Just not necessarily in that order. You may have been wondering why Shaftesbury was chosen as the first part of my surprise birthday trip. It wasn’t for Gold Hill, or the stunning views, or the opportunity to solve a Treasure Trail that wound its way through the town (or even the Thanksgiving dinner), although all were a nice way to celebrate. Instead its proximity to our next stop was ideal: Longleat Safari Park.
The English countryside may not appear to be the natural location to situate a safari park containing animals ranging from lions and tigers to giraffes and camels. Indeed, Longleat is the ancestral home of the Marquesses of Bath. The house itself dates to the 16th century, and is considered one of the best examples of Elizabethan architecture in the country.
Yet the upkeep of these grand houses is not cheap, and the expense saw many families lose their homes throughout the 20th century. Since 1900, it is estimated that nearly 1200 country houses were destroyed; the more fortunate came under the protection of the National Trust or English Heritage. Supported by the public, they became museums and snapshots of the past, with the previous owners relegated to an interpretation panel or a note in the guidebook.
But Longleat has carved a different—and distinctive—path for itself. In 1949, it became the first stately home to open itself to the public for commercial purposes. While this was first viewed by other members of the aristocracy with misgivings and grumblings, other houses soon followed suit: families realised that putting their homes to work was one way to try to preserve them for future generations. The problem? As more houses put themselves on display, this gave the public greater choice and also provided limited reasons to return. The charm of visiting a stately home is seeing an unchanged slice of history, but once viewed, how to lure people back through the gates?
As a result, it became necessary for Longleat to distinguish itself in other ways, so in 1966 it became the first drive through safari park outside of Africa. Starting with a pride of lions, the park has grown to include animals such as hippos, rhinoceroses, wolves, zebra and even an elephant.
In the intervening years, Longleat and the Marquess of Bath have also continued to recognise the need for constant innovation, taking a number of risks that have paid off. From the now-defunct Dr. Who exhibit to a challenging hedge maze, Longleat has proven adept at re-invigorating itself, and one of its latest endeavours is the winter Festival of Light. Known as Chinese Lanterns, the wire figures are covered with cloth and lit up from within, causing a multi-coloured glow that brightens a dark winter evening.
We never had the opportunity to visit the Festival before, but this was certainly the year to do it. Longleat has gone all out to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the safari park with a giant cake, animals of every description, a dragon boat, and an entire field of flowers.
This year also marked the 150th birthday of Beatrix Potter, and her characters and stories were brought to life around the park grounds. Peter Rabbit and Mr. MacGregor in the garden (naturally); Squirrel Nutkin and his brethern scampered in the trees; Jeremy Fisher and his trout foe in the lake; Jemima Puddleduck and her ducklings explored the maze; and even Mrs. Tiggy Winkle and her washing were about. Keep reading to see the photos; there’s a lot!
It is rare that I find that an exhibition that exceeds expectations, but this one certainly does so. It was magical, and I definitely recommend a visit if you have the opportunity. A few things to consider before you go:
- Buy tickets in advance: The Festival of Light is only open on at certain times between November and January, so make sure to check the website and get tickets before you set off. It fills up fast!
- Wrap up warm: We were fortunate that the weather gods smiled on us during our trip with blue skies and sun. It was, however, very, very cold. If you’re going to be enjoying the sights for a few hours after dark, stay toasty.
- Wait until it gets dark: Actually, I recommend a trip around the figures in daylight first as they are rather impressive regardless, but wait until it is completely dark to enjoy the full spectacle. Lights get switched on at 4:00pm, but when we were there it was best after 5:00pm. Find a place to sit down with the hot beverage of your choice while waiting.
- Be prepared for lots of people: See the first point above. The Festival is understandably popular and you will be dealing with a sea of people, especially if it’s decent weather.