Outing to Woodchester Mansion

The coach left Marlow early in the morning with the passengers shivering and in a state of shock – for the first time in weeks something wet called rain had fallen from the skies and the forecast was for temperatures of less than 30o. Long forgotten articles of clothing such as cardigans and rain jackets had been brought out of the backs of wardrobes.

We were pleased to have Darren at the helm to steer the coach safely over the bridge in the very pretty Cotswold village of Bibury. Everyone was so prompt and traffic was so light, there was some danger of reaching our coffee stop before the kettle had boiled. Despite Daren driving slowly we still arrived early at The Village Inn, Barnsley but were welcomed straight in for coffee and biscuits, which we enjoyed outside in the courtyard until a sharp shower brought the break to a sudden end.

The coach could only take us within a mile of our ultimate destination. A few walked the rest of the way, but most travelled down the rough and rutted track in two minibuses operated by volunteers. And there it was, Woodchester Mansion, nestling in a beautiful wooded valley. We were divided in two for our guided tours of the house. The house was ‘built’ in the neo gothic style by William Leigh. He had been converted to Catholicism and seemed to want to convert the Cotswolds, using his fortune to build a monastery and church in a local village before beginning work on Woodchester in the mid 1850s.

The outside was magnificent with huge gargoyles projecting from the upper levels and evidence of the French influence on the local architect Benjamin Bucknall. It was not until you stepped inside that you realised the real difference about Woodchester - it was never completed. Building work stopped sometime after 1865 – probably because funds ran out but there is still some mystery as to why. There was no plaster on the walls and no floors in the upper storeys but you could see the fireplaces and fittings in place on every level, even copper piping ready for the bell pulls to summon the servants. It had to be stressed that it is not a ruin, just an example of Victorian craftsmanship in progress, giving an excellent opportunity to study techniques of the time.

The house was finally abandoned by the family in 1923 and was used for a number of purposes until Stroud District Council finally purchased it in 1986 to save it from ruin. They also purchased the surrounding pasture where cattle graze and provide dung for the insects that provide food for the lesser and greater horseshoe bats that use the house as a maternity roost. The Woodchester Mansion Trust was formed in 1989 to manage the house and in 1994 the National Trust bought the surrounding woods and parkland, securing the magical location of the property.

After our tour those who hadn’t brought their own picnics were provided with a picnic lunch box (there was some disappointment that we did not have the promised buffet lunch). Afterwards there was time for further exploration of the House, a visit to the bat observatory with webcams showing live pictures of the bats in their roost, or a brisk stroll to the lakes further down the valley. We then took the minibuses back to the coach, apart from two intrepid ladies who walked back up the hill.

On leaving we found we were locked in the parking area but luckily before the phone call for help was answered somebody appeared who knew the padlock code to open the gate. A smooth journey home – thank you Darren. Thank you also to Sue for arranging the day, with all its complicated timings, transport and refreshment components.

Jane Bailey