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Hestercombe Gardens, Cheddon Fitzpaine

Hestercombe Gardens takes as its motto ‘paradise restored’ and from the moment you drive into the car park you realise this is no half truth. Peace and tranquillity reign, not for them the funfair in the lower field or the gift shop in your face, just forty acres or so of magical landscapes, coruscating waterfalls, flora, fauna and follies and as a backdrop, nature in its prettiest dress. That is not say that there aren’t plenty of activities going on it’s just that they all take place in tandem with the subtle shift of each season; a butterfly walk in July, cider, cheese and chutney festival in September and spooky stories at Halloween (this was deemed suitable for over 8s and if I can find one to take me I’ll go!).

There are three period gardens combining a Georgian landscape, Victorian terrace and Edwardian formal garden; Coplestone Warre Bampfylde did the first landscaping in 1750 and in the 1870s a Victorian terrace and shrubbery was added, followed by the Edwardian gardens designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll.

So, armed with a very picturesque map we began our tour of the gardens, stopping first at the ‘Bat Roost’ with its very own Bat Cam! Hestercombe has a large colony of lesser horseshoe bats which reside in the roof of the stable block and you can watch them on an interactive TV screen; I suspected they were putting on a jolly good flutter in case we were auditioning them for extras in the spooky stories at Halloween. Walking on along the meandering paths we came across the Octagon Summerhouse, complete with fireplace and I could imagine the rustle of silk and satin as Edwardian ladies of quality took tea on long summer afternoons.

We had taken note of a sign that said “be aware bees are swarming in our gardens” and although we only saw single bees going about their business in an orderly fashion, delving into all the succulent blooms on offer, there were clouds of butterflies at every turn. I cast my mind back to my old I-Spy book of butterflies but they were too quick and my memory too poor for me to identify any. We came to the Pear Pond with one stately swan gliding across its glassy surface, followed by one small duck which was astonishing as our illustrated map showed exactly that! There are some spectacular views to be had over the rolling countryside restoring my faith that Britain hasn’t been entirely concreted over; the best being from the Gothic Alcove and the Temple Arbour. Our favourite of the quirkily placed follies was the Witch House, a little wooden thatched house with chairs made from tree stumps, paintings of a witch, an owl and a black cat and a carved wooden serpent snaking up over the entrance. For any self-respecting witch this must be the luxury pent house of accommodation!

Lastly, we walked through the formal gardens, The Dutch Garden, Orangery, Great Plat and Victorian Terrace. These are a picture, beautifully restored and kept and worth spending as much time as possible in just to soak up the atmosphere of serenity that is missing from today’s pace of life. So, having had enough exercise in delightful surroundings to work up an appetite we repaired to the Courtyard Café to have lunch.

The Courtyard Café is charmingly housed in the stable block (the tables inside are actually in the individual stables) but has plenty of tables and chairs in the courtyard, cleverly covered by a partially open sloping glass roof thus keeping off the elements but letting in plenty of light and air. We opted for a table outside and had a look at the menu which is all homemade using locally sourced ingredients. As it was Sunday there was roast topside of beef available and also roast belly of pork, together with a menu of lighter lunches if you wished. I also saw a selection of desserts on show, some very tempting tarts and creamy extravagances which were definitely calling to me. However, we decided on tomato and basil soup and salmon fishcakes with salad and lemon mayonnaise to start, followed by roast belly of pork baguette with apple sauce and Sharpham Park spelt risotto with summer vegetables for me. We ordered a bottle of rosé but (good service here) there were none that had been chilling long enough so instead they found a bottle of nicely iced Chenin Blanc which was just right.

The tomato and basil soup was heavenly, thick and just begging you to dunk pieces of heavily buttered roll into it and the fishcakes full of chunky salmon, perked up by the piquant lemon mayonnaise. My husband became deeply confused about my risotto, mistaking the word ‘park’ for ‘pork’ in its description. However, I have to say it was first class and for the uninitiated, Sharpham Park spelt is organically grown in Somerset and is a cousin of wheat, the pearled variety being a good rice substitute for dishes such as risotto, or used as you would pearl barley in a stew. All in all, with its great service and beautiful food we thought the Courtyard Café was misnamed and should definitely be labelled as a restaurant.

We had a wonderful day, thoroughly enjoyed our lunch and as my husband remarked, it was worth twice the entrance fee (£7.90 per person). This is coming from someone whose least favourite day out contains gardens, borne out by the fact that when we were young and poor he gave me as a birthday present a handwritten voucher “for a visit to any dreary stately home with equally boring gardens of your choice and I won’t moan. Much.”!

Jacquie Vowles

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