sidmouth in Devon. This was the first bit of sunshine after a morning of rain, so we were determined to make the most of it.

It started easily enough, from the donkey sanctuary (nice cafe), a steep path through the woods which turned into this seemingly idyllic stroll across a field. It looked like another stretch of woodland below us, and the sea not terribly far away.

The reality was quite different though – that lovely green field was actually soaking wet and muddy, and once both children had fallen on their knees, we began to lose hope. Another walker toiling back up the hill warned us that it got a lot more slippery further down, so we turned back at that point.

I did get in a walk by myself that evening, though – down to the nearest hamlet (barely more than 2 farmhouses and one of those was half-ruined), and I got to experience a true deep Devon lane. Plenty more lanes like this were to come, but I think this was the only one I got to walk down blissfully all by myself.

We got a nice sunset that evening, too.

The next day was forecast to be the Good Day of the week, so we decided to go to Lyme Regis. Unfortunately (or otherwise) it was the Lyme Regis carnival with Red Arrows display that evening.

We found a parking space by the skin of our teeth, and headed into town to find it crawling with people, and the beach even busier. I knew that the proper beach – the fossil bit – was further down, so once the kids had paddled and we’d had lunch, I dragged them all down there.

It took quite a lot of hunting, but we found some of the ammonites eventually. Really quite a thing! The looming, crumbling cliffs were slightly terrifying though, especially seeing people scrambling around and excavating bits (why would you??)

We ventured back to the hordes in town, watched the lifeboat launch on what turned out to be a false alarm, and walked out to the end of the Cobb for the views back along the coast.

Lots of people crabbing, but we thought the two year old was much too great a liability to be allowed near any big drops – I warned the children what happened to Louisa Musgrove in Persuasion, not that they were much interested – we just admired other people’s crabs instead.

By then we had pretty much decided it was too hot and exhausting to try and last until the Red Arrows display, so after another paddle, and tea, we headed home. A good move, as it turned out – with so few routes in and out of the town, it was gridlocked trying to leave later on.

Still, crowds or no, Lyme remains one of my very favourite places and I’m very glad we went.

Our last day in Devon was spent at Branscombe, a much cloudier day, but a proper chocolate box place (National Trust of course) and some very impressive cliffs with holiday cabins and mobile homes clinging to the sides in terrifying fashion.

The pebbly beach was quite hard going walking with children, so I abandoned the attempt to get up close to the huge rock pillar at the beach end, but contented myself with hunting out some marine flora.

We ended the day in the neighbouring village of Beer, which if anything I liked even better than Branscombe – it was still a proper fishing village, but with no quay – boats pulled up on the shingle alongside the beach cafe.

Here we were able to buy fresh fish to cook at home – though it didn’t come cheap – and there was a cabin right down by the beach set up as a tiny, free exhibition about all things marine (seemingly so tiny and obscure I can’t even find a reference to it on Google, but it was well worth a visit!).

This was the end of the Devon leg of our holiday – next day, on to Cornwall. To be continued…

A walk around…Kew Gardens

I have mixed experiences, shall we say, of visiting Kew.

The first time I went, in 2001, I had a lovely day there with my mum, but the memory is tainted by the fact I got mugged the next day. The photos from our day at Kew are the last ones, unknowingly, I had of my nice burgundy bowling ball style handbag which I was about to be relieved of. Grrr.

The next time was a much bigger success – it was during an exhibition of work by Dale Chihuly, the glass sculptor, and his work was, to me, the perfect match for the setting. Elegant spirals and globes of coloured glass floating on the lake in front of the great Palm House was really quite special.

The most recent visits have had their up moments, but have been hampered by rain. We went in January, when everyone was on the verge of being ill, and it was a struggle to have the energy to do anything much. Then we went again at the start of the summer holidays, on a day which had started out lovely, but clouded over within minutes of getting in the car.

Now, there are plus points of a wet day at Kew – the greenhouses are good whatever the weather, and there is an acceptable indoor play area for children which tries to shoehorn in some plant facts, but is mostly just fun.

