Take a trip with GTW down from the edge of the centre of England into the deepest corner of the British Isles. Follow us as we stop off at a diverse range of highly recommended places, properties and projects
Cornwall and Devon might be associated with pirates, but these days the treasure of Britain’s south-west region comes in many different guises, not least in the abundance of wonderful things to see and do for group visitors. With such a range on offer, it is difficult to know where to start, so here we take a trail down from the edge of central England deep into the bottom corner, recommending places along the way.
Starting in the Cotswolds, the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway puffs through 25 miles of stunning scenery, including beautiful views across the Vale of Evesham, the Malvern Hills and many significant points of interest such as Tewkesbury Abbey. An award-winning heritage steam railway, the route is a round trip between Laverton and Cheltenham Racecourse Station. The station at Toddington is close to Broadway, Bourton-on-the-Water and Stow-on-the-Wold, all outstanding and famous Cotswold destinations. The railway has worked hard to recover the line to full working order after landslides in 2010 and 2011 – such is the popularity of this line that not only did the public raise a staggering £70,000 for the restoration works, but one anonymous donor alone donated £7,000 after visiting the railway.
Visitors travel along the route in restored rail carriages hauled by historic steam locomotives. Refreshments are available on the train (and can be pre-booked), in the Flag & Whistle Tea Rooms at Toddington Station and in the cosy 1950s-style café at Winchcombe Station. In fact, everything about the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway is designed to make days out easy, especially for groups. There is ample free parking for both cars and coaches at the stations, facilities for disabled passengers at all stations and disabled access and seating areas on the trains. A flexible booking system for groups, in addition to generous group discounts, means that GTOs can arrange to visit the railway as part of a larger tour or trip, or as an entire day out in itself. Something to look out for in 2013 is the programme of special events. Murder mystery evenings, themed jazz and a weekend of ‘Wartime in the Cotswolds’ are all coming up throughout the year.
Moving on down to the Roman cathedral city of Gloucester, visitors tired of exploring the many historical beauties might want to visit Gloucester Quays, an award-winning shopping destination that also runs a large and varied programme of festivals and events throughout the year. They welcome groups with a range of incentives and bonuses, including free coach parking and meal for the driver, discount vouchers and a meet and greet service for groups who pre-book. The outlets offer 70% off retail prices from some big brands, including M&S, Next and Gap. Crowds of over 125,000 head to some of Gloucester Quays’ key festivals, including the Food Festival and Victorian Christmas Market. After the bi-annual Gloucester City Tall Ships Festival in May, the largest food festival in the UK gets going on July 19th. With cooking demonstrations from celebrity chefs including James Martin and Gino D’Acampo, over 100 food, drink and craft stalls and a Champagne bar, the Food Festival is a celebration of fresh, local produce and great cooking. Finally, two Christmas-themed festivals finish off the year for Gloucester Quays: the Victorian Christmas Market creates a traditional festive atmosphere with stalls, fine food and drink, Victorian costumes, brass bands, choirs and a beautiful traditional carousel, while Festive Fayre includes real reindeers, street entertainment and of course mulled wine and cider among its pleasures.
