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May 09

Days Out: The Wonder Woods & Gardens of Stonor Park, Henley-on-Thames

Stonor Park and Wonder Woods, Henley-on-Thames

My first encounter with Stonor Park was in pre-baby days. My husband and I set out on a walk starting from just outside the impressively grand gates. We climed through the gorgeous deer park overlooking the house on the Shakespeare Way and continuing over the ridge of the hill beyond on to Turville. We returned via an impromptu but lengthy wine tasting session at Chiltern Valley Winery & Brewery. When we finally loped back to our car,  our rucksack was clinking promisingly. It was the start of a fondness for this picture-perfect stretch of Chiltern countryside that has only strengthened with time. 

About Stonor Park

Stonor Park & Estate has been the private residence of the Stonor Family for more than 850 years. The house has a long history which is open regularly throughout the more clement months of the year for visitors to explore for themselves. Whether it’s the prehistoric stone circle on which the chapel was built (and from which the house takes its name) or the priest hole that tells of a turbulent time when Tudor England turned against the Catholic faith, there is something to interest historians of all ages.

Stonor Park and Wonder Woods, Henley-on-Thames

The gorgeous spring gardens of Stonor Park.

Our visit this spring was to test out for ourselves the fairly recently installed Wonder Woods adventure playground. I’d seen promotional material following their opening some time ago and loved the look of the natural style play equipment. I must admit that the charge for adults initially put me off. If I’m paying entry to an adventure playground I at least expect to be able to have a go on the zip-wire myself! At Stonor Park I was definitely not going to pass for the playgrounds upper age limit of fifteen…

Visiting Stonor Park

Eventually my curiosity got the better of me. On a bank holiday weekend in May the children, Granny and I found ourselves pulling up through those grand gates of Stonor Park. The estate looked as inviting as ever – a rolling green bowl of grass and trees with the famous ancient herd of fallow deer watching us sedately from their lofty lookout on the hillside as we meandered up the long driveway.

Entry to the Wonder Woods cost us £22 for two adults and three children. I later realised they had erroneously included our 7 month old as one of the children. 0-2 year olds are free according to the website. A family ticket for two adults and two children should only be £18.For the correct number of people though, given this included entry to the gardens also, I didn’t think it was too bad value. Entry to the house is extra.

Stonor Park and Wonder Woods, Henley-on-Thames

Yet another viewpoint from the formal gardens.

If you are a local family you can also get a season ticket from £40 an adult and £24 for a child of 5 or over. That’s pretty good if you use it as a weekly drop-in for a fun-filled few hours with some grown-up interest thrown in too. Do check the prices though – according to the Stonor Park website prices it is currently cheaper to pay for two children and an adult season ticket separately than their family package for one adult and two children! 

Stonor Park and Wonder Woods, Henley-on-Thames

Oh the delights of a Tractor Ted inflatable. Ours don’t even watch Tractor Ted. Apparently it was still really cool.

When we visited Stonor Park there was a special Tractor Ted event on. Thankfully Stonor Park management had decided not to charge extra for entry to the Tractor Ted inflatable or to do the Tractor Ted treasure hunt trail. Too often family attractions mar a lovely day out by placing paid temptations prominently after you’ve already paid for entry resulting in constant nagging from children and distraction from the main reason of the visit. I’m so glad Stonor Park did not fall into this commercial trap. In fact the entire experience at Stonor Park still felt to me fairly small scale and welcoming.

The Wonder Woods

The Wonder Woods were our first stop and impressed me. It was a much more spacious play area than first appeared from the car park, sprawling up a grassy hillside and with play equipment well spread out throughout the grounds. It was definitely still an adventure playground though, albeit a very lovely one. The name of Wonder Woods had half conjured up a kind of hybrid free-range woodland play and exploration zone that had called to me.

Stonor Park and Wonder Woods, Henley-on-Thames

The sand pit and some of baby area of the Wonder Woods.

The play kit itself is varied and well thought out with much of it made out of natural materials in keeping with the lovely setting. Areas of shade were present throughout the park, with plenty of natural resting places for perching parents and family picnics. More tree saplings dot the grounds and the landscaping really attractive. I wouldn’t be surprised if more kit is added at a later date though there is already plenty to do here. This would be a cool, pleasant place to wile away a summer’s afternoon. 