The other plus side is, in between the showers, you get to see everything looking lush and green with raindrops on roses everywhere you look.

The downside is, there is a lot of ground to cover between the different indoor areas, and surprisingly little tree cover along the main paths, as they are such broad walks with flower borders, the trees are set far back from the path.

Still, we found plenty to explore in the middle of the day before the rain set in – we went to the Hive, a light and sound installation which mimics the activity of bees.

We'd seen it back in January in a fairly dormant state, but now it was in full flow with lights flashing on and off continually, and very restful ambient music playing. If this is a bee's life, I like it.

(Photos show the exterior and interior of the Hive).

From there it's a short hop through the rain to the Princess of Wales greenhouse where the lily pads (see picture near the top) and a real actual iguana were the big draws.

Then, with rain getting harder, we slogged around the lake and through the Alpine garden to get to a toilet stop, (this is another pacing problem, toilets all seem rather awkwardly located, too close to each other and not very close to the big greenhouses).

Then on to the Palm House for a bit of respite from the cold rain – of course we didn't really dry off, just steamed in the humid air – and a final trek back to the car, wishing for a little sunshine so we could have stayed another hour.

Plenty of nice borders and details to snap on the way back, though….(love the giant ornamental thistles, I keep seeing these everywhere at the moment).

I cannot say these wet days out at Kew have been a disappointment when we have still managed to see and do so much, it is just a shame to leave with so much more unseen! I would love to take the children to the pagoda and the treetop walk, and down one of the long avenues which leads to the river, but it's just not doable on a wet day.

Plus the map indicates all sorts of hidden gardens and less well-visited areas I'd love to explore properly.

None of that matters to the children, of course; the indoor play and the very good outside playground next to it would be enough for them, but I hope they'll get more out of it as they get older. One of them may still have an inner botanist yearning to get out. Just a botanist that needs a good sunny day to really appreciate the best that Kew has to offer.

Walks around….the Lake District

Our summer holiday this year was desperately needed by the time July arrived – the end of June had been spent in a post-Brexit state of gloom, and despite the comfort of knowing that in London we were surrounded by many fellow Remain voters, we also fixed on the upcoming escape from the city as a respite from the traffic, trains chaos, muggy air and the general unpleasantness of London in summer.

After our trip to the New Forest last year, we decided to be a bit more ambitious and go for the Lake District – a longer drive, but we took the very civilised and humane route of breaking the journey in both directions overnight, meaning we didn’t have more than 3 hours stretch of driving at a time. To those with small children, I urge you to do the same. It made the journey so much more bearable, and we even got lucky with London traffic in both directions.

We couldn’t replicate the thatched cottage in the New Forest, sadly, and our Lakes barn conversion turned out to be smart and functional but rather dull inside, although the thick walls made it beautifully cool on hot days, and the location certainly made it very special – we were only just outside the tourist honeypot of Bowness, but we were right on the edge of proper countryside.



(This was the view on the first evening we arrived, misty fields after a day of rain. The rain didn’t last!)

Our goal for the holiday was to continue in our hunt for buggy-friendly walks, and helpfully the National Park have a fantastic network of Miles Without Stiles – everything from proper buggy routes up mountainsides to short walks to viewpoints suitable for motorised wheelchairs. It really is a brilliant idea and became our bible for the week when planning days out.


A view from our first walk, Elterwater to Skelwith Bridge.

From the list on the Miles Without Stiles page, I think we did the following: nos 6/7, 8, 11, 13, 17, and 41. Some were circular routes around tarns, a couple we had to retrace our steps, but the most ambitious and exciting was certainly the Windermere Western Shore walk. 

This walk starts with arrival by boat from Ambleside and a climb up to Wray Castle where we had a picnic and a quick nose inside the castle, but not for long, as we had a good bit of ground to cover – this was by far the longest walk we attempted, but being a lakeside path, it was mostly all flat and gentle going, and in shade the whole way.