Travelling on south, just outside Bath near the university can be found the American Museum in Britain. GTOs who have never considered this before might be surprised at the significance and quality of this museum, which is celebrated for its magnificent decorative arts collection comprising over 200 historic American quilts, exceptional pieces of Shaker furniture, exuberant folk art paintings and sculptures, Native American objects, and Renaissance maps of the New World. The American Museum also has the most significant collection of American folk art in Europe, displayed in the Folk Art Gallery which opened in 2011. Visitors can also explore the extensive grounds, including an arboretum of American trees. For 2013, a great new exhibition is open until 3rd November: ‘Gangsters and Gunslingers: The Good, the Bad and the Memorabilia’ brings together two defining chapters in the history of the United States. These periods shaped America’s national identity: the Wild West (mid 1860s to the late 1880s) and the wild years of the Prohibition/Depression era (1920s and early 1930s). Each epoch produced legendary characters, who have become famous and infamous – Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane, Bonnie and Clyde, to name but a few. This exhibition will showcase treasures from the comprehensive Americana collection and Hollywood archive of David Gainsborough Roberts. Based in Jersey in the Channel Islands, Gainsborough Roberts generously partnered with the American Museum for its popular 2011 exhibition ‘Marilyn – Hollywood Icon’. “I am delighted,” Gainsborough Roberts commented, “that so wide a range of items in my collection can be placed on view in such a magnificent, and appropriate, setting as the American Museum. The Marilyn show was spectacular fun. I have never seen my collection better displayed. I have no doubt that Gangsters & Gunslingers will be as moving and memorable – especially for anyone, who like me, wanted to grow up to be a cowboy!”. The historical artefacts and memorabilia include Native American weapons confiscated in reprisal for the Battle of Little Big Horn (Custer’s Last Stand) in 1876 and the watch worn by Clyde Barrow when he was gunned down with Bonnie Parker in 1934. There are silver cigarette cases owned by Al Capone and Oscar Wilde, and guns worn by Wyatt Earp, Frank James and John Dillinger – whose stories were all commemorated (and glamorised) by Hollywood. Other memorabilia includes items owned by Humphrey Bogart, Tyrone Power and Elvis Presley. The American Museum offers group rates, private tours and plenty of friendly advice and assistance to group organisers. Coach drivers get free parking, admission and refreshments. There are three shops, selling Americana gifts and souvenirs, merchandise inspired by exhibitions and various topical books. The Orangery café is open for light lunches, drinks, homemade American cookies and cakes throughout the afternoon. All the museum buildings are wheelchair accessible and there is Blue Badge parking close to the main museum.
Less than twenty miles further on, Longleat Safari and Adventure Park is one of the UK’s best days out, especially as the house and grounds are available to visit at the same time. There are so many different parts to see and animals to visit, including daily shows and talks. This year, a major new ‘Deadly Adventure’ series of features has been opened, including a ‘Deadly Safari’ with a brand new guide voiced by CBBC ‘Deadly’ presenter, Steve Backshall. The safari takes visitors on a journey to encounter some of Longleat’s deadliest creatures, with a chance to learn about the critical predator versus prey relationships that exist in the wild. The new features are part of a four year partnership with BBC Worldwide to transform areas of the park in the style of the BBC’s hugely popular ‘Deadly’ branded programmes, which include ‘Deadly 60’, ‘Deadly Top 10s’, ‘Deadly Art’ and most recently ‘Deadly Mission Madagascar’ as seen on CBBC. Also arriving at Longleat this month is the ‘Deadly Challenge’, which will see aspiring adventurers pitch their skills against the clock and some of the world’s most lethal creatures in a series of mental and physical tests.
The big cat keepers had a tough challenge recently, developing signage to mark out the features which could withstand the close attentions of some of the world’s strongest predators. Convinced their new signs were indeed indestructible, the big cat keepers put them to the test with the tigers, as Steve Mytton explained. “We needed to create signage which was in keeping with the natural environment, relatively easy for people to spot and also strong enough to stand up to some of the world’s most impressive predators. We had a couple of early teething problems but we’re now pretty confident we’ve got the signage in exactly the right areas and although they clearly created some interest among the big cats at first, they seemed to survive their attentions relatively unscathed – and we have got some duplicates ready, just in case!”.
Longleat: www.longleat.co.uk/groups (01985) 844328
In the wake of all the recent publicity about Richard III, after the discovery of his bones in a Leicester car park, Longleat is also exhibiting a rare book signed by the monarch. Given to Richard III as a teenager, this is the first time the book has gone on public display. Written on vellum, the tome features tales by Chaucer as well as other popular stories of the time, and is part of a whole new exhibition on the Yorkist king. The book is one of only 13 of Richard III’s books that is known to still exist. It is especially valuable as he has signed it ‘R Gloucester’, indicating he received the book while still Duke of Gloucester. Above his signature he also wrote the words ‘Tant le desieree’, which means ‘So much desired’.
