Whisper it, but we found our own Secret Garden this summer. It isn’t in a book or on a DVD but is ingrained in our holiday memories forever.
It’s a place where the most vivid dragonflies dart through the air, where butterflies flutter through the long grass and where the gentle sound of water lapping at the pond’s edge can just be heard beyond the sound of birds in the trees.
To let you into the secret, this little corner of tranquillity isn’t a million miles away and can be found in the sprawling grounds of Exton Park, a traditional English estate dating back more than 400 years and now embracing diversification with real verve.
Whilst the ‘big house’ has found new purpose as a wedding venue, amongst other uses, the estate’s walled garden, which until recent years was put to traditional use as a nursery, has been reinvented as a stunning setting for Lantern and Larks and its growing network of glamping locations.
Throw open the gate and you’re met by the perfect spot, with six safari style tents dotted across the meadow that has been allowed to grow wild, save for neatly mown pathways and a couple of patches of lawn at the centre of the garden which provide the most natural of playgrounds. Paths lead down to a pond, discretely fenced off for safety, and around the walls there are doorways and statues to capture the imagination of little explorers.
The accommodation is quite simply fantastic, with a covered veranda (perfect for watching the stars at night) complete with comfy chairs leading in to the main living area and its corner sofa and large dining table. A wood burning stove is at its heart, which proved perfect for heating the whole tent when the temperatures dipped each evening, whilst in the kitchen there was the added bonus of a two-ring gas stove and hot running water for those not keen on cooking on the range. With a double bedroom leading off from one side and two further bedrooms, one with two single beds and one with a bunk-bed, the Lantern and Larks approach differs from some glamping sites in that there is a wood-built extension to the tent which includes a w/c and shower room. It’s an added extra which really does make all the difference!
With a firepit supplied, evenings lit by lanterns were whiled away toasting marshmallows and spending the type of quality family time that’s so difficult when there are the usual distractions around. Remember, there’s no power at all in the tents so it really is a switch off from it all holiday.
We spent four nights at Exton Park in July, but could quite happily have stayed for a week without the novelty wearing off.
Located just a hop and skip away from Rutland Water, where there are serene nature boat tours or more adrenalin-fuelled watersports on hand, it is a beautiful part of the country. The nearby town of Oakham is charming and offers plenty of scope for eating out, whilst on the fringe of the Exton Park estate is the award winning Hambleton Bakery. The only mistake we made was waiting until our last day to visit – returning with a basket of goodies that were moreish in the extreme!
Within easy reach there are plenty of cities for a spot of retail therapy. We returned to Nottingham for old time’s sake but also paid a first visit to Cambridge, which didn’t disappoint – that is, once we had found rare on-street parking which was roofbox friendly. Lessons have been learned from a forgetful foray into a multi-storey, greeted by the fateful clunk of the height barrier … but once you’re in, you’re in!
Cambridge, even outside of peak school holiday season, was thronging with tourists – no bad thing, it certainly helps build the holiday spirit.
We had our heart set on exploring the River Cam by punt – when in Rome, and all that – and stumbled across a self-hire station just where we had abandoned the car. It was great value and we were assured punting was simple by a very friendly tutor … as we rocked from side to side, the look on our faces suggested it wasn’t going to be the leisurely excursion we were hoping for. More a tense, nervous afternoon! Within seconds we made the decision to abandon ship, hopped onto the safety of the riverbank and set off in search of a more expensive but far more relaxed private guided punt tour.
We plumped for Cambridge Chauffer Punts, setting off from their location at Silver Street, and had a really memorable 45 minute meander through the college backs. Judging by the various degrees of calamity besetting the self-hire punters along the route, we made the right choice! We could sit back, enjoy and benefit from the knowledge of our excellent guide.
We hadn’t done much more than a fleeting Google search before we visited, so had no real idea of the scale of the punting industry in Cambridge. It turns out to be a bit of a minefield, pretty much by chance we chose a licensed and well-established operator but you don’t have to look far to find touts offering tours on unlicensed boats. Something to be wary of at least.
Cambridge by water was another one for the memory bank, but it says it all that of the various day trips we made the highlight was always getting back to our little corner of the secret garden of Exton, guided on our way by the welcoming smell of campfires and the call of the birds. A perfect short-break paradise.