Pat’s passion gives her village group a great time travelling

After a refreshing cuppa in the Bat’s Wing Olde English Tearooms at Godshill on the Isle of Wight.

After a refreshing cuppa in the Bat’s Wing Olde English Tearooms at Godshill on the Isle of Wight.

Super-enthusiastic Pat King has turned her retirement into an opportunity to arrange group trips for her village in Cambridgeshire.

Pat King.

Pat King.

Pat King officially became a GTO in 2000, when she retired, and found that she’d already learnt many of the skills required for organising trips and short breaks during her career as a teacher and youth leader. As Outings Organiser for Buckden Friends, Pat’s programme includes approximately 10 day trips a year, as well as two five-day short breaks. Her group is made up of around 100 members drawn from Buckden Women’s Institute (WI) and friends from the village in Cambridgeshire, about six miles south of Huntingdon. Pat is helped by her husband, Brian, a retired electronics engineer and explains, ‘I couldn’t do it without Brian’s support; he shares the burden of organising the trips and is great at looking after people when we are away, making sure everyone is happy.’


Pat and Brian in New Zealand.

Pat and Brian in New Zealand.

When Pat and Brian retired, they decided that travel would be a key part of their new life and have since spent a lot of time exploring the world. One of their most exciting adventures together was in 2006 when they travelled to Australia from the UK, on a nine-month overland trek. They bring their love of discovery and of experiencing new places to organising trips for the Buckden community.

Joining Buckden WI in 2000, Pat discovered that the group rarely went on outings, so one of the first things she did was to organise one! This was for around 30 members to a recording of This is Your Life at the BBC TV studios in London, with actress Anita Dobson as the guest of honour. It was much enjoyed by the group and Pat found she had made a new role for herself as Outings Organiser! The success of the trip led to more days out and, as word spread through Buckden, Pat found that non-WI members wanted to come along too. Nowadays, the expanded group is called Buckden Friends. In the process, the WI recruited more members to its monthly meetings and activities, and it now has a healthy base of 70 people. ‘Word of mouth and personal contact are the best way to expand a group,’ Pat says and she continues, ‘I think there is a real demand for group excursions – both for days out and longer breaks. Many people, especially women, do not want to travel on their own and getting together with friends is the perfect alternative. If you are struggling for numbers for a trip, I recommend inviting other people in your local community to join in, as I am sure this will have a very positive effect.’ She assesses her contribution to the WI and Buckden Friends as one of an enabler. ‘I want to enable people to do things or to get involved in ways they might otherwise not have done, so that they can live their lives to the full.’


The Day trip programme Pat ensures that the annual programme includes variety – both in places visited and in timings. During the year, there are weekday and weekend trips, and day and evening itineraries so that people who work can also take part. Generally around 35 members go on the trips, which are around 90 minutes travel time from Buckden, although occasionally the group goes further. For example, the group has recently been to Down House in Kent. This English Heritage-owned property is the former home of Charles Darwin and the group were thrilled to walk in his footsteps on the Sandwalk – Darwin’s famous thinking path – and see hothouses with carnivorous plants and exotic orchids, as well as tour the house. In the afternoon, the group went to another English Heritage property, Lullingstone Roman Villa, where there were dressing-up opportunities!

Pat always includes a refreshment stop on the way out and on the return journey. ‘This is a key element of the day, and members who have been on trips with other groups often come back complaining that there were no stops for a cuppa,’ she says. Pat chooses a variety of places for these short stops such as factory outlet stores, an interesting small town or a National Trust property, and avoids motorway service station stops. She says, ‘We often stop at a Wetherspoons, which offer good value for money and are in interesting buildings such as old post offices.’ The tea stop on the outward journey is particularly important, as it allows new members to meet the group and for bonding to begin; the same is true of the lunch stop at the start of a five-day trip.

The group learn about chocolate making at Hotel Chocolat.

The group learn about chocolate making at Hotel Chocolat.

Many of Pat’s trips include a fun element, reflecting her and Brian’s passion for trying new and different activities, but it’s an approach that is al­so much appreciated by her members. Hands-on experiences are popular and these have included chocolate making with Hotel Chocolat in Huntingdon. Pat says, ‘We had an excellent time here and felt like royalty! We came away with generous goodie bags.’ The group also enjoyed an evening trip to Edible Ornamentals, a chilli farm at Chawston in Bedfordshire. ