Everything about our return visit to Uppark yesterday was unexpected. Of course we were immediately struck by its unique beauty when we visited a couple of months ago – how could we not be? But returning was like a second date during which it suddenly hits you that this is the start of a love affair. Spring has been stumbling on unconvincingly for some time, but yesterday gained a new intensity and that was reflected in a difference in light and colour at Uppark. The greens were greener, the lawns were softer, the texture of the borders was totally changed. Where our first time at Uppark was dazzling, now we were able to relax and breathe it in.
One of the great things about a return visit is that, having got the lay of the land last time, we were under no pressure to cover every inch again and instead could take it at our own pace. Or, more accurately speaking, at our two year old’s pace which seems to be the only way to sanity at the moment. So with this in mind, and playing to the amazing spring day, our visit was completely spent in the gardens. Well, that is if you don’t count the tunnels, because it would be tantamount to child cruelty not to make use of the remarkable underground network that HG Wells inhabited as a boy, and which apparently inspired his Time Machine. There is something very magical about secret rooms, and this part of Uppark alone would be a draw, with its bat roosts, echoey chambers and beautiful ventilation shafts peeping out at ground level, like giant walkie-talkies. Its cool shadows are a total contrast to the warm business of the gardens, and a reminder of the industry at work ‘below stairs’ servicing the great house in times gone by.
But first there was important hill-rolling to be done. As luck would have it Katie (2) had discovered hill-rolling the previous day, which she was keen to showcase, and the first feature of the landscape as you pass through Uppark’s golden-tipped gates is a hill. We used the trail to gently guide us around the garden, but the largest chunk of our time was devoted to the huge meadow in front of the house which looks out over the South Downs. Just breath-taking, and from this angle the house looks like an extraordinary doll’s house dropped into the countryside. In a brilliant piece of positioning, the meadow is equipped with an outdoor toy box, which kept the children entertained for hours. We discovered that Harry looks a bit of a natural behind a cricket bat (so my husband tells me). And it was the perfect location for Charlotte to work on her cartwheels and handstands. But the thing about meandering around Uppark is that you feel compelled to stop and sit in so many places, and each of them has such a beautiful new perspective that it’s difficult to keep moving!
By late afternoon, and interspersed with essential refuelling at the café – taken outside – we headed over to watch the final Punch and Judy show. This was something of a gamble since Katie is not known for her focus or stillness, and I was unsure how well a puppet show would compare with Peppa Pig. But fairly astoundingly she was mesmerised, and was rewarded with an impressively convincing balloon pig from the kind puppeteers’ assistant. Harry, stayed loyal to Star Wars and went for a light-sabre sword, while Charlotte – girl power & that, but still a little unpredictably – chose a machine gun! Serious ballooning. Harry (5) later had a concerned chat to me about Punch being rather rough, especially with the baby (he loves babies), which made me wonder how much puppets have a real physical presence to children? The girls took it totally at slapstick value, and were in hysterics. I noticed Harry watched it very seriously, but quickly went into a social laugh when one of his sisters glanced at him, a separateness that I recognise in myself. But I digress … It was fascinating to watch the audience as much as anything, and an impressive feat these days to hold a mixed age group totally rapt for half an hour. The setting, in a nook in the scented garden was also inspired and made it feel like a room tucked away from the rest of Uppark.
Although we hadn’t planned it, this weekend was the launch of the National Trust’s ’50 things to do before you’re 11¾ ‘ campaign, and living close enough to Mottisfont to drop in for a couple of hours, we’d kick-started this the previous day. So Charlotte (7, The Organiser) had already had a chance to study the booklet and set her mind on the particular missions to be completed in Uppark. This was to be grass trumpeting and bug hunting – she had packed a rucksack and everything! By the end of the day – and using a bit of retrospective licence – I was reliably informed that we were now 18 items down. Some of these adventures are rather more ambitious/age-reliant than others – for example, making a daisy chain versus learning to ride a horse, so I suspect there will be some variation in how dutifully these scrapbooks are completed. But for now they are a total hit, and list ticking being indeed what lights the older two’s fires .
Despite arriving not long after 11 we were dragging our feet by 5 o’clock reluctant to be leaving. Katie quite literally. Somehow time seems to work differently in Uppark, although the chiming of the clock tower is a gentle reminder of the outside world. An absolutely perfect day to end the bank holiday weekend, and as we floated back home, not a single child bickered in the car. Now that you can’t buy. Thank-you to everyone at Uppark for creating such a special place.
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