Windermere from the lakeside path

We did have to put on a bit of speed towards the end as our final goal, the ferry back to Bowness, waited for no man (well, there was a later ferry, but we decided to push on for the 4pm boat rather than be kicking our heels for another 40 minutes, and we still – just – had time for ice creams before we got the boat). 

That walk was certainly the most pleasing in that we didn’t have to retrace our steps at any point, besides the thrill of arriving and leaving by boat, but some of the others had real highlights – our walk along Coniston Water took us past the impressive farm building of Coniston Hall Farm, with its huge chimneys and a grass slope up to the first floor to access the hay barn.


It just seemed incredible that this ancient building is still in use as a farmhouse (though admittedly part of it is derelict). It must surely have some ghost stories attached to it, I feel!

The walk to Skelwith Bridge along Elterwater also had a great incentive – lunch at the half way point at Chesters by the River, a place so chichi it really shouldn’t be allowed in fell walking country, it is so far removed from the traditional hikers cafe, but the fact that the portions of food are HUGE and prices quite reasonable, does make it acceptable to walkers. You must only be allowed to eat there if you are doing some strenuous exercise afterwards to work it off, though.

In terms of keeping the children happy (beyond the regular application of ice cream), we had a couple of big hits up our sleeve – Brockhole visitor centre, which had a very good playground and lovely gardens to wander in… 


Flowerbeds at Brockhole visitor centre

…and, on our one wet morning, I took the Big Girl to the World of Beatrix Potter which was surprisingly endearing and not nearly as annoying as I’d feared – the garden modelled on Mr McGregor’s garden, although teeny tiny and in no way resembling a proper kitchen garden, was a real gem: the fact it had just finished raining meant the whole garden was shimmering with raindrops.


Mr McGregor’s Garden

My other highlight was evening walks down to the edge of Bowness village where, by dint of a bit of searching for the exact best viewpoint, I managed to take some pretty good sunset photos: 


As far as family-friendly holidays go, I think this worked well – we did struggle to keep the almost-walking toddler entertained, true – timing her naps around the activities we wanted to do was tricky, and we had to make sure she got exercise too.

We really didn’t want to resort to soft play just to give her a chance to stretch her legs, so we had to make stops on our walks to let her crawl around – factoring this into the day was a big change from the previous year.

The boat rides were a bit hairy too, with her clambering around; it meant we had to sacrifice the lake views and sit below decks to ensure she didn’t launch herself overboard. That was the moment I remembered fondly the previous summer when she was so much more, um, portable….and immobile.

What I did like was that every single outing we did was within close reach of the Windermere and Coniston areas – we really didn’t have to go beyond the immediate area to find fun things to do. Of course roads were slow & windy in places but nowhere felt *too* far away.

This did mean we didn’t get to the legendary Pencil Museum in Keswick (saved for another day!) nor did we go anywhere close to the part of the Lakes I knew from my childhood, the Duddon Valley – but it was refreshing to find that, even in the midst of what I had dismissed as tourist traps, we could find a bit of peace and quiet – on some of the walks we passed only a handful of other people. 

Of course, it will never be repeated, as we’ll never have a holiday outside the school holidays again, (well, not for years) but it was good while it lasted.


Tarn Hows

A visit to…Ashdown Forest

The recent mayoral elections in London may have been a messy and unpleasant affair, but there was an added benefit for us: preschool closed to become a polling station, followed by a bonus inset day, suddenly a glorious four-day weekend beckoned. We won’t get many opportunities like this left once school starts, so we have to grab ’em while we can.

I had been longing to visit Ashdown Forest, the real location which inspired Winnie-the-Pooh, and it being very conveniently a short hop away on the Sussex downs, it was a nice easy long weekend option. 

As it turned out, roadworks in Tonbridge made the ‘nice easy drive’ a nightmare, but we reached our holiday cabin (found via Airbnb, the first time we’d used it since we stayed in in Hastings in 2013) and discovered we were on the edge of a smallholding with views like this: 

– and then we realised it was probably going to all be OK. Going out to see the sheep and chickens in the morning and at bedtime became a fixture, and I felt quite sure I too could easily keep sheep and chickens and live on the side of a valley in Sussex miles from anywhere – well, maybe. There was good 3G reception there and that does count for a lot.