Roo and Beth didn’t make it much beyond the first set of equipment in the Wonder Woods for considerable time. A giant sand pit area is home to a water play installation. They spent ages pumping water and directing it down wooden channels. Best of all it eventually drips onto the sand, creating perfect castle building conditions. Ingeniously, the flow of water is enough to be interesting but not enough to totally drench your child. Someone familiar with little people has thought this through! The sandpit also plays host to a climbing frame with pulleys and buckets attached to transport the sand up and down. It’s enough to keep both smallest and oldest of children entertained in the same space – no small feat. 

Stonor Park and Wonder Woods, Henley-on-Thames

The rope bridge to the tree-house slide.

There is some limited baby equipment available. Bear enjoyed the discs, toddler swings and various other bits although I’d say your child would need to be three or above to really get the most out of a good cross-section of a play equipment. Equipment for slightly older children is cleverly managed by being harder to access for smaller people – the treehouse slide for instance, requires balancing on ropes or climbing up a wobbly rope ladder. For Roo, at five,  it presented just enough of a challenge. For Beth, at three, it was only her sheer determination to not be outdone by her big sister that helped her to scramble up a course that outwardly appeared doomed to defeat her. 

Stonor Park and Wonder Woods, Henley-on-Thames

Den building in the Wonder Woods.

The long zip wire, den building area and tunnels into the hill were all hits with the girls too. We spent a good happy hour or so in the Wonder Woods before managing to persuade the girls to leave to explore the gardens. They would have stayed there happily for over double that. 

Stonor Park’s Secret Gardens

The gardens at Stonor Park are an unexpected delight. They are tucked away behind the house in a series of secret garden ‘rooms’ accessed through wooden doors reminiscent of Frances Hodgeson Burnet’s novel of the same name.

Stonor Park and Wonder Woods, Henley-on-Thames

The gardens of Stonor Park

Unlike some formal gardens, those at Stonor Park are equally as appealing to children to explore as for adults. Roo and Beth kneeled down with their noses practically in the two ponds to examine the mass of tadpoles inside, took off exploring through the many ‘secret passageways’ of hedging corridors and raced to find the next ‘secret garden’ door. For the grown ups it was a treat for the senses with the tumbling clematis hideaway, the variety of gorgeous shade-loving plants and the many gorgeous view points being amongst my personal favourites. Oh to have such a garden…!

Stonor Park and Wonder Woods, Henley-on-Thames

Cascading clematis in the formal gardens.

After thorough exploration the girls were getting hungry. Unfortunately despite trying twice, there was no room in the gorgeous looking tea rooms. We were forced to retreat home a little earlier than planned and without time to explore the parkland or revisit the Wonder Woods. It was bank holiday (although it didn’t feel unpleasantly busy) and the tea rooms are tiny, so hardly surprising. You live and learn.

Stonor Park and Wonder Woods, Henley-on-Thames

Exploring the secret gardens of Stonor.

Next time we visit Stonor Park we will come when it’s not so busy or bring a picnic. I’d also love to try one of the many alfresco events held in the park during the year – everything from open air cinema to concerts! It is definitely somewhere I will be revisiting. The children are already begging to return, the house is still to be explored, and the tea rooms aren’t going to escape me that easily! Did I mention there are also some footpaths calling my name…?!

For more information about visiting Stonor Park and up-to-date events, admission times and prices, please visit their website. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 comments

  1. Christine

    I’ve seen this advertised lots recently. It caught my eye as it is for up to 15 year olds and being 12 and 14 my children are past the usual age for this kind of thing. Do you think it works for older children?

    1. Kate Limburn

      I think it depends on how youthful your children are still…I remember being very put out at being kicked out of adventure playgrounds when I reached 12 & would have happily played in them still. We saw a huge crows nest style climbing kit which looks aimed at the tweens and teens but it was closed when we visited and didnt investigate closely as ours would have been way too little. I think I would say there is enough for a tween or teen visiting with younger siblings or as a quick add on to a wider visit to gardens, house and estate but not perhaps for a visit in their own right. It is still an adventure playground, albeit a very nice one, rather than a big ‘experience’ the name suggests to me.

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