Keep Calne and carry on
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Keep Calne and carry on

Barry Borman explores the dramatic beauty of Wiltshire, unwinds at a fine country hotel and discovers the village where Downton Abbey and Harry Potter were filmed

Bowood House, near Calne, in Wiltshire
Bowood House, near Calne, in Wiltshire

Time it right (there’s only a few weeks leeway each year) and a visit to the Bowood Estate, near Calne in Wiltshire, delivers a triple whammy: A booking at the Bowood Hotel and Spa includes free entry to the stately Bowood House, coupled with access to the Woodland Gardens, which become a riot of colour in the spring.

The weather looked promising, so we quickly checked in at the hotel, collected our free entry voucher and headed straight there, less than a five minute drive away and usually open from the end of April until early June.

Within 30 acres of gorgeous countryside, criss-crossed with an attractive network of grassed paths including a “Walk of the Week,” offering the best vistas, the gardens enchanted us with a spectacular multi-hued profusion of fragrant rhododendrons and azaleas.

The estate is owned by the Marquess of Lansdowne, whose predecessors originated the planting and, saving the best for last, we climb the hill to the family mausoleum, built by the celebrated architect Robert Adam in the 1760s.

From here, there’s a dramatic panorama across the layers of spring colour, together with far-reaching views along the Downs.

It’s very convenient to pop back to the hotel for some light refreshments or a full-blown country house cream tea and then, only five minutes away, we arrive at Bowood House itself.

There, ensconced on a sunny bench in the south-facing formal terrace, we admire the precision sheared topiary and gaze out over 2,000 acres of one of Capability Brown’s finest parks.

Later, we stretch our legs exploring the shores of the graceful lake, which comes complete with Doric Temple, charming cascade and grotto.

The house itself has been the Lansdowne family’s home since 1754 with Adam’s elegant Orangery now transformed into a picture gallery housing family portraits and a collection of notable Old Masters.

Also of interest is the laboratory where scientist Joseph Priestley, who tutored the sons of the Marquess, discovered oxygen in 1774.

Priestley, a resident of Calne, was not only a scientist, but also an outspoken Hebrew-speaking theologian.

In that capacity, he published Letters to the Jews, arguing that Jews should either admit the legitimacy of Christian beliefs or convert.

This prompted a vigorous response from the English Hebraist David Levi, who published Letters to Dr. Priestley, upholding orthodoxy and highlighting the inconsistencies of Priestley’s stance.

Levi’s book was published in 1794 by New York’s first Jewish bookseller, Benjamin Gomez, the first time that a book defending Judaism had been published by a Jew. A copy of this book recently sold at auction for a price in excess of $2,000.

For those with kids in tow, there’s Tractor Ted’s Little Farm which, on selected Bank Holidays, transforms itself into a huge, all-singing, all-dancing celebration of tractors.

It offers a whole range of hands-on rides and drives which judging from the number of participating fathers delighted more than just the children.

After a full day on the Bowood Estate, we welcomed retiring to the hotel, stunningly cocooned within its own “en suite” championship golf course, for some welcome relaxation and pampering.

We chose a room overlooking the practise greens and a lake festooned with ducks, the balcony a personal retreat on which to unwind, chilled beer in hand, drinking in the serenity of the sunset.

The more active can bike-ride in the gym and sweat it off in the sauna, finishing with a revitalising plunge in the spa’s beautifully-appointed infinity pool.

In the evening, the Shelburne Restaurant, overlooking the parkland, offers fine dining with a thoughtfully curated selection of dishes and a separate vegetarian menu, followed by a tranquil nightcap in the seductive, olde-worlde library.

The next day we discover the National Trust village of Lacock. No more than 20 minutes’ drive away, it boasts black-and-white half-timbered houses, picturesque winding lanes and quaint shops transporting visitors back through the centuries.

It’s not surprising that it’s been used as the backdrop to a number of films and TV programmes, including Pride and Prejudice, Downton Abbey and Larkrise to Candleford.

Snuggled in the midst of the village is The George Inn, dating from 1361, with exposed beams, a roaring log fireplace in winter and a “dog wheel” – rotated in times past by specially bred dogs to cook the meat on a revolving spit.

Lacock Abbey, founded in 1232, was decommissioned in Henry VIII’s reformatory blitz. Its historic medieval cloisters remain and, indeed, posed as Hogwarts School in some of the Harry Potter films.

Following its closure, Lacock Abbey became a privately-owned house and was acquired by William Henry Fox Talbot in the 19th century. Fox Talbot was determined to discover how to “fix images” and his revelatory
work at the abbey resulted in the world’s earliest surviving photographic negative.

Amazingly, the subject matter of this historic image can still be seen, a latticed window in the building’s south gallery.

There’s much more of interest to see in the on-site Photography Museum, featuring an exhibition of his life’s work and a fascinating collection (before we forget what they look like!) of original cameras. So that’s your spring break sorted…

Barry stayed at the Bowood Hotel, Spa and Golf Resort (bowood.org), where doubles start at £130 per night, including breakfast, or £170 per night with park view and balcony.

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