The book has been kept at Longleat since 1709 when it was purchased by Thomas Thynne, the First Viscount Weymouth, as part of a collection of medieval manuscripts. Dr Kate Harris, curator at Longleat House, commented: “It is a fascinating piece of history. His handwriting is extremely competent, which shows he was highly educated. Within the book are tales of derring-do, as well as classical Greek and Rome. Most of the books of the time were in French and Latin, so the fact that this one is in English is also unusual”.
As well as the signed book, the new exhibition ‘The King’s Body: Richard III King of England 1483-1485’ features portraits on panel of the king alongside his two predecessors on the throne: his brother, Edward IV and his nephew, Edward V as well as his successor Henry VII. There are also on show original documents relating to the elder of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ who Richard was rumoured to have had killed. As a pointed contrast, there is also the three course menu for the coronation feast of Richard III himself. The dishes served to hundreds of diners in Westminster Hall included venison, roast cygnet, roast crane, roast heron, roast bittern, roast egret, sturgeon and pike. The exhibition concludes with a copy of the First Folio Shakespeare of 1623. Shakespeare’s characterisation of the king in Richard III has had more influence on his reputation down the centuries than any historical document. Longleat offers great group rates and group tours.
After leaving Longleat, a short hop across into Somerset will take visitors to the starting point of the West Somerset Railway, near the county town of Taunton. With the extended winter period hopefully now behind us, England’s longest heritage railway is running steam trains on a daily basis over the 20 miles of line between Bishops Lydeard and Minehead. The West Somerset Railway 80 minute ‘pink knuckle’ ride takes passengers along a route with beautiful views from the carriage windows, out across the outstanding natural beauty of the Quantock Hills and the coastline between Exmoor and theBristol Channel. Apart from the seaside at Minehead and the attractions of Taunton, there are a number of other interesting and lovely destinations to explore. These include the medievalvillage ofDunster with its 1000-year-old castle, the ancient harbour town ofWatchet and Washford which has both Cleeve Abbey and Torre Cider Farm. The West Somerset Railway offers discounted travel for pre-booked groups and subject to volunteer availability, group catering.
West Somerset Railway: www.west-somerset-railway.co.uk (01643) 700384
Heading south once more to just below Exeter, a warm welcome awaits groups at the family home of the Earl and Countess of Devon, Powderham Castle. Built in 1391 by Sir Philip Courtenay, it has remained in the same family ever since. Close to Exmouth, Dawlish and Torquay as well as Exeter, there is plenty of free coach parking a short distance from the castle courtyard. The castle’s location on the edge of the Exe estuary situates it perfectly for some amazing views that can be enjoyed from a number of locations, a favourite being the Rose Garden, ablaze with colour during the summer months soon after the wisteria has come into bloom. From now onwards the daffodils are finally coming into their own, with a carpet of yellow blooms lining either side of the drive and other clusters to be found dotted around the Pleasure Garden and Woodland Garden for a number of weeks. The Woodland Garden is a particularly peaceful haven and very attractive in May and June. Among other exotic species from the Americas, it is now home to one of the first Wollemi pine trees on public display in Devon. Later in the year, the onset of autumn in September is another popular time for visits, as stunning shades of crimson and yellow frame the castle and the herd of around 650 fallow deer begin their rutting season in the fabulous deer park that surrounds the castle. A deer park safari can be booked for those wanting to take a closer look at this and the amazing wildlife on the estate, as thousands of birds migrate to the marshland for the winter.
