A little exercise in spontaneity led to DH and I booking a last minute day at Longleat this week. It literally was at the last minute as we booked at 23.55 for the next day! It was not thought through and, en route and on reflection, we were slightly concerned with how quickly we’d parted with 60 quid but it turns out to have been a great investment.
In 1949, Longleat became the first stately home to open its doors to the public; in 1966, its lions first arrived and Longleat House became the first safari park in the UK. It continues to lead the way today with enterprising ideas and the inclusion of a free CD to accompany you around the safari enabling you and your youngsters to learn about the magnificent creatures you’re seeing. Its work with television means that it’s well funded and provides education that reaches audiences far beyond those who pay the entry fee. The house itself is still home to the 7th Marquess of Bath and his family and as such feels very different to the time capsules that so many stately homes have become, with contemporary artwork and family snaps adorning the walls and side-tables.
All in all, it provides a fantastic day out. Read on to find out more about what you can expect from your visit.
BOOKING AND PLANNING YOUR VISIT
The website was very user-friendly (even a techno-prat like me could cope). There were a few attractive packages for ticket options and booking online early is advised as a booking made 2 days in advance currently results in a discount of 15%. As it was, booking the night before saved us 10% – better, as my grandma would say, than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
We were sorely tempted by the 2 day combo package which gave access to Longleat and all its attractions with the addition of access to Cheddar Gorge. What made this so useful was that you didn’t have to do this on consecutive days. As DH and I were bound for Devon, we could do Longleat on the way down and then Cheddar Gorge on the way back at the end of the week. However, our reckless spontaneity only stretched so far so we plumped for the access all areas day ticket.
Now, anyone who uses Wowcher will know that a downside of some websites is that you’re asked to print off your voucher or ticket to present on arrival. This can pose a challenge for some people, particularly if you’re like me and your only access to a printer is at work, which you can’t access because you’re on holiday. I was thrilled to discover that not only are you sent an e-ticket upon booking, you’re also sent a text message with a booking reference. Upon arrival at the entrance booth, unwilling to fire up the 4G, I read this number to the cheery and polite attendant and he was instantly able to find our booking and print our tickets. This, I should imagine, is also a real bonus for parents who have spent hours in a small confined space with their other halves, a screeching Tom Tom and over-excited children whose singsong, piping voices alternate between delight at the adventures that await and an urgent and completely impractical need to use the bathroom just as you’ve sailed past the last services for 20-odd miles. I have no children myself but do regularly go on trips with my teenage students who, despite being treated to a coach with all mod cons inclusive of a toilet, recoil with horror at the very thought of going on board and plaintively bemoan their plight at having guzzled their energy drinks too soon and being forced to sit cross-legged for hours or else face the total humiliation of going ‘in there’, so my imaginings may not hit too far from the mark.
If you’re booking ahead, by all means check the weather forecast but don’t be put off if it’s not a day of blazing sunshine. Despite the animals being native to warmer climes, most have been in the UK or at least Europe for most of their lives and as such are used to our weather. Just as we feel lazy and uncomfortable on days which reach 27 or 28, the animals can be less active on hot days and so a cooler day may actually result in a better viewing. I would check the weather for your own convenience though, as we didn’t and arrived just in time for a downpour and were without coats or brollies.
Alongside the simple booking system, the website has other useful features to help plan your visit. This includes advice about the order in which to do things. If you’re not arriving for the moment the gates open, do the house and grounds first to avoid the queues for the safari and instead do the safari in the afternoon. This turned out to be great advice as, despite our best intentions, we didn’t arrive until nearly two hours after opening. The downpour meant the house came first for us and by the time we’d done that and marvelled at the sheer number of dining rooms (three I tell you!), the sun was shining and the safari was very quiet indeed.
APPROACHING LONGLEAT HOUSE
As you wend your way up the extraordinarily long driveway, Longleat House sits proudly in the grounds, slightly lower than you as you enter. It’s an impressive building with exquisite architecture and surrounded by beautiful greenery. The visitors’ parking and outdoor attractions are to the side and rear of the building so the frontage of the house is unspoilt by the modern and colourful additions.
