Cricket St Thomas used to be a safari park and the infamous home of Noel’s House Party. Now Mr Blobby and the exotic animals have all gone home, leaving behind a beautiful, rolling country park and a new kind of stylish family lodge holiday, says Emily Shelley.
If you’re old enough to be reading an article about holidays with kids, chances are you’re old enough to remember Noel’s House Party. When the Saturday night TV ratings winner reached its peak in the late 90s, one enterprising Somerset country estate signed up to become the ‘House’ of the ‘Party’. It proved to be a costly mistake.
The fallout for Cricket St Thomas led to the sale of the hotel, a legal battle with Noel Edmonds and the eventual closure of its safari park.
Now, nearly 15 years on from its brush with Mr Blobby, the next generation of the Taylor family, who own the estate, have transformed it into a peaceful, natural and gimmick-free zone.
We’re staying at Swandown Lodges, a small, intimate collection of luxury lodges at the top of the estate. The exotic animals may have all been re-homed, but the lush green parkland they grazed is still open for exploration, rolling gently down beyond our balcony towards Dorset, and a tiny sliver of blue sea.
Swandown is owned and run by the Taylors, who still farm the land at Cricket St Thomas, but it operates under the Hoseasons brand, Evermore.
We’ve stayed in Hoseasons lodge resorts before, but this is the first time we’ve experienced one of the six new destinations designed for families.
There are only seven lodges available for holiday hire, of varying sizes. A few others are privately owned. Ours is one of a row of chalet-style additions, with an upside-down layout that maximises the beautiful view from the living area.
It’s light, airy and obviously five-star inside, with a high-chair, stairgate and cot assembled and waiting on our arrival. Other lodges are set apart, many with their own hot-tubs on the deck, so you can put the kids to bed and watch the meandering sheep in secluded, bubbly style.
It’s quiet here; relaxed and open. There’s a warm, safe indoor pool you can let yourself into at any time of the day, a games room with plenty to borrow, and a shed full of new bikes of all sizes, which you can sign in and out whenever you like.
The adventure trail in the woods uses fallen trees to create climbing and balancing challenges for children of all ages, and like everything else here it’s naturally, carefully done.
You could happily pass a weekend ambling about the estate on bike or foot, or, like us, kite-flying in the windy sunshine... but the coast is a lot nearer than you think.
It took us just 25 minutes to drive down to Lyme Regis and Charmouth for beach days; a little further to Beer for Devon-style fish and chips on the pebbles at sundown.
Of course, Somerset has its own attractions, not least of which is cider. Perry’s cider farm is only a couple of miles from Swandown and surely one of the prettiest spots in England.
You can look around the 16th century beamed barns and marvel at the original cider presses (still in use) before sampling today’s brew on picnic tables among the apple trees. Even thimblefuls were enough to lift the spirits, so take it easy.
The cellar stocked, you’ll need to head to Crewkerne to pick up local cheeses (including Somerset Brie and the obligatory Cheddar) at Number 5 The Deli.
Cricket St Thomas is halfway between Crewkerne and Chard, but the latter has little to recommend it, other than a Tesco and a decent Indian takeaway. But Crewkerne is perfect for pottering around the bookshops and art shops that crowd the narrow pavements.
There’s a waymarked walk that leads up behind the town hall that’s worth a burst of effort to the top of Bincombe Hill, where a wooded nature reserve gives way to glorious views north across the Quantocks, Poldens and Mendip hills, and a large open space invites dogs and children to run about with glee.
Forde Abbey, just a few miles away and across the border into Dorset, is a must-visit, and the short drive through sleepy villages and narrow, overgrown lanes to get there is a treat in itself. This huge monastery-turned-stately home appears quite suddenly at a bend in the lane, looking as if it had slept through the last eight centuries in a forgotten corner.
If you can’t drag your children round the interior, just duck into the chapel for a taste of the calm, ancient atmosphere within the monastic section of the house. The majestic state rooms, created in the 17th century, are the ultimate contrast if you do get chance.
Kids won’t need any persuading to stand in line for a splashing from the highest-powered fountain in England, which towers 160 feet over the lake and forces chilly squeals out of all who dare to step too near. And there are treasure hunts and activity trails to follow around the vast gardens.
Back at base, Cricket St Thomas still boasts the train ride that used to transport visitors around the hippo lake. It’s now a good way to explore the gardens near the main house, which is a 20-minute, buggy-friendly walk down paved paths from Swandown.
The house is now a Warner hotel and off limits for children, though adults have complimentary use of the leisure centre. Families have free rein of the grounds, which are for the most part re-born - though you still see the odd, eerie sign directing you to the empty bat cave or missing meercats.
Bigger train thrills for bigger kids can be found slightly further afield at Pecorama in Beer (based at the factory making Peco trains), which has model railways, adventure playgrounds, a circus tent and forts galore.
Axe Valley Wildlife Gardens are not far away either, and then there’s always Longleat. But visiting the safari park at Cricket St Thomas’s erstwhile rival feels like a dirty pleasure when you’re staying here. It’s a glimpse of what they might have had - the crowds, the queues and doubtless the dosh.
Thank heavens they didn’t. Instead Swandown offers something much finer - natural beauty, open space and a real holiday.
Travel facts - Somerset
Emily Shelley stayed in Netherhaye Lodge at Swandown Lodges, Somerset, part of the Evermore Lodge Holiday Collection, courtesy of Hoseasons.
Accommodation consists of lodges sleeping four to six. A week’s stay at Swandown Lodges starts from £485 and short breaks start from £275.
For more information about holidaying with Hoseasons in the UK and in Europe call 0844 847 1100 or visit www.hoseasons.co.uk