We spent the first afternoon exploring our local patch and only venturing into the nearby town (Heathfield) to pick up food for dinner. The next day, we set out to explore the forest.

My first destination was the legendary, real Poohsticks bridge. We have our own personal favourite Poohsticks places, at Morden Hall Park and in Wales near my parents’, but I’d always dreamed of visiting the real thing.

The bridge is deliberately hard to find – I imagine they don’t want to encourage coach parties – but having missed a turning the first time, we doubled back and found the discreetly signposted car park. 

There were several paths leading into the woods, and again the one leading directly to the bridge only had a very subtle sign indicating that this was the right route. The big girl was keen to have a proper explore, so we took a different path winding in the opposite direction, only to find that it looped back, crossed a field and took us down towards the bridge anyway. 

So we rounded a corner and there it was – 


The stream itself was pretty lazy so playing actual Poohsticks was a rather gentle affair compared to a rushing Welsh stream, but we had a good go at it. Lots of sticks had got stuck, I do wonder if the huge drifts of washed-up sticks get cleared out every so often to avoid a dam building up! 


From there, we drove to the nearby Gill’s Lap, which in the AA Milne books becomes ‘Galleon’s Lap’, Christopher Robin’s Enchanted Place. 

From the signboard at the car park, we could see that there was a circular walk taking in some of the other well-known locations – Roo’s Sandy Pit, Eeyore’s Gloomy Place, etc, but not all these were necessarily accurate to the places Milne had in mind; it was more the case of retro-fitting the key locations from the stories to make a nice child-friendly circular walk.


Unfortunately, we didn’t have the leaflet for the circular walk, and yet again the signposting wasn’t great – plus it was, by then, a very hot day with little shade, so we didn’t go further than the clump of trees on the horizon (above) – the high point of Gill’s Lap.


However even just going this short distance was very satisfying – the atmosphere of Ashdown Forest feels exactly like an EH Shephard illustration come to life. 

It may come as a surprise that so much of the ‘forest’ is actually heathland, but the landscape of gorse, heather, clumps of pine trees and sand beneath the feet is certainly a favourite habitat of mine – nice gentle walking conditions under foot, lovely views, sweet smelling gorse – give me that over a trudge through Forestry Commission plantations any day! 

The lack of shade did deter us from going any further, though, so we beat a retreat to have lunch and in the afternoon went to the Ashdown Forest visitor centre

Here we found the leaflets for guided trails which would have been useful earlier on – and did a circular walk starting from the centre which proved to be a bit of a struggle with the buggy up a steep slope and a big girl increasingly unwilling to walk any further in the heat. As much as I loved it there, I do think Ashdown Forest is somewhere we’d go back to once we’re out of the buggy years – far fewer buggy-friendly trails than we found in the New Forest last year.

The next day was spent in a more leisurely fashion travelling on the beautiful Bluebell Railway – another place of childhood dreams, with dinky little private compartments making you feel you’re on your way to Hogwarts, and if you peer out the window (not too far, boys and girls!) the sight of real steam puffing out of the engine. 


Not to mention all the glorious retro and vintage signs which adorn the stations along the way – 


The line ends (or begins, depending on which way you go), at Sheffield Park, a National Trust garden near Uckfield. We had a few hours to kill after our lunch before the return train, so we explored the grounds laid out by Capability Brown.


To be honest, masses of carefully tended rhododendrons and artfully arranged vistas of trees are not really my thing, although there was a proper wild area with bluebells that had just finished flowering, but there were some undeniably lovely views.


We finished the weekend in the best possible way, by the seaside at dear old Birling Gap which never fails to impress:


The slog of a drive back to London was the only really unpleasant prospect, not to mention returning to a stuffy house which had sweltered for 4 days with the windows shut, but we counted ourselves lucky; based on what’s come since, those 4 days appear to be the main summer we are getting this year! At least we can say, we made the most of them.

