Hello and a very warm welcome to my newly relaunched blog. I'm Paul a 40 year old family man from the UK. In this complex, information overload 21st century world, too often we lose sight of what's really important. Here I want to celebrate life, share inspirational stories, throw the spotlight on charities and causes close to my heart. Looking forward to sharing this journey with you all.

Monday, 5 April 2010

A grand day out!

Last day of the long Easter weekend today and rain or shine am determined to make the most of it and get out and about. Those little extra chocolate treats definitely need to be burned off, so we're heading for Robin Hood Country, into Sherwood Forest to another National Trust property called Clumber Park.

As it's our first time out, will no doubt be giving it a write up in due course, but in the meantime, here's another article I wrote on a brilliant family day out up at Alnwick Gardens in Northumberland.

This place is about as near as you'll ever get to a Garden "Theme Park".

10 years ago, the Alnwick Garden, the brain child of the Duchess of Northumberland was nothing more than a run-down, overgrown and overlooked area within the grounds of Alnwick Castle.

The Duchess quickly set about following her dream of creating a public space for families and people of all ages to enjoy.

She established a charity trust fund for the project, and managed to persuade the (apparently) renowned Belgian international landscape gardeners Jacques and Peter Wirtz to apply their talents on a very grand scale.

The result is a spectacular outdoor venue that appeals to keen gardeners and family fun seekers alike. The Garden is now firmly established as a very popular visitor attraction in its own right. 

Image via Wikipedia

Getting there and admission 

It's about a mile from the A1 exit on the outskirts of the market town of Alnwick in Northumberland, and The Garden is clearly signposted.

There's a security patrolled parking area which can accommodate cars and coaches, costing a very reasonable £2 for the day. A short walk across the road, and you make your way into the Gardens. Once you've got tickets at the cubicle, follow the road round to the left, to come to the main gardens, or if you wish turn right to go to the Treehouse (we'll come to that later)

The gardens are open 364 days a year, only closing on Christmas day. According to the official website www.alnwickgarden.com the current opening hours are :

Winter opening - October to March: 10am - 4pm (last admissions 3.15pm)
Summer opening - April - September: 10am - 6pm (last admissions 5.15pm)

The admission charges are fairly unique. Standard adult charge is £10, with concessions for students and over 60's at £7.50. Each ticket includes an optional £1 donation to the charitable trust, which you can also gift-aid. Children are charged at a nominal 1p, although any more than 4 children in the group means its £2.50 per additional child.

There is disabled access throughout and both wheelchairs and scooters can be hired.

This place has certainly grown on me 

A few years back now in late 2002 just as it was first opening to the public, I remember reading about the project while visiting the Castle (which incidentally is a fantastic day out in itself - and has been used in many a film including the original Harry Potter series), and me and the wife decided to take a quick look to see how it was progressing.

It was a soggy wet mess of a day, and frankly being charged for the dubious privilege of looking at some muddy banks, some half finished stone work, was less than appealing.

However by the time we returned in late summer 2007, the transformation was amazing....

The main Gardens  

As you walk in to the entrance, you can't fail to notice the impressive centre piece of the gardens, the Grand Cascade.

A wide grassed area, leads down to this multi-level spectacular of stone steps and fast flowing water jets.

If you've got little ones with you, I can almost guarantee their eyes will be almost immediately drawn to the green and yellow toy tractors at the base of the cascade, and within 60 seconds or less they will be dragging you down there, to let them have a go.

Go with the flow I say! There are four different displays on the hour and half hour to enjoy, and there's access routes either side if you want to take a closer look.

Exploring time

Picking up the trail from the bottom of the cascade, if you head to the right, where a set of mazy hedges, you'll discover a wonderful collection of water sculptures that are perfectly designed to get up close and enjoy.

Parents beware -have a change of clothing to hand, while its great for the little mites to reach out and touch the numerous magical shiny features, its all to easy for kids to get a soaking in all the enthusiasm.

Carry on round a little and depending on the season you might be able to enjoy the rose garden (no promises), or far more interesting from a child's perspective, the mysteries of the bamboo labyrinth.

Follow the trail eventually up the slopes, and you'll come to the top of the cascade - this is a fantastic alternative viewing angle for the water displays - just hold on tight to those little handies

There's a beautifully presented wall garden to explore, with water channels running through for a little paddling action.

Elsewhere to the left of the garden, you can go on a guided (for obvious reason) tour of the Poison garden, which is carefully guarded behind locked gates. Tobacco, mandrake, as well as more extreme drug related varieties (apparently with growing permission from the Home Office) are kept here for educational purposes, in fact in partnership with the Drug action team, the garden is used for schools drug awareness visits.

The Giant Tree house

If you've ever built any kind of den in the back garden , this is the place for you. Even Tarzan and Jane would probably have had to get planning permission for this magnificent palace of wood.

It's entirely separate from the main gardens; basically you just need to turn right after you pay at the ticket office opposite the entrance. You head up a fully boarded I'm a celebrity style entrance route, and immediately on your left is a little video room / rest area.

No doubt if you have little ones with you, the first thing they'll make a bee line for is your classic rickety bridge. Now clearly if you've got a thing for heights, you might want to be making a sharp exit stage left at this point in proceedings. Not only because of the view down below, but also the fairly vigorous motion that comes with the crossing.

I'm sure if push came to shove the bridge could support the weight of a couple of dozen at any given time, but if like my wife, you happen to be pushing a pushchair full of beaming young explorer as well as feeling a little shaky under foot it becomes a bit of an adrenalin ride.

Any one fancy a cuppa? 

Any regular readers of my day out reviews will no doubt be staggered that I've managed to get this far without mentioning the dining facilities.

Rest assured, these are amply provided for, and the quality is excellent. A great feature is that they endeavour to source as much as possible from the local Northumberland region

In the main gardens, there's a large, part indoor glass pavilion cafe, with a fantastic selection of hot and cold foods on offer.

Just across the courtyard there's the Courtyard coffee shop which you can visit without paying admission to the grounds

To round things off there's the Treehouse restaurant and bar.

A roaring log fire (presumably not sourced from the construction site directly) , and tree branches growing up through the floor combine to provide a unique and quirky setting for a lunch or dinnertime indulgence. Once again you don't even need to get tickets to the Garden to dine here.

Duchess Duchess, how will your garden grow? 

I'm glad to report that this is anything but the end of the story. Quite contrary.

Whilst there might not be any silver bells, or cockle shells, there are great plans afoot for further additions, with amongst other things a sensory garden , a Grotto, and an adventure play area all in various stages of development. Naturally these depend on the money raised from the charitable trust.

I for one look forward to revisiting over the coming years and seeing it progress.

It's a shining example of how great swathes of unused private land can be turned into a really inspirational community project for ours and future generations to enjoy. 

If you would like to get involved, please visit the website at http://www.alnwickgarden.com/charity/charity

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