Having parked up (quite easily considering the time) and dashed out of the rain into a Costa Coffee on site, we quickly decided that doing the house first would be a good idea. A word about the entry to the house – if you do stop to use the conveniences in the Costa which sits between the car park and main attractions (an inspired location for savvy business-minded architects and financial advisers), it will be all too easy to succumb to the temptations of hot coffee and panninis in Costa or the attached Tropical Storm Cafe. DH and I packed lunches but, if you didn’t, I’d strongly advise continuing through so your offspring can see that there are many other eateries on site and first is not always best. Take, for example, the Cellar Cafe, selling a range of homemade cakes. Or perhaps you’d like the romance of luncheon in the Orangery? For the kids at heart, the smell of fresh donuts may prove too much.
Like the wealth of choices for eating, there is also an abundance of shops. Again convince your offspring that first may not always be best. Hand them their pocket money at the end or mid-point of your visit, after they have seen all the options and you’ll avoid tears of despair as they realise by shop three that the plastic snapping dinosaur on a stick really isn’t as good as the painting by numbers of a tiger, or as desirable as a Longleat plush. Houses and estates such as Longleat have to open to the public in order to survive and Longleat is no different. This is abundantly clear in the sheer number of eateries and gift shops. That said, all the other features really do help to cater for families and provide value for money and a fun-packed day out.
THE HOUSE AND GROUNDS
It’s awe inspiring to say the least. Grand is not sufficient to describe the house and its internal decoration. The entry hall leading into a hall which served in days gone by as a room for dancing, with its magnificent minstrels gallery and beautiful imposing fireplace.
Although much of the house is still a private residence, there are more than enough rooms open to give a real sense of life at Longleat. This summer there is also a WW1 exhibition, showcasing Longleat’s days as a hospital for recovering soldiers and highlighting the important role that England’s stately homes played in providing much needed facilities for our wounded heroes. Rather poignantly, it also has a display dedicated to the heir to Longleat who died in action in WW1, proving that not all of the aristocracy were protected at a safe distance from the front line.
Each room also has a small box of laminated cards which give you information about the room you’re in. The boxes are quite small and are not always immediately obvious but do hunt them out, particularly if, like me, you’re quite shy about asking the staff about the house. Having said that, the staff are polite and friendly, sitting back on stools in the rooms themselves (behind the ropes so you needn’t worry about being approached by enthusiastic guides) and answer questions simply and clearly. They are very smartly dressed and speak with care and precision – a level of professionalism that belies their young years, for many are much younger than you may expect.
Upon finishing your tour of the house, you will pass the Cellar Cafe and Lady Bath’s shop. Here I will admit to being slightly disappointed. I think I was expecting something quaint with local produce, handcrafted soaps and jewellery, delicate things that hold the romance of a shop that is a pet project for the lady of the house. While the setting is charming and there are some particularly lovely items such as scarves and notelets, a lot was given over to the mandatory fridge-magnets, keychains, giant erasers, plush toys and pens with one’s name on.
KING ARTHUR’S MAZE
Upon leaving the house, we were excited to see a sign directing us to King Arthur’s Mirror Maze. Mirror mazes are the stuff of legend, featuring commonly in films and books. Eager to get started, I dragged my husband in and was immediately furious with him because, true to form, he instantly saw the solution and moved with ease through the maze, drawing away from me. This left me fumbling my way through,trying to follow him but not knowing which him to follow as he was reflected in several different panes. I bumped into glass more than once, only for one of my laughing husbands to step forwards and pat me gently to let me know it was him. It was great fun and small enough for even tots to enjoy.
THE BAT CAVE
An animal management lecturer, my husband reacted with the same delight to the Bat Cave that I had to the mirror maze. It was a wonderful experience – the bats swooped from perch to perch (can you call it a perch if they’re hanging upside down?) while we stood entranced. The bats vary in size and some have impressive wing-spans. The keeper is friendly and knowledgeable, answering even the most banal questions with a smile and warmth.