Walks around….The New Forest

We spent a week in the New Forest in June – an early holiday, to avoid peak school holiday season while we still can.

I have spent weekends and other fleeting visits to the New Forest in the past, and it was on my list of places to visit for a proper family holiday – easy walking, close to the sea, ponies – what more do you want?

  
….well, a thatched cottage is pretty good, too!

We had heathland directly over the road from our cottage, (near Beaulieu) stretching away for miles, which was either idyllic in good weather or slightly grim and foreboding, Egdon Heath-style, if you walked out there at twilight, as I did on the first evening.

 

The heath does not lend itself to family friendly walking – too tussocky and boggy and not enough proper paths to follow, so in our goal to find walks which could handle a buggy and a big girl, we went first of all to Bolderwood, a Forestry Commission site famous for its deer sanctuary.
It was a very short and easy buggy/ wheelchair-accessible walk to the viewpoint to see the deer, which was a lovely start to the walk.

  
…and beyond that a bit of a slog round the rest of the trail, an easy walk but not a terribly child-thrilling one, bar the odd fallen tree to scramble on.

Much more to her taste was Moors Valley country park, which had a forest trail with no less than 10 play areas to explore. This pretty much makes it 3-year-old heaven. 

  
Again, this was a buggy friendly walk, although felt like even more of a slog than Bolderwood, because we were constantly stopping and starting, and having to nag at the big girl to get her to move on to the next thing – it was a big hit with her, but time-consuming.

The other thing with these Forestry Commission walks is that one patch of forest plantation looks pretty much like another: there was not a lot of wildlife to be seen, nor any particularly dramatic scenery. It’s all pleasant walking, and being under the trees meant we stayed out of the sun, too, but we wanted to make sure we saw a bit more than just forest.

For that, we went to a place I’ve dreamed of visiting for years: Brownsea Island, famous for being the site of the first Scout Camp, and for its squirrels.

  
I don’t think I could imagine a place more suited to appeal to me – beautiful sea views in all directions (and what a colour the sea was – Poole Harbour is very shallow, and that lovely azure shade of sea made it feel more like a tropical island!), gentle walking on nice sandy soil, and best of all, red squirrels. (See little red dot in fork of tree on this picture).

  
What a privilege to see this wonderful animal for real – and how much cuter it is than the smug urban greys – red squirrels are tiny, mischievous and wiry, that flash of red coming as a joyful sudden sensation of movement out of the corner of your eye. I swear I saw one turn a cartwheel, and I’m sure it was doing it for the sheer fun of it.

We left Brownsea much earlier than I would have liked, as we had to allow enough time for the boat – the ride back is longer, taking in a full tour of Poole Harbour – so a good half of the island will have to wait for us to return another day to be explored. In my dreams I’d stay overnight, but I suspect I might have to (re)join the Scouts for that.

We also spent a day pottering along the New Forest coast, taking in Christchurch and the dramatic viewpoint of Hengistbury Head, (somewhere I’d been years ago, and always wanted to return) which had Tarmac paths all the way up – although a few steps thwarted us getting the buggy to the very top.

 

Besides all of this, we managed to explore the classic New Forest settlements of Lyndhurst and Lymington, visited a farm and also found a good walking route from Beaulieu following the river.
This left us surprisingly little time to relax and actually enjoy our thatched cottage, but on the last afternoon we finally laid our picnic rug on the grass and did nothing. For a short while.

And I couldn’t resist the chance of photographing a few of the cottage garden flowers that were in the immaculate garden – ox-eye daisies, Canterbury bells, love-in-a-mist, and the tallest foxgloves I’ve ever seen. It was complete bliss.  

  

Finally, just because, here’s some of the ponies on the lane outside our cottage one afternoon.

   

When can we go back, please?

A walk around Polesden Lacey

Our efforts to find another buggy friendly walk took us on a rare spring day, that actually felt springlike, to Polesden Lacey, a National Trust property I had never heard of before. It was in the direction of Box Hill, so having been there and knowing how lovely the scenery was round there, I was keen to explore more. 