Inside the castle, entertaining guided tours reveal secret doors, stunning castle rooms and intriguing stories that really bring the history to life. To make visits even more special, the castle’s own archivist is on hand to give talks to groups by prior appointment. The Courtyard Cafe provides a range of homemade dishes or light lunches, but the most popular way to round off a visit is with a traditional Devon cream tea (cream on first of course!). Powderham Castle is open to visitors from April to October and offers some great group rates.
A little bit more animal fun is definitely needed on this trip south, so for a next stop there is nowhere better than Pennywell Farm. Famous for their ‘micro-pigs’, the farm is a whole day out suitable for everyone, with hundreds of friendly animals, hands-on animal experiences, a different activity, show or display every half an hour and four free rides. Visitors can bottle-feed the hungry lambs and goat kids, race the ferrets, meet the hedgehogs, explore the ponds and enjoy fantastic entertainers every weekday during the Devon school holidays. There is even a chance to cuddle one of the world famous Pennywell miniature piglets and meet miniature ponies in their lovely pony centre. Surely one of the most fun and unusual sights is the Pennywell Pig Racing, with the miniature piglets showing that what they lack in size they make up for in speed and determination. New for 2013 is ‘Goat-A-Rama’, where visitors can watch the friendly goats climb and play. Also new is the Pennywell Miniature Pig Show, an opportunity to find out more about the very special pigs and see just what they are capable of doing. There is plenty of indoor space to picnic and relax, but as Pennywell really wants visitors to enjoy everything that they have to offer both inside and out, if it rains during a visit they offer a ticket for a free return visit. The farm is open daily from 10am – 5pm, seven days a week. Pennywell Farm: 01364 642023 www.pennywellfarm.co.uk
Our trip down into the south-west corner ends with a bang at one of the UK’s best visitor destinations. The Eden Project has done so much more than create a stunning complex of gardens and environmental and conservation projects. Regular arts and music events, lectures, workshops and children’s shows mean that there are always different things to see and do each time, in addition to the ever-changing exhibitions and new greenhouse sections. To choose just one current highlight, despite the never-ending winter a rare jade vine has recently injected some exotic colour into the Rainforest Biome. The jade vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys), which can grow up to 100m in length in its native home of the Philippines, is flowering beautifully in the Rainforest Biome’s Malaysian garden. Eden’s horticulturists are particularly pleased with this year’s vines, as they are growing in the perfect place for visitors to get a close-up view of the spectacular plant. The low-hanging vines make it easy for Eden’s ‘Green’ team to pollinate the plants with small paintbrushes. The team use the brushes to mimic the action of bats, who carry pollen from flower to flower while drinking nectar in the wild.
Elsewhere in the Biome, the team have been creating canopy gardens – planting multi-coloured bromeliads and orchids onto trees, so that visitors can get a good view of them. The bromeliads, which attach themselves to tree branches in the wild in order to get more light and avoid competition, have been given a helping hand by Eden’s horticulturists who attach them to trees using tights. The stretchy fabric allows the plant plenty of room to grow, and after the roots have established themselves the tights will eventually biodegrade. Hetty Ninnis, Rainforest Biome Supervisor, said: “This is a fantastic time of year to visit the Rainforest Biome, as there are beautiful flowers everywhere you look, with fascinating stories behind them.”
Autumn is another wonderful time to visit the Eden Project, especially after the rush of the summer holidays gives way to a more peaceful atmosphere. The annual Harvest Festival is running this year from 7th to the 15th September, nine days of food, drink, dance and merriment. Visitors can celebrate food, wine, beer and cider with workshops, samplings, talks and tastings. There will be opportunities to meet growers and explore the stories behind the products; from olives and wines to bread and beer, visitors will find out about the communities who grow them and learn how to make the most of nature’s bounty. Groups visiting during this period will benefit from a further 20% reduction to the advertised group rates; contact Carol on (01726) 811903 or email@example.com to book and for further details.
Eden Project: www.edenproject.com/group-visits (01726) 811911