Helen Milbank rounds up historical attractions, gardens and shows guaranteed to prove a hit with tour groups of all ages and interests.
Best For History Buffs
LEEDS CASTLE, KENT
Leeds Castle boasts a renowned Norman stronghold, the private property of six of England’s medieval queens, a palace used by Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon, a Jacobean country house, a Georgian mansion and an elegant early 20th century retreat for the influential and famous. Leeds Castle (based nowhere near its West Yorkshire namesake) is a history lover’s paradise that dates back to the 1200s.
Visitors will need at least a day to explore the castle and its magnificent gardens, museum, falconry displays, maze and more – there’s a reason why it’s become one of the most visited historic buildings in Britain. Find out more about what’s on at www.leeds-castle.com/home
Special rates are available for parties of 15 or more and groups can also take advantage of a discounted guidebook. Guided visits start from £18.25 for seniors, with the option to add extras, including an audio tour. For group reservations, call 01622 767865
Best For Families
HEVER CASTLE & GARDENS, KENT
Hever Castle is famous for being the childhood home of Anne Boleyn; second wife of Henry VIII and mother of Queen Elizabeth I. Hever Castle has a colourful history to accompany its award-winning gardens. The original medieval structure was built in 1270, with its authentic Tudor dwelling added by the Boleyn family during their reign in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Today, its panelled rooms are home to tapestries, two Books of Hours signed by Anne Boleyn and a vast collection of Tudor portraits. Art lovers will be pleased to hear a rare portrait of King Henry VIII is due to be unveiled in March 2015. Ideal for groups, new attractions for 2015 include high-tech multimedia guides, which are due to be introduced when the castle re-opens in mid-February, and a new education programme for schools, families and adults.
Other dates in Hever Castle’s 2015 diary include: A Snowdrop Walk from February 14 to March 1, where visitors can follow the trail of thousands of snowdrops as they emerge from their winter hibernation. Mother’s Day Weekend from March 14-15 offers a craft workshop for young visitors and a celebration menu in the restaurant. Easter Family Fun from March 28 to April 19, with family entertainment throughout the Easter holidays, including an Easter Trail and craft workshops. Edwardian Life Week from May 23-31, where visitors can meet costumed characters from the era, with prizes for the best dressed boy and girl. Hever In Bloom from June 15-21 offers a chance to experience the castle’s English Rose Garden at the height of its beauty on a guided tour.
For a full list of events visit www.hevercastle.co.uk. Special rates apply for groups of 15 or more, with standard adult tickets for access to the house and gardens costing £12.65, £11.65 for seniors and £7 for children aged 5-15. The garden is open from February 14 (see website for exact opening times after this date). For group enquiries call 01732 861701 or email email@example.com
Best For Gardeners
SOUTHPORT FLOWER SHOW, MERSEYSIDE
There’s an oriental flavour to the 2015 Southport Flower Show, which will be held from August 20-23, as a Chinese theme will be woven into the displays, entertainment and food on offer. The well-loved Merseyside show proves a favourite with garden lovers thanks to its ever growing mix of inspirational show gardens, expert practical advice, arena entertainment (visitors can enjoy a birds of prey flying display), special guests, cooking demos, a food festival and more. For more information visit www.southportflowershow.co.uk or call 01704 547147. Groups of 10 could pay a discounted ticket price of £16.20 per person, which drops to £15.30 for groups of more than 49. Groups of 10 or more also get free coach parking, with a complimentary ticket for the organiser.
Best For Lovers Of Architecture
MELLERSTAIN HOUSE & GARDENS, BERWICKSHIRE
A grand stately home built in the 1700s, Mellerstain House & Gardens is a Scottish gem that boasts unique architectural features thanks to an age-old collaboration between the Baillie family and famous architects of the time, William and Robert Adam.