As I grew up in flat-as-a-pancake Essex, I am always surprised to find rolling, proper hilly countryside only a short drive from London – there is even the odd bit of heathland in *Croydon*! The countryside round the village I grew up in has its own charm and will always be dear to me, but nothing can quite beat the drama and beauty of the North Downs (by Home Counties standards at any rate) – and Polesden Lacey turned out to be a bit of a hidden gem.

  

The house itself is probably not remembered for any great architectural significance, nor is it particularly ancient, and the historical connections are mainly of interest due to the Royal Family (George VI and the Queen Mother honeymooned there, but no great scandal or drama associated with the place as far as I could see). 

It’s the setting, on the edge of a valley, which really makes Polesden Lacey special. What struck me first as unusual was that the main facade of the house looked out along the gardens rather than down into the valley – the ground slopes away so steeply to one side that the gardens are mainly in front and behind the house, creating a very linear structure. This lends itself nicely to creating various garden ‘zones’, some more wild and some more formal, with hedging and walls to divide up the different areas.

  

The buggy-friendly walk takes you along a sandy track away from the house, past a woodland play area, (nicely done, but not wildly adventurous for our mountain goat of a girl) and then doubles back on itself to take in the Long Walk, a level terrace path hidden behind a tall hedge which gives you amazing views across the valley. (See above)

Of course the land across the valley is all part of the estate so it was a beautifully managed vista with what looked like a Wealden-style rustic cottage folly nestled among the trees, a farm in the valley bottom and sheep dotting the landscape in all directions. It was all too perfect not to feel like you were being stage-managed, but when the views are this lovely, who cares, frankly?

There were several longer trails that took you down into the valley – even one that would have been accessible for buggies and wheelchairs assuming you had enough spare hands to help open gates – but we decided to stay inside the grounds themselves, and went on next to the kitchen gardens.

 

This was a scene straight out of Mr MacGregor’s garden, from the rows of lettuces and radishes to the potting shed – the perfect place for Peter Rabbit to hide. The gardens actually grow food that is used in the kitchens and cut flowers for displays in the house – not only sustainable and zero food miles, but actually using the gardens for the purpose they were designed for – awesome and very sensible at the same time.

The other decorative walled gardens weren’t quite at their best when we visited – no roses out yet – but there was a great wilderness area to explore, across a little footbridge from the main garden, and a rockery that was full of interest for a 3-year-old, with little paths winding up and down it to have a proper explore, and lots of ferns and alpine flowers to admire.
  

After lunch, we went inside the house, which had not nearly so much to amuse a small child, although there was a suitcase of costumes to ‘dress up like an Edwardian child’ and a few other hands-on exhibits – more of this, please, is what I’d say! The lavish interior of the house – gold, embossed wallpaper, Faberge, more gold – is a sharp contrast to the more simple pleasures of the gardens outside, but it was certainly worth looking around (and more of the interior will be opened up in future years, they say).

There was a good bit more to the estate than this – an orchard, another woodland area and huge open lawns where families were picnicking, plus the cafe and enormous gift shop with its ubiquitous plant sale. (That is, plant sales seem to be ubiquitous at National Trust properties now, and I ain’t complaining, I thoroughly approve!)

I hadn’t been to a National Trust stately pile for years, I don’t think, and I’m sure this one during the week is full of coach parties trekking round the house- but it was lovely at a weekend to see it full of families enjoying the gardens too. 

Best of all, I discovered later that the cottage across the valley is actually a youth hostel, Tanner’s Hatch. It is inaccessible by car, so you have to walk or cycle from Box Hill station, or leave your car in a lay-by up the lane. You can cook outside on a fire pit, and with no permanent warden I reckon if you struck lucky you could have the place to yourself. 

We aren’t yet at the stage of planning a weekend away without children, but when we do, it’s this place I want to go to, it’s gone straight to the top of my list of most-wanted places to stay. We will definitely be back!