In the name of full disclosure, I have to admit that when it comes to Forde Abbey, I am biased.
Having lived just up the road, it has been the location for many of the iconic events in my children’s early childhoods; crawling on the lawns, rolling down the grassy banks, playgroup Easter Egg Hunts in the arboretum, toddling round the walled garden, and even the rite of passage of most Thorncombe children – falling headfirst into a stream in the bog garden. In February.
You won’t find an indoor soft play area, an adventure playground or even a basic climbing frame, but young children seem to love the freedom to run about on the lawns, explore the secret paths and see the gigantic fountain, which makes huge rainbows on a sunny day. At 160ft, this is the tallest powered fountain in England. There is a children’s pack available from the gift shop, and a letter boxing trail around the gardens to keep the children’s interest. The paths are very pushchair friendly, and the many benches make ideal chatting spots if you manage to get a baby to sleep on the way round!
Forde Abbey is a former Cistercian monastery, founded in the 12th Century, and set in a 1600 acre estate. It is surrounded by quiet, gentle countryside and it’s fabulous gardens, which bring thousands of visitors every year. In fact, I was speaking to someone this morning who came all the way from Boston to see Dorset gardens, and this was top of his list.
Privately owned, the family also run the farm, including the prestigious Forde Abbey herd of pedigree Devon Ruby Red cattle which are usually to be spotted grazing in the parkland beyond the gardens. Their fruit farm just along the road is a great attraction in summer, and well worth a trip for anyone who loves a summer pudding or a bit of jam-making.
There are lots of seasonal events on this year, from the tulip festival (now until 15th May), the Summer Fair on 28th July, an open-air production of As You Like it on 2nd August and even a re-enactment of the Monmouth Rebellion on the August Bank Holiday weekend, where you will be able to watch battles, handle armour and weaponry, talk to the soldiers and see the sights, sounds and smells of campaign life. The Summer Fair is very popular, with lots of classic cars, falconry displays, lots of local crafts and a brilliant array of food at the farmer’s market.
If you are a garden lover you will love it, and if you’re not a garden lover, you will still love it. You can’ t fail to be impressed by the walled kitchen garden, and the rest of the garden somehow strikes just the right balance, with pretty alpine areas, big blousy colourful borders and slightly shaggy, natural areas of meadow and quiet corners. See the website for specific times, prices etc, and all the things I haven’t got space for! (House, pottery exhibition, tea room, fantastic plant nursery etc etc).
I think what I love most about Forde Abbey is the way it somehow manages to be special, without being precious. I urge you to get down there and start making some memories and milestones of your own.