Their classic plasterwork friezes still survive intact, giving visitors the chance to experience a stately home as it would have been 240 years ago, accompanied by its paintings, embroideries, china and furniture collections. Mellerstain House’s formal gardens were designed in 1910 to suit an Italian style, combining a series of terraces with herbaceous borders, yew trees and a sweeping stretch of lawn to the lake. For more information on Mellerstain House & Gardens visit www.mellerstain.com or call 01573 410225. Group visits can be self-led or guided when the house is open, with discounted entry for groups of 15 or more. There’s free parking for cars and coaches, with free entry for the coach driver and group travel organiser.
Best For All-Round Entertainment
KNEBWORTH HOUSE, PARK & GARDENS, HERTFORDSHIRE
Set within 250 acres of rolling Hertfordshire countryside, Knebworth House – which has been in the Lytton family for more than 500 years – is also home to a walled kitchen garden, herb garden and the Dinosaur Trail, where 72 life-sized dinosaurs can be found grazing among the rhododendrons and redwoods. From the end of March through to September, groups can enjoy exploring Knebworth’s rich history and heritage, with hour-long guided tours included in the price of an admission ticket to the house and its 28acre gardens. There are a number of events hosted throughout the year, including jousting, country and transport shows, exhibitions and concerts.
A member of the Knebworth House team will welcome groups of 20 or more upon arrival. Organisers get in free and coach parking is also free. For more details visit www.knebworthhouse.com, email the group bookings team on groupbookings@ knebworthhouse.com or call 01438 812661. The Garden Terrace Tea Room is available to hire for corporate and social functions; call 01438 813825 for details.
BORDE HILL CELEBRATES ITS GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY
An award-winning garden situated in the heart of Sussex, Borde Hill celebrates its golden anniversary as a charity-run attraction in 2015, marked with a series of special displays, exhibitions and events. Considered by English Heritage to be of Grade II listed historical importance, Borde Hill is situated in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the High Weald and is considered hugely popular amongst garden lovers. The formal grounds are divided into a series of distinctive ‘garden rooms’, each with their own character and extending into traditional parkland and woodlands.
Celebratory events include guided tours of Borde Hill Gardens’ magnolias in April 2015 by head gardener Andy Stevens, and a sculpture exhibition in May 2015 by renowned sculptor Angela Conner. Garden entry costs £6 for adults booked on a pre-paid tour (saving £2 on the standard price) and tours of the house can be booked separately. Based near Haywards Heath, Borde Hill is open to the public daily from spring to autumn; visit www.bordehill.co.uk for full details.
ENJOY A FLORAL TOUR
Specialists in escorted garden tours, the friendly and experienced team at Brightwater Holidays offer shorter coach tours across the UK and Ireland, as well as longer trips to exotic gardens abroad. The company can also tailor-make holidays for private groups and societies. For details of Brightwater Holiday’s upcoming destinations and offers visit www.brightwaterholidays.com, call 01334 657155 or email info@ brightwaterholidays.com
A DAY OUT WITH THE RHS
A day out at a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) garden or visit to a RHS Flower Show is one of the highlights of the gardening year. The charity offers special rates for groups of 10 or more with a variety of benefits, including free entry for the group travel organiser – see the RHS website for details. At each of the RHS gardens – including Wisley, Harlow Carr, Hyde Hall and Rosemoor – there are events running throughout the year such as plant fairs, food events and more. Shows include the RHS Flower Show Cardiff (April 17-19), RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show (June 30-July 5) and RHS Flower Show Tatton Park (July 22-26). Visit www.rhs.org.uk/groups to organise your trip or call the RHS gardens group bookings team on 0207 821 3170.
THE ULTIMATE GARDEN GUIDE
The 2015 Hudson’s Historic Houses & Gardens Guide is packed with information for group travel organisers in search of a nostalgic day trip. It has the details of more than 1,000 of the UK’s grandest stately homes, historic houses and gardens, including private and public owned properties from the National Trust, English Heritage, Historic Scotland and Historic Royal Palaces. Priced at £16.99, the guide is available from all major retailers. See www.hudsonsheritage.com for more information.