Dorset’s very own Swan Lake and The Secret Garden

Venue: Abbotsbury Swannery and Subtropical Gardens, Dorset
Date: 08 Jun 2013

We prove on our latest Reader Club trip why Abbotsbury in Dorset offers more excitement to groups than its quaint chocolate-box-lid appearance would suggest. Rachel Bailey reports.

As this was my first Reader Club trip with Group Leisure magazine, I was probably as excited to visit the south-west coast as the group travel organisers who I would be meeting on the trip. Having holidayed to Dorset plenty of times in my childhood, I was pleased to find this corner of the world as beautiful and lush with greenery as ever. As Rebekah and I drove through windy lanes down to Abbotsbury Swannery, it was easy to see why Dorset makes such a popular tourist destination through the attractiveness of the countryside alone.

The day’s itinerary consisted of a tour of Abbotsbury Swannery, followed by lunch and a guided tour of the Subtropical Gardens of Abbotsbury which are located a short drive away. The sun was shining over the Jurassic coast and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky; we were in for a lovely day.

Swan o’clock

In a nutshell (or should I say eggshell), Abbotsbury Swannery was established by Benedictine Monks who built a monastery during the 1040s, and the swans were farmed to produce food for locals. St Peter's monastery was destroyed in 1539 during the dissolution, and you can still see some of the ruins around St Nicholas' Church in the village.

Since then, the Swannery has been under the stewardship of the Ilchester Estates, and the swans are now looked after and nurtured in a breeding ground which boasts an eight-mile wide lagoon backing onto Chesil beach and some beautiful south-west coastal walks.  Visitors will also find an all-natural willow maze to get lost in, a shop boasting swan memorabilia, free car parking and a cafe.

Upon arrival, we were introduced to John Houston, general manager for Abbotsbury Tourism, and Dave Wheeler, our swan herder and tour guide for the morning. Our group was given an insight into the history of the Swannery, as well as some general information about accessibility for groups and disabled visitors. Dave was full of quirky titbits of information, and was extremely animated, making a great show on our tour around the attraction and interacting with all of us.

“The highlight of my day was the Swannery – I was very impressed and think it is a great attraction for groups. It’s also very good to use as a coffee break on a day trip if you don’t want to stop – the facilities are available to visit for free.” - Carmel Elbro, Plymouth Twinning /Friends & Supporters Association

Feed the swans with your group

The swan lagoon itself is a short walk down past the willow maze (which is great for families visiting with children) and through gardens where you’ll catch a first glimpse of the swans and their cygnets. Many of the group travel organisers questioned accessibility for disabled groups and coach parties, all of whom were reassured. It seems the management have thought of everything, from being able to drive your cars down to a lake-side car park, as well as offering a tractor and trailer ride at just 50p per rider.

Dave and his colleagues feed the nesting swans at 12pm and 4pm every day, and visitors have the opportunity to help them. We timed our visit to coincide with the feeding, and nature-lover that I am, jumped at the chance to throw seed out of a bucket to the jostling swans. It’s great to be able to get near to them, both for the experience of enjoying the birds so close up, and in not feeling threatened by the sheer number of them. At peak season, Abbotsbury accommodates up to 1,500 swans, each of which are tagged at birth – a fact which didn’t fail to raise awareness that Dave and his colleagues really do have a lot to do throughout the year.

I did question whether the real appeal of the Swannery is the abundance of adorable fluffy cygnets you’ll find within arm’s reach at every turn, but decided against that theory. There is plenty to do, many a swan to see, and the location is integral to the appeal of the attraction. Not only is the lagoon picturesque (especially on a summer day), it’s also extremely close to other Dorset attractions including Abbotsbury Children’s Farm, Weymouth Beach, Monkey World, and Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens where we were heading next.

“It’s the most amazing place for groups, irrespective of whether they abled or disabled. Everything’s easily accessible for all disabled groups; a coach can go right down to the Swannery and feed the swans, or you can go on the tractor and trailer. Everything’s been absolutely marvellous, and I’m so pleased I applied to come and was accepted!” - Jannine Taylor, National Health Service Retirement Fellowship

A trip to the tropics

We bid farewell to the now well-fed swans and got into our cars to drive through the pretty village to our second stop. The gardens are only a five minute drive away, and make for a perfect combined visit with the Swannery. I sat with some of our readers at lunch, all of whom were extremely impressed by the day so far and adamant that both attractions are worth a group visit, based on how close they are to each other. After a two-course lunch at the Colonial Restaurant and a glass of wine, we were introduced to our next tour guide, Stephen Griffith who is the curator of the subtropical gardens and another pool of knowledge and enthusiasm. 

Bloomin’ marvellous

Having been dragged round several gardens and estates when I was younger due to my dad’s infinite love for looking at plants, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself thinking: ‘Yes, I’d like to come back here on my own accord’. The entrance to the gardens is full of colourful displays and flowers in bloom, and a variety of smells, sounds and clean pathways really draw you in to exploring further. We took a short tour around several sections of the estate, including the jungle glade and the Australian area, and highlights include great displays of flowering rhododendrons and camellias. Stephen explained to us that the garden holds over 5,000 species of plant – more than enough to entertain garden fanatics for a full days visit.

“The highlight of the day was the signets, and the talk from Dave Wheeler who was our guide. Abbotsbury Swannery was fabulous, we really have enjoyed all of the day and we’re hoping to bring a group back here.” - Toni and Jack Kushner, Harrow U3A

A perfect itinerary for groups?

I asked John Houston, general manager of Abbotsbury Tourism, why he thinks the village makes for such a great group day out. He said: “Abbotsbury is a fabulous joint visit for coach groups because the Swannery is the only one in the world you can visit. This is a trip that combines the nest feeding of 600 to 1,000 swans followed by lunch at the subtropical gardens and a stroll through 30 acres of fabulous bloom and colour. It really is a wonderful way to spend a day in Dorset.”

Group benefits at Abbotsbury

Group travel organisers will find adult tickets costing £7.50 per person for parties of ten or more people, and £7 for OAPs. This admission price is the same for both Abbotsbury Swannery and the Subtropical Gardens. Guided tours for groups are available at both attractions at an extra cost of £2 per person at each venue, again for parties of ten or more visitors.

Useful contacts:

Abbotsbury Swannery:

Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens:

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