Longleat: an estate full of possibilities

Venue: Longleat House, Safari and Adventure Park
Date: 16 Mar 2013

Carrie Martindale joined GTOs and members of staff at Longleat House, Safari and Adventure Park in Wiltshire for our latest Reader Club trip.

We’ve all heard of Longleat; whether that’s because of the long-running BBC series Animal Park, or the stories about its infamous owner and resident, Alexander Thynn, the 7th Marquess of Bath, and yet, I wonder how many of you have actually been there?

Well I had not, so I leapt at the chance to join our Reader Club day there. I’d tied in my visit with a two-day press trip to the surrounding area courtesy of Visit Wiltshire; and what a climax to a great trip it was.

Longleat is keen to sell itself as a resort, rather than an attraction, and counts a number of elements as part of its appeal to groups. As well as the obvious pull of the safari and adventure park, there’s the imposing house itself; nearby Cheddar Gorge; and Bishopstrow Hotel and Spa and Homewood Park Hotel and Spa for accommodation options.

From Easter, it’s also home to a number of Deadly (a popular BBC children’s series) themed features, complete with a special guide voiced by the programmes’ presenter Steve Backshall. The Deadly project is due to evolve over the next four years.

I’m showing my ignorance here, as although I was well aware of the eccentricities of Lord Bath, I was not aware that he had used parts of his ancestral home as a canvas for his artistic tendencies – and had done for many years.

One advantage of taking a group to Longleat House is that you can book tours that aren’t available for individuals. You can even tailor-make tours to suit your group’s interests, and book tours outside normal opening hours, and you get to see some of the Marquess’s work.

Take your group behind the scenes in Longleat House

One such tour is the Behind Closed Doors option, which takes you around some of the family’s private quarters, as well as the main rooms. And this is where your visit to Longleat will differ from any other stately home tour that you have ever done, I can guarantee it.

For after the usual portraiture, antique furniture and grandiose decor, you walk into a world of psychedelic colours, murals and quirkiness. There are signs that tell you to ‘stop bloody swearing’, and nudes painted directly onto the aluminous, mirrored walls. 

“Longleat House was an eye-opener - a cert for groups. The whole concept has a lot going for it with plenty of interest - a very full day with many options.” - Jim Godsell, Jim Godsell and Friends, Birmingham

We were told that it is not unusual for a group tour to encounter Lord Bath himself, sat reading the paper in his quarters and that, once encountered, he was often happy to chat to the public about his artwork.

Love it or hate it, the brightly coloured rooms, ceilings and portraits certainly make for a different type of historic house tour, and one that I can highly recommend (if you can get beyond the cloying smell of linseed that is).

We had a super guide too, who was very knowledgeable about both the history of the property and the philosophy behind Lord Bath’s art. When she introduced herself to the group, she told us how she had just encountered Lord Bath’s housekeeper being followed by a large group of dogs.

After asking the housekeeper what the dogs were doing there, she replied that Lord Bath was: “dog-sitting for some friends”. And there were lots of similar, amusing anecdotes.

Feeding sea lions – and then feeding your group

After the house we were treated to a ride aboard the Jungle Cruise boat, which takes you for a short pleasure cruise down Longleat’s lake, for scenic views and a glimpse of the hippos and the gorilla colony.

The best part of the cruise saw us all given cups full of tiny fish in order to feed the lake’s resident sea lions. It was lovely to fling the fishy treats over the edge to these friendly, barking creatures – and a huge flock of seagulls who were catching what they could.

Lunch in the Cellar’s restaurant was a sumptuous two-course meal with wine – one of the finest lunches that I’ve had as part of a group tour; the pudding of salted chocolate tart, complete with ice cream and strawberries was delicious.

It was a nice touch when the chef, a local Wiltshire chap, came to speak to the group in order to see if they had enjoyed the meal – which of course, they all had. Even Florence and Apinya from Longleat seemed pleasantly surprised with the meal, part of a new groups’ menu.

After we had all been well fed and watered, it was back into what had become almost biblical weather outside. It was time to get to grips with some of the animals in Jungle Kingdom, Monkey Temple and Animal Adventure – just some of the walk-through areas of the park – so being British we soldiered on through, umbrellas in hand.

Get up close to furry, flying and eight-legged creatures

No one was more pleasantly surprised than me when I was handed a bottle full of meal worms and pointed in the direction of a strange long-nosed creature.

Yes, a few of the GTOs and I got up-close and personal with one of the anteaters when we were privileged enough to feed her. And it wasn’t just anteaters on the agenda; we were also given the opportunity to feed meerkats and some parakeets.

I particularly enjoyed feeding the parakeets, where they are free flying before their colourful descent onto your heads, shoulders and hands – be warned though, they do start fighting over the nectar food (and you).

“I have never fed an anteater before so that was absolutely amazing. She was so gentle.” - John Whitson, Willow Travel & Social Group, Colchester, Essex

Longleat is one of the friendliest and most interactive wildlife parks that I have been to. And I’m not sure if it was affected by the bad weather, but we didn’t have to wait long to handle any of the creatures in Animal Adventure, with those brave enough amongst us getting to grips with reptiles and arachnids.

And so to the end of our Reader Club day, but not the end to our Longleat adventure as we were given free reign of the park and the safari for the rest of the day.

There’s an abundance of activities, shows and animals to visit, with highlights being the Bat Cave, the Hedge Maze and of course, the infamous monkey drive-through. I shall be revisiting when the weather is more clement, and hopefully in time for all the new attractions to be open.

Longleat House was purchased by Sir John Thynn in 1541, a servant made good. As Ruth our guide put it: “Back then if you got it right you could make a lot of money, but if you got it wrong, you had your head chopped off.” Longleat definitely gets it right.

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