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14th July 2020

You never realise how much you love something until there’s a risk it might be lost to you. I felt keenly the lack of visits to bluebell woods and to Northamptonshire’s wonderful formal gardens in May and early June. Wide open spaces where you can wander and wonder without getting too close to other visitors are my absolute favourites. I missed that freedom so much, especially as our county has such a rich choice of places to go, either as a paying visitor, or gloriously for free.

Since the cautious and gradual reopening in July I’ve been visiting as many places as I can whilst staying safe. The great news is that outside seems to be the safest place to have some fun, either with those in your ‘bubble’, or distantly meeting up with friends whilst a couple of metres apart. And I am rediscovering the joys of eating outside (no calories obvs!) either a picnic, or something from a takeaway café. I’ve even got the Thermos down from the loft, and dusted off the camping chairs. All such fun!

So where to go? Here are some of my favourite places open so far, and some on my shortlist for the near future.

My favourite place for a regular visit, Canons Ashby near Daventry, is a National Trust property. It’s currently the only one open in Northamptonshire and pre-booking is essential, even for members. The gardens are not their usual manicured perfection, but they have such a windblown charm, and the tiny team currently managing the property, and the free ranging hens offer the warmest welcome. The hens will also offer to eat your picnic too (just say no, and eat it yourself!)

It was hot around the summer Solstice, and I was in need of a shady wander in a suitably mystical environment. I decided to revisit a fabulous place on the outskirts of town. Hunsbury Hill near Danescamp is an ancient site, with archaeological finds going back thousands of years. Huge trees and grassland surround the hillfort. Its Iron Age ramparts enclose a circular meadow creating a miniature world of peace and quiet, with a real sense of escape from the modern world. I love this place in every season, and with no booking or entry fee, free parking and lots of ideal picnic spots it is well worth a visit.

For a complete contrast, and for those who love to admire the hard work of others, Coton Manor Gardens are unbeatable, literally. They have just won the ‘Nation’s Favourite Garden’ as voted for by the readers of ‘English Garden Magazine’ and the NGS (National Garden Scheme). I visited in the rain, and it was glorious. The magnificent flamingos were competition for the immaculately manicured beds and borders. The heady fragrance from the wonderful typically English planting scheme rolls around the many levels of this garden set of a gentle slope with tumbling water flowing into a pool next to a pretty woodland. And there’s an opportunity to buy home grown plants, and a takeaway café with hot drinks and treats available.

Wonderful Wickies, AKA Wicksteed Park, has been in the news recently, and we all wish it the very best for its future. It’s such an asset to the county, and it has been part of my family history over the years. Its open for a wander around the 147 acres of stunning parkland and the lake, the free playground and the loos are open too. The best news is that the Carousel Café and the Ice Cream Parlour is open for takeaway. There’s no ice cream quite like it! Yummy!

If 500 acres of free-to-wander parkland is your thing, and you live in Northampton, then don’t forget that Delapre Abbey is handy for a great breath of fresh air. You can now visit the walled garden (with pre-booking) and there’s the Orangery café for takeaways. I’ve just heard that Delapre Abbey and the Northampton Filmhouse are offering a fantastic Drive-In Cinema from 23 rd July – 9th August with some brilliant movies. Its our wedding anniversary on one of the dates, so I’m planning on surprising my old man with a safe night out…but shhh, it’s a secret…

Rockingham Castle is a wonderful drive out of town. The castle itself looks like a castle should look, with towers and battlements and all sorts. It’s a photographer’s dream, with endless views, and perfect for a special visit. Pre-book, pack a picnic, and visit midweek for a real treat. I’m going next week, and I can’t wait. I’ve been seeing all the Facebook posts and the gardens and grounds are looking ravishing at the moment. I love the watery wonderland of Stanwick Lakes. There is always something so calming about water, something we need in these strange times. The site is so large that even when its busy, there’s room to maintain the social distance. Although the visitor centre is closed the outdoor kiosk and loos are open, and the paths all around the site are so inviting. The birds and waterfowl are particularly wonderful. Go early to make sure of your parking and to see the most birdlife.

There are some very special places reopening very soon:

Check the website for Boughton, open (outside only) from 1 st August with its mile of lime trees, and formal gardens, ancient and modern. I love the ‘Grand Etang’ the huge fountain, and the mysterious ‘Orpheus’ coiling deep into the ground.

Holdenby House is planning to open (outside only) on Sundays in August and September, I love this place with its massive sense of family history. It also has modern works of art which reflect the taste of the current owner. Connie’s Tea Parlour will be open for takeaways too, it will be such a treat!

Always check the websites for opening times and any pre-booking before you go. Don’t forget your picnic folks! Leave nothing but footprints, and take nothing but happy memories.

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