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Parks and gardens to reopen

Published: 4 June 2020 - Alex Fordham

Following clarification from government on 23 May that gardens in England could reopen to visitors, the garden attractions of Historic Houses – Britain’s largest collection of independent heritage – are carefully opening their garden gates, increasing numbers, giving the public a chance to stretch their legs and enjoy the sunshine in some of the country’s most beautiful places.

Charles and Lynda Tucker, who live at the moated Tudor manor house of Hindringham Hall in Norfolk, have an added incentive to welcome visitors back to their grounds: Hindringham is one of eight historic gardens to have been shortlisted for the 2020 Historic Houses Garden of the Year Award, sponsored by Christie’s, whose winner is decided on by the votes of members of Historic Houses and the general public. Hindringham’s gardens have been accessible since last week (27 May), though a strict one-way system has been imposed to ensure social distancing and the tearoom must remain shut.

This prestigious annual garden prize has been awarded since 1984. Past winners include Blenheim Palace, which will reopen its park and gardens to the general public from Saturday 6 June, and Newby Hall in Yorkshire – previously home to Lord Grantham and the model for ‘Downton Abbey’ – which is the current title holder and will reopen tomorrow (3 June for season ticket holders and 6 June for the general public).

Painshill Park, Surrey, another nominee for the prize, opened last week (28 May), and is now allowing any holder of a pre-booked ticket to enjoy its immaculately restored eighteenth-century pleasure grounds, studded with eccentric grottos such as Turkish tents, gothic temples, and Chinese bridges.

While the return of visitors could be a lifeline to heritage sites that have been devastated by the loss of half a season’s income, there’s still huge caution from owners to avoid the disease spreading and creating a ‘second spike’. Public safety is absolutely paramount. Historic Houses have issued guidance for their member gardens, and measures being taken across newly opened gardens include, as appropriate, limits on numbers, requirements to book timed tickets in advance of visiting, one way routes, expansions of carparking and picnicking areas to allow for social distancing, and the opening up of previously blocked paths or routes to avoid bottlenecks.

Indoor facilities such as cafes remain closed. Lavatories are also still shut in many places, with the need for special sanitisation routines and social distancing often making it impractical to operate them safely.  With no income for months and takings unlikely to get back to pre-crisis levels for some time, many places have had to furlough staff whose jobs are funded by visiting; many owners are terrified at the problems that may be in store from the reduction in vital repairs and maintenance that the crisis has forced on them.

One attraction trying to serve the public’s appetite for outdoor access as best it can, though, is Hole Park in Kent, which has been open since 23 May and is doing a ‘roaring trade,’ according to owner Edward Barham. While customers are not allowed inside his tearoom, he is offering a take-out service; as long as the weather holds visitors coming to view his ancient parkland and colourful seasonal gardens enjoy eating their meals spaced out on the grass. ‘I’m busier than the same period last year,’ Edward says, suggesting the lockdown may have left Britons desperate for the typical summer-holiday activities of cream teas and stately home snooping.

Knebworth House near Stevenage, home to Historic Houses Deputy President Martha Lytton Cobbold and husband Henry, tells the same story. Her strict cap of 200 pre-booked visitors each morning and afternoon sold out within hours of her grounds opening yesterday, and with no sign of demand easing up, getting in looks to be one of the hottest tickets in town. ‘It’s worked a treat,’ Martha said. We’ve plenty of sanitiser outlets, social distance signage, and visi-vested monitors to reassure visitors. It was a delight to see people in the gardens again, and they were thoroughly delighted to be there. The visitors and the staff had a fabulous day!’


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