I love mazes- they’re magical! They take forever to design and grow and there is a certain thrill to getting lost in the middle of a hedge, hearing people calling to one another as they try vainly to find their way to the centre. Making it to the centre is a bit like winning a race, or competition. DH once again had helpful knowledge, but I saw it as spoiling the fun! He said to always turn left and, actually, it meant we managed to do most of the maze and successfully made it to the middle.
THE ANIMAL HANDLING AREA
Although the main attraction of Longleat is undoubtedly the safari park, there is a considerable section nearer the house which allows visitors to see and handle more domestic animals. There is a large indoor section, which house marmosets, snakes, spiders and guinea-pigs. The keeper told DH and I that the snake is only handled for an hour at a time and is left for 24hrs between each handling session. Keen to remember my vow to make the most of every opportunity, I queued up to hold the beautiful corn-snake. I was the last to hold her and I couldn’t believe what I was feeling. She was much lighter than I expected but, more significantly, soft as velvet. Her body did mould itself to the curve of my neck but it didn’t squeeze at all. I was transfixed and not scared at all.
The guinea-pigs were cute and there were lizards and huge spiders too. Outside there were pens which housed goats and rabbits and funky chickens. A room also housed several male ferrets, some of whom were rather elderly and others who were young and energetic. The keepers talked to us for ages about the care of the animals and were clearly knowledgeable and passionate about their jobs.
There is also a bird walk-through – I cannot remember the name of the breed of bird they have in the aviary but they’re truly stunning – bright blue, yellow, green and red – the birds which are a kind of keet, swoop down to take the nectar from the thimble-sized pots that visitors can buy. Delighted children and parents walk slowly through the aviary with the brightly coloured birds sitting happily on their heads, shoulders and outstretched arms. The birds aren’t daft though – they won’t come to you without the nectar and even holding our hands as though we had the thimble-pots didn’t fool them! If your child is at all timid, I wouldn’t recommend it – one child was terrified and screamed something rotten, which sent the birds into a bit of a frenzy and they zoomed around the aviary which, of course, made everything worse.
And then came the bit we’d been looking forward to all day – the safari.
The safari has two sections: the walk-through and the drive-through. The walk through included a chance to get up close to giraffes, by allowing you to stand on their level on a platform. Another section involved walking through a wallaby territory, seeing the beautiful marsupials hopping along, nibbling on leaves, and sunbathing.
The drive-through safari includes a CD to accompany your drive. It is an ingenious idea as the CD takes the place of a safari ranger, guiding you through each territory and giving you lots of interesting information about the animals as you go. I’ve been to many safari parks and, as wonderful as it is to see the animals, it seems quite a flat experience – just looking at them and not learning anything. I don’t know what they’d do for drivers who only have MP3 slots or Bluetooth rather than CD players but if you’ve got one I’d recommend it.
One of the first territories to drive through houses deer and beautiful creatures they are too. You can buy pellets to feed the deer and the deer clearly associate cars with food as they walk right up to your car. DH and I didn’t buy any but that didn’t stop the deer sticking their heads into the car through the windows to say hello and see if we had anything!
Later on, there is a monkey territory, which has a rather ingenious entry-way, decorated with hub-caps, license plates, windscreen wipers and other car accessories. It wasn’t until later on when a monkey was busy pulling the screenwash jet off the bonnet of my car that we realised that the decorations were trophies – bits of car that the cheeky monkeys had pulled off! Honestly, it was like being attacked by a gang – they were very intimidating. When you first drive through, there are some cute little ones who jump up and hitch a ride on your bonnet and roof, but towards the end, a gang of them converged on the car, blocking our way. They walked with purpose and maintained eye-contact, climbing leisurely up onto our bonnet and setting to work.
The lions were majestic – the male walked right in front of our car. The car in front of ours was a Jag and his back came to the same level as the boot – he really was huge. To have these beautiful creatures so close was truly wonderful.
All in all, the whole day was absolutely fabulous and we were just a couple with no children – as a family day out I think it would be truly memorable. There really is so much there and the whole attraction is well-organised and maintained.