Snowdrop Sunday at Kingston Bagpuize House, Oxfordshire

I’m a sucker for snowdrops and love spotting these first signs of spring. In previous years we’ve visited the snowdrops at Welford Park and Swyncombe Church. This year I was delighted to find a venue even closer to home, Kingston Bagpuize House, whose grounds are open for snowdrop Sundays during February.

Snowdrops at Kingston Bagpuize house
Snowdrops at Kingston Bagpuize house

We arrived early on the first open weekend. So early that we discovered we were the first visitors of the year! Encompassing manicured lawns, shrub borders and woodland we soon realised the grounds of Kingston Bagpuize House have plenty to see. But we were on a snowdrop mission.

Woodland garden, Kingston Bagpuize house
Woodland garden, Kingston Bagpuize house

Clutching our location map we wound our way through the gardens, initially wandering through the woodland garden and shrub border in our quest for snowdrops. Fortunately the owner provides a spotters guide to help locate and identify the sixteen different snowdrop species. I thought sixteen was impressive until I read later that there are 2000 cultivars.

Woodland garden steps, Kingston Bagpuize house
Woodland garden steps, Kingston Bagpuize house

The wooded area around Church Copse, beside the parish church, has been cleared over recent years to allow the snowdrops to naturalise. As we visited early not all of the snowdrops were flowering. Later in the season I’m sure the woodland floor will be carpeted in white.

Snowdrops in Church Copse, Kingston Bagpuize house
Snowdrops in Church Copse, Kingston Bagpuize house

From Church Copse we walked through the open parkland to reach Court Close Copse, another area of managed woodland. Everwhere I looked I could see the beginnings of new growth, from tree buds to the tiny leaves of stinging nettles just starting to emerge. And of course snowdrops. Spring is definitely on the way.

St John the Baptist church, Kingston Bagpuize
St John the Baptist church, Kingston Bagpuize

Now an admission. I enjoyed the snowdrops but surprisingly they weren’t my favourite feature. Nor were the sunny yellow aconites also peeping through the ground. In fact, my standout plant was a scented shrub, wintersweet. Just one sniff of its perfume and my son and I were immediately transported to warmer climes. If only my garden had space for one of these, I’d be out there all winter!

Winter aconites, Kingston Bagpuize house
Winter aconites, Kingston Bagpuize house

Returning back through the parkland we watched several red kites screeching overhead. In much of the country these birds are still a rarity but they’re a very common sight in Oxfordshire. I can even see two of them swooping over our garden as I write this blog.

Walking towards Court Close Copse, Kingston Bagpuize house
Walking towards Court Close Copse, Kingston Bagpuize house

Back in 2011 Kingston Bagpuize House and gardens were the backdrop for the film, Tortoise in Love. First shown at the Cannes Film Festival, it made headlines as the 800 village residents were all involved in the financing and making of the film. The WI provided catering, villagers starred as extras and the local hairdresser provided make up. The reviews aren’t the greatest but I am tempted to watch it solely because of this back story.

Kingston Bagpuize house
Kingston Bagpuize house

Although the house wasn’t open on the day of our visit the cafe was. Located down a set of steps we rounded off our visit with drinks and sweet treats. Snowdrop walk complete, I’m looking forward to the daffodils next!

More info

  • The gardens at Kingston Bagpuize house are open from 2-5pm on Sundays during February. They’re also open during the summer, along with the house, on selected dates; check the website for up-to-date information.
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Heritage open day at Buscot Park gardens, Oxfordshire

Last weekend thousands of buildings opened their doors for free as part of the yearly Heritage Open Days event. We had an afternoon spare so after browsing the events website for inspiration I decided on a walk around Buscot Park gardens. The grounds around the house cover over 100 acres and encompass formal gardens, woodland and lakes

Clock house, Buscot Park
Clock house, Buscot Park

If you’ve read much of this blog you’ll probably realise I prefer ruined castles to stately homes. And mountains and wild beaches rather than manicured gardens. But I was pleasantly surprised by Buscot Park. It was quirky enough to hold my attention; or perhaps I’m just reaching the age of garden appreciation!

