Review: In And Around Cambridgeshire

Venue: Cambridgeshire
Date: 06 May 2016

A mare and her foal at the National Stud

Pictured: A mare and her foal at the National Stud

From the National Stud to Capability Brown landscapes, here’s what Rachel Bailey and some of our readers got to experience on our latest Reader Club trip.

I live in Bedford, which is little more than an hour away from Cambridge and all the tourist delights that surround it. I’m ashamed to say, however, that I’ve never been to Audley End House and Gardens, or Newmarket Racecourse, or IWM Duxford, which were all on our May Reader Club trip agenda.  

So it was a sunny day of discovery around the Cambridgeshire/Essex/Suffolk borders for both myself and some of our readers, who likewise hadn’t explored this area of England before. We were shuttled from one gem to another onboard a two-week old vehicle provided by Richmonds's Coaches - a  family owned coach hire company near Cambridge with a fleet of modern coaches available for private hire from anywhere in the south east of England.

Opulent Audley

Our first stop was Audley End House and Gardens, an English Heritage estate. Located just outside the rural market town of Saffron Walden, the primarily Jacobean-style house makes for a pretty picture, and the grounds are divided by the River Cam, which you can cross by several ornate bridges.

The property was founded in the 17th century, and remains the family seat of the Lords Braybrooke. We didn’t tour the house during our visit, but groups exploring at other times of the year can see the great hall, the state apartments, dressing rooms, libraries and an 18th century Gothic-style chapel.

Our visit was very much out-door focussed, and we took a tour with head gardener Alan North around several areas of the grounds, followed by a tour of the Audley End Stables with the stables manager, Fiona House.

An appointment with the gardener

For me, Audley’s most impressive feature has got to be the impressive Capability Brown landscapes, and Alan’s tour included those behind the house, which were full of bright displays of red wine- coloured tulips, forget-me-nots and white daffodils.

Long lush stretches of grass, pruned flowerbeds, ancient trees, and ornate floral displays are proof that this estate is loved and well-cared for. Even the sculpted hedges make you stop and go “Wow!”

With Alan we also explored the kitchen gardens. These have been restored over time to look just as they would have done during the Victorian period, and are full of fruit and vegetables. Don’t miss taking a peek at the juicy peaches growing in the green houses – I envy the person who gets to sample those later in the year!

Head gardener Alan giving us a tour of Audley End Gardens

Pictured: Head gardener Alan giving us a tour of Audley End Gardens.

The Audley End estate is looked after by a team of 11 gardeners, plus approximately 50 volunteers throughout the year. The site is massive, so it’s no surprise that it takes this green-fingered army to nurture it year round.

Group tours with a gardener can take up to two hours, and focus on whatever section of the garden you like. Alan in particular is incredibly knowledgeable, both about everything growing on the site, and about the history of the landscape. I’d recommend asking for him as your tour guide, should you decide to make a trip there in future.

Horsing around

Following the garden tour, our day took a decidedly equestrian turn. A tour of the Audley End Stables with stables manager, Fiona House, was informative: we learnt about the architecture of the stables; the standard of luxury the horses would have been used to during the Victorian period; the storage of carriages; and the different types of horses that might have once worked and lived at Audley.

We finished by meeting some of the resident horses, who were very friendly – a nice little animal encounter for the animal enthusiasts in your group.

Over all, groups will find a number of benefits at Audley End House and Gardens. As well as the group discounts offered at English Heritage properties, there are a number of private dining options and the chance to create bespoke tours based on the interests of visitors.

New in Newmarket

Our next stop was the horse racing town of Newmarket. There are between 2,500 and 3,000 horses being reared and trained in its vicinity, and racing and equestrian pursuits are very much the rage here. It is the home of the 2000 and 1000 Guineas races, and has been at the heart of British flat racing for more than 300 years.

So it’s no surprise that the town wants to make more of its racing heritage.

The National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art is a visitor centre, museum and gallery which is due to open on 5th September. We got to enjoy a sneak peek of this new attraction, which is still in the process of being put together.

Pictured: The National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art.

The heritage centre will see the current National Horseracing Museum and British Sporting Art Trust move from their present location next to the Jockey Club on Newmarket High Street to Palace House, which is the surviving portion of Charles II's racing palace in the town centre.

The five acre site will also create space for the Retraining of Racehorses charity to give live demonstrations of its work for the first time – so groups visiting when it’s open will be able to see retrained horses out in the open throughout the day.

Inside the building there will be a café which will have floor to ceiling glass windows that look out onto a stables area. I imagine enjoying a cup of tea and a cake while watching racehorses being cared for will be a lovely experience.

Our group was assured that it’s not just horse lovers who will have fun at the centre, but anyone with a taste in sport, art or British heritage. From paintings – some by George Stubbs – to historical sporting artefacts, there will be plenty to see here when the attraction opens.

It’s advised that a visit to the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art could take all day. (No group rates have been announced yet).

Where winners are born

The horse-related fun didn’t end there. We enjoyed lunch at the Rowley Mile Racecourse before taking a coach tour of the National Stud.

Rowley Mile Racecourse

Pictured: A tribute, at Rowley Mile Racecourse.

Rowley Mile is one of two racecourses in Newmarket – the other is the July Racecourse – and offers both an exciting sporting day out for horse racing enthusiasts, and a location for group dining, drinks and event packages. Contrary to what you might think, the racecourse is not a horse-fan-exclusive site, and boasts a location for social gatherings too.

The National Stud, meanwhile, is a thoroughbred horse breeding farm, and in my opinion, a great addition to any itinerary in this area. A knowledgeable tour guide called Malcom climbed aboard our coach and took us around the Stud, treating us to tid-bits of information without being too overwhelming for those of us who knew little about horse racing.

For example, did you know that new foals won’t be named at the Stud? This is because they’ll be named by their owner when bought at the age of two, prior to being fully trained for professional horse racing. I also learnt that a mare carries a baby for 11 months and two weeks, and that horses like to sleep on the ground for two hours out of 24.

We also managed to see some foals at The National Stud; there have been 70 born this year so far. This was a highlight of the day for me; I do love a baby animal – and so did a lot of the GTOs on our coach, who had their cameras at the ready to snap away at the foals. Obviously it depends on what time of year you go as to whether you get to see new born horses or not.

The National Stud encourages group visits; bespoke tours can be created, as can dining experiences. Regular tours take place from March to October, and will typically include visits to the foaling unit and nursery paddocks in the early spring; the stallion unit; and various yards and paddocks where you can watch the mares and foals grazing.

IWM Duxford: the new American hangar

The final part of the Reader Club trip was a whistle-stop visit to Imperial War Museums (IWM) Duxford. This vast site comprises a historic airfield and museum of aviation history, allowing visitors to discover the stories of people who lived and worked at RAF Duxford.

Inside the new American hangar at IWM Duxford.

Pictured: Inside the new American hangar at IWM Duxford.

As this was a fam trip, we only had time to view certain parts of the site; I chose to explore the recently opened American Air Museum, which is a new and permanent exhibition.

It’s dedicated to those from the USA whose lives have shaped or been shaped by their experiences of war, from World War One to the present day. Highlights include a number of suspended air craft and the chance to try on a military uniform.

IWM Duxford offers discounted rates for parties of ten or more, plus the chance to take bespoke tours or watch air shows, which take place on various dates throughout the year. Note that the air shows have a separate ticket price, and must be booked in advance.

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