Last week was emotionally draining. A trip to Wimpole Estate was the perfect pick-me-up; the tonic to flat-hunting tedium and work woes.
Ring, ring. Long time, no see, 07:15. We’d been hoping for a lie in, but the mid-morning slots had already filled up. We ended up booking our timed-entry tickets for 09:30-10:00. (Once you’re in, you’re free to stay until closing time.)
Picnic packed? Check. Helmets on? Check. Off we go, zipping up Fen Causeway, onto Barton Road and down the A603 towards Orwell. We pass the junction for Little Eversden, and the road climbs upwards: it’s less short-and-steep, more long-and-slow. We arrive at Wimpole Estate with plenty of time to spare, and pick of the bike racks. (There are ten or so by Hardwicke Gate, but there may well be others across the car park.) We slather our hands in hand gel (it’s on tap around the site), don our face masks and wait to be waved through.
We pick our way along the woodland path and follow the one-way route towards Wimpole Hall, a sprawling red-brick country pile. The Wimpole Hall you see today dates back to the 1640s, and was built by the Chicheley family; prior to that, a gabled manor house took centre stage on the estate. Wimpole Hall has changed hands several times since, and been home to many an interesting character over the years.
Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, lived at Wimpole Hall between 1711 and 1740. Harley was an avid collector and lover of art and learning, and amassed 50,000 printed books, 41,000 prints and 350,000 pamphlets over his lifetime. His collection formed the foundation of the British Library. Centuries later, Elsie Bambridge, the only surviving child of Rudyard Kipling, bequeathed Wimpole Hall to the National Trust.
We head down the drive, gravel crunching underfoot. Wimpole Hall is closed for the time being, but the gardens, parkland and farm are open. We decide to amble through the gardens first, and hit up the farm (later on the one-way route) when it opens. There’s a short route with steps, or a longer route without; we opt for the latter.
The parterre was restored to its former glory in the 1990s, thanks to a grant from the National Garden Scheme. Over the summer months, box hedging and red and blue bedding plants create a floral Union Jack – though I suspect the pandemic (or recent heatwaves) put paid to this year’s planting plans as the parterre was looking a wee bit parched.
Every so often, we snatch glimpses of cattle and sheep grazing in the parkland through the bushes. Like us, they’re feeling the heat: most are congregating around the largest, leafiest trees, out of the sun.
I light up inside at the sight of the walled garden. As a kid, I loved watching (and reading) The Secret Garden, and Wimpole Estate’s walled garden was magical. We pass through the orchard first: gnarled fruit trees bearing apples, pears, apricots, plums and greengages surround the garden.
Blooms – dahlias, roses and others I don’t recognise – spill out of the flower beds; bees flit from one flower to the next, harvesting nectar. We spot well-tended vegetable plots: pint-sized pumpkins; plump courgettes; runner beans.
Fun fact: the Soane Glasshouse, which sits inside the walled garden, was built so that pineapples could be grown on the Wimpole Estate. Gardeners used ‘tanner’s bark’ (oak soaked in water and more commonly used in leather tanning), which fermented slowly and produced a constant temperature between 25 and 30°C for up to three months.
We reach Home Farm a bit before it’s due to open, and flop down in the shade. (We’re the only couple that isn’t accompanied by rugrats.) Hoof prints painted on the floor guide us through the farm: past the piggery – full of enormous sows and teeny-weeny piglets – and on towards the cows, Shetland ponies and Shires.
Our stomachs are grumbling, so we find a shady spot in the gardens and crack out our picnic: sandwiches, crisps, fruit and homemade flapjack. Fuelled up, we set off across the parkland towards the Folly.
Built in the mid-1770s, this Grade II* listed structure (above, and below left) resembles the crumbling ruins of a medieval castle. It certainly looks the part: Rapunzel wouldn’t look out of place at the top of its four-storey tower.
We spend some time meandering through the ruins before heading back towards the Stable Block for much-needed ice creams and cold drinks. Before leaving, we potter around St. Andrew’s Church (above right), where several of Wimpole Hall’s residents have been interred.
We take the scenic route home via Barrington (where we stop for a fridge-fresh Coke, as it’s stonking hot out and warm water isn’t all that refreshing) and Fowlmere.
Know before you go:
- Book your tickets to Wimpole Estate (Gardens, Parkland and Home Farm) before you go. If you rock up without a ticket, you’ll be turned away. Check availability via the website.
- There’s a one-way system around the gardens and farm to support social distancing. Take a snap of the map as you pass through the entrance gate: National Trust staff have helpfully marked the one-way route on it. You can also find a copy of the map, and other useful info, here.
- Refreshments are available – or you can take a picnic, like we did. If nature calls, there are toilets at the farm, behind the restaurant and at the entrance (all open when we visited in August 2020).