Four Seasons Walled Garden

Walled garden, Buscot Park
Walled garden, Buscot Park

We started with a walk around the Four Seasons walled garden, where each section represents a different season. Transformed from a redundant kitchen garden by Lord Faringdon it mixes flowers and shrubs with ornamental vegetables. We had probably missed it at its summery best but roses and dahlias provided plenty of late season colour.

Dahlia in the walled garden, Buscot Park
Dahlia in the walled garden, Buscot Park

There are a variety of sculptures and features around the grounds which add interest. The kids enjoyed posing alongside replica terracotta warriors. In the Swinging Garden we had a family swing on one of four large swings that surround a sycamore seed sculpture. Elsewhere there are urns and obelisks, a sundial and pyramid to discover.

Terracotta army imposters at Buscot Park!
Terracotta army imposters at Buscot Park!

The over-riding impression of the grounds was, for me, symmetry. From woodland avenues to clipped hedges I loved the straight lines, replication and long vistas.

Terracotta urn, Buscot Park
Terracotta urn, Buscot Park

Buscot House

Our walk took us up to the open parkland directly in front of Buscot House. The house was built between 1779 and 1783, and is today managed by Lord Faringdon on behalf of the National Trust. From the outside it looks rather austere and imposing. Inside there are many notable works of art, added to over the years by Lord Faringdon.

Buscot House
Buscot House

I decided it best not to visit. The kids were busy rolling down slopes and giving each other piggybacks. It wasn’t long before one of them took things too far and I could just imagine some delicate piece of art being damaged by a mistimed push!

By avoiding the house I belatedly realised I’d missed seeing the frescoes near the outside swimming pool. Painted in the 1930s, these depict friends of the family, including the intriguing Lord Berners who we learnt about when we visited nearby Faringdon Folly.

Peto Water Garden

My favourite part of the estate was the Italianete style water garden designed by the landscape architect Harold Peto. Water flows through a canal, under bridges, past statues and hedges to reach the Big Lake.

Buscot Park water garden
Buscot Park water garden

I loved this statue covered in moss. It blends in so well with its surroundings and is much more atmospheric than a sterile stone sculpture.

Camouflage statue, Buscot Park
Camouflage statue, Buscot Park

Wandering around the Big Lake we discovered a rolling bridge linked to a small island. Part of the bridge was missing, presumably locked away to stop inquisitive people getting on to the island. Although almost everyone we saw pulled the chain and tried to discover how it worked.

Peto water garden, Buscot Park
Peto water garden, Buscot Park

From the lake we headed back up to the house via Monkey Puzzle Avenue. I had been looking forward to walking between huge rows of monkey puzzle trees. Little did I know they were only a metre or so high! I’ve since read they only grow around 35 cm per year.

Fountain, Buscot Park
Fountain, Buscot Park

We rounded off our afternoon with a visit to the cafe. I’d read one Trip Advisor review bemoaning the lack of National Trust cafe. Personally I much preferred the small cafe. It wasn’t the slickest of operations but our cakes were yummy and half the cost of the usual NT fare. The perfect way to round off the afternoon!

More info:

  • Buscot Park is open periodically from April to September, check the website calendar for full details. Opening time is usually from 2pm. Entrance is free for National Trust members. Otherwise the adult price is £10 to visit the house and garden or £7 to visit just the garden. Children aged 5-15 years old are half-price.
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Visiting the Old Bailey and Inns of Court, London

Have you ever watched a court case? I’ve wanted to visit the Old Bailey ever since I realised the general public were allowed to observe trials. When a recent child free day came along I jumped at the opportunity to see the Old Bailey and other law related places in the city.

The Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court)

The Old Bailey deals with major criminal cases, mainly from the Greater London area. There are eighteen courts covering serious cases such as murder, terrorism and drug related crimes.

Despite being on the right side of the law I was a little nervous walking towards the public gallery entrance. I rang the doorbell, hidden down Warwick Passage, and waited to be called up for the security check. After passing through security I asked one of the guards about the best trial to visit.

The Old Bailey, London
The Old Bailey, London

The courts were relatively quiet on the day of my visit and the only option was a terrorism trial. The case related to four defendants, accused of supporting the funding of terrorism. The case had already been ongoing for several days; I entered the public gallery as the prosecutor was giving his closing speech to the jury.

