It must be tough owning a large country house in these parts. Not only do you have to open to the public but you have to try very hard to persuade the great unwashed to visit your pile and not the other chap’s.
Luca and I used to go to Penshurst Place a lot. His nursery was right next door and we would drive past two or three times a week. A season ticket to the gardens for one adult and one child was £42.00. That seemed like excellent value. We’d go to the adventure playground most weeks and Luca would make friends and run around for an hour or two and I’d sit and read while he did.
Yesterday we went to another local attraction, Groombridge Place. With Penshurst the main draws are a sprawling aristocratic pile with mediaeval origins, stunning formal gardens and a well thought out adventure playground.
Groombridge Place is an altogether more modest house, which is, in any case, closed to visitors. The gardens, compared with those at Penshurst, are nothing to write home about – charming yes but you’d never use the superlatives that its near neighbour invites.
It’s not cheap to get in. During holidays and weekends an adult is £9.95 and a child £8.45. However even though the car park seemed full the grounds didn’t seem too crowded. Groombridge Place sells itself as a destination for families and the main draw is what it has branded as The Enchanted Forest.
The ‘forest’ is a great sweep of woodland dotted with play areas; some substantial, others no more than indulgences by designers looking for effect on a budget. You can walk there from the house in 10 or 15 minutes or pay £1.50 (children £1.00) to ride on a little boat along a canal.
The best of the play areas is probably the first one you come to as you enter the forest; Crusoe’s world consists of two platforms around trees with rope bridges between them, some shelters decorated with skeletons and a huge old rowing boat.
Nearby is the ‘Grom Village’, again shelters and a swing, and as you want further into the forest you find a pterodactyl statue, a wicker dragon and a standing stone. Further up the valley are a spiral monument, a ‘sacred pool’, a serpent’s lair and a web built by spiders from Mars; Groombridge mixes its mythology borrowing (rather ham fistedly) from Tolkein, Rowling and David Bowie and as a result it all feels very ersatz. The wood itself is beautiful – all the attempts to bolt-on cod-mysticism rather feel like gilding the lily.
I ended up feeling that they cast around for what they could lay their hands on and arranged it through the woods without enough thought given to playability. The fun to be had here is mainly about exploring rather than because the woods are a stimulus to imaginative play. Indeed less could be more. If we go again I’d rather Luca was with friends. He might get more out of it.
However there are other things at Groombridge; animals, birds of prey and, during the summer, organised activities. This week there was a water theme. Luca went water zorbing. There was a bit of a queue and the session was quite short but it was probably enough and it was fun. The staff seemed pretty jolly and were good with the children.
What did grate was the price of food and snacks. A magnum ice cream, normally around £1.50, was a wallet gouging £2.80. A £1.00 lolly was marked up to £1.80. It’s the kind of thing that mainly serves to create ill will. Few of us begrudge prices a little higher in attractions than on the high street. No one likes outright greed.