The court room was smaller than I expected but familiar from TV court dramas. Visitors sit in a small balcony area, opposite the jurors. To my right sat the four defendants, to the left the judge. In the middle sat the Court Clerk and barristers. Their wigs intrigued me. Made from horsehair, evidently the older and grubbier they look the better!

The Old Bailey, London
The Old Bailey, London

It was really interesting to listen in and watch the workings of the court. I’m not going to write about the trial itself as it impacts real lives. Suffice to say the evidence was compelling and the subsequent outcome wasn’t a surprise.

Once in the courtroom there is a 30 minute minimum stay. However time passed quickly and I stayed for a couple of hours. Leaving as quietly as possible I crept out of the galleries and headed to my next destination, Temple Church.

The Temple Church

It’s hard to imagine that the serene Temple Church is just a couple of minutes walk from Fleet Street. Founded in the 12th Century by the Knights Templar it’s modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In 1608 the Temple was granted to two societies of lawyers, the Inner and Middle Temple, who look after it to this day.

Knight effigies, Temple Church, London
Knight effigies, Temple Church, London

The most distinguishing feature of the church is its round nave. Certainly impressive but I enjoyed the interior stonework just as much. On the floor of the nave lies the effigies of nine knights, whilst all around are grotesque gargoyles.

The nave contains a lot of display boards detailing the history which I really should have read.  But I was more interested in climbing the winding staircase to the clerestory for views back across the church.

Inns of Court

The area around Temple Church is surrounded by two of the Inns of Court. These are the professional associations for barristers; every barrister needs to belong to one of them. There are four Inns in London; Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, Middle Temple and Inner Temple; I explored the lanes and gardens of the latter two.

Middle Temple Lane, London
Middle Temple Lane, London

Wandering down the lanes it was hard to believe I was in central London. Lined with barristers’ chambers and intercepted by gardens and courtyards it feels more like a film set. I half expected Sherlock Holmes to walk down the street. There are maps dotted around the area but it’s more fun just to stroll around.

View from Middle Temple Gardens
View from Middle Temple Gardens

The buildings themselves are off limits to casual wanderers. Fortunately I didn’t need to be a barrister to enjoy the gardens. The borders were in full bloom, perfectly demonstrating the beauty of high summer. If I ignored the background sound of car horns, I could almost imagine I was enjoying a town garden.

Temple gardens, London
Temple gardens, London

As I reached the front of one garden, bordering Victoria Embankment, I realised the last time I’d been near here was whilst running the London Marathon. I’d struggled the last few miles and this section didn’t hold particularly good memories! It was good to reminisce in less painful times.

Temple gardens, London
Temple gardens, London

Royal Courts of Justice

Close by is one of the other major legal buildings, the Royal Courts of Justice, and my last stop of the day. The Law Courts house the High Court and Court of Appeal and preside over civil, not criminal, trials. It’s a huge Victorian Gothic style building on the Strand, just opposite Temple Inn.

Royal Courts of Justice, London
Royal Courts of Justice, London

Although there was an airport style scanner to pass through once in you appear to be free to wander. I picked up a self-guided tour leaflet from the entrance desk; it’s also possible to book guided tours. I walked around the Main Hall, past a small costume display to the Painted Room and then along past court rooms.

In a similar way to the Old Bailey it’s possible to watch trials. Although personally I think criminal trials sound much more interesting! I’d definitely like to visit another Old Bailey trial at some point, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the workings of our legal system.

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More info

  • The Old Bailey is for those aged 14+ years only; you may be asked for photo identification. Court generally sits on weekdays from 10am-1pm and from 2-4.30pm but do check before you visit. Security is strict. Cameras, mobile phones, large bags and refreshments are not permitted. You can leave mobiles at the nearby Capable Travel Agent at a cost of £1 per device. Details of the cases are posted on the boards outside.
  • The Temple Church website details its varied opening times. It’s generally open on weekdays from 10am-4pm. Entry charge is £5 for adults, free for under 16s.
  • Middle and Inner Temple Gardens are open to the public from 12-3pm on weekdays during the summer. There is no entrance charge.
  • The Royal Courts of Justice is open on weekdays from 9am-4.30pm. Entry is free.
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Discovering the roof gardens of London

 

We always visit London during February half term. I’ve learnt the hard way that the big attractions attract big crowds so I try to choose a less popular, more quirky option. Our theme this year was roof gardens!

The Roof Gardens, 99 Kensington High Street

I’ve walked along Kensington High Street many times but until last week I had no idea that on the roof of the building above we’d find trees, a stream and four flamingos! Yes, you’ve read that correctly. The 1.5 acre roof gardens took 2 years to build and opened to the public in 1938; visitors paid a shilling to enter with the monies raised going to charity. Nowadays Sir Richard Branson leases the roof gardens along with a private clubhouse and restaurant on the 7th floor.

The Spanish garden, The Roof Gardens
The Spanish garden, The Roof Gardens

We signed in at reception and took the lift up to the 6th floor before stepping out into the surreal experience of a Spanish garden. Modelled on the Alhambra in Granada it certainly brightened up the grey and dreary London sky.

Flamingos at The Roof Gardens
Flamingos at The Roof Gardens

There’s also a Tudor garden but our favourite was the woodland garden with its free roaming flamingos. This contains over one hundred trees, including six that have been there since the garden opened. Plenty of spring bulbs were pushing through the soil and a few were already in flower.

The Roof Gardens, 99 Kensington High St, London
The Roof Gardens, 99 Kensington High St, London

The middle of February is never going to show a garden in its full splendour but we thought it was great. We’ll definitely pop back to the Roof Gardens in summer to see it in its prime.

Sky Garden, 20 Fenchurch Street (Walkie Talkie)

I’ve always wanted to visit the Shard but why pay £25 when you can experience similar views and a sky garden for free at 20 Fenchurch Street? Admittedly the Walkie Talkie, so called because of its bulbous shape, is less aesthetically pleasing. It’s also significantly lower than the Shard but it still provides a great vantage point. And perhaps the Shard is too high to get decent photos?

Sky Garden at the Walkie Talkie
Sky Garden at the Walkie Talkie

I’d booked tickets to the Sky Garden a few days previously. We turned up an hour early but the staff were accommodating and let us in before our timed slot. My passport ID was checked and bags security scanned before we stepped into the lift. I haven’t been in many skyscrapers so I was surprised how quickly we zoomed up to the 35th floor.

Sky Garden, 20 Fenchurch St
Sky Garden, 20 Fenchurch St

The views are stunning. There are no information boards but most buildings are instantly recognisable. We enjoyed looking across to the Gherkin and at a helicopter flying at the same height as us. Aside from the views, I’d describe the sky garden as corporate. It’s the kind of planting you get in posh offices. Nice enough, but soulless. Maybe give it a year to mature and it’ll look better. If you visit for the views you’ll love it! I wouldn’t visit just for the garden.

Views from the Sky Garden
Views from the Sky Garden

Upon leaving we discovered both lifts were temporarily out of order and awaiting repair. The attendant announced he’d take 8 people down in the maintenance lift. At this point I started to worry we’d be trundling down the outside of the building in a cage. After several minutes of my mind running through doom-laden scenarios (Towering Inferno) the lift door suddenly opened and we were able to leave. A few seconds later and we were safely on the ground floor. Phew!

SOAS Japanese Roof Garden

Expectations for our final garden were high, but it’s unfair to compare this garden with either of the previous ones. It’s much smaller and has minimal planting. Instead, the SOAS Japanese Roof garden is all about the stone with sandstone, slate and granite chippings providing texture and interest.

Japanese roof garden, SOAS
Japanese roof garden, SOAS

There’s seating for those who wish to enjoy the peace and meditate but we didn’t linger. I’m sure it’s lovely in May when the wisteria flowers but on a cold February day we were happy to return indoors. An interesting garden to visit if you’re already in the area but I wouldn’t make a special trip just to see it.

More info

  • The Roof Gardens at 99 Kensington High Street are free to enter but ring before you visit to ensure they are not closed for an event.
  • The Sky Garden is open from 10am-6pm weekdays, 11am-9pm weekends. Visits are free although you’ll need to book a timed slot in advance. Remember to bring ID with you.
  • The SOAS roof garden is on top of the Brunei Gallery and is open whenever the gallery is (generally 10.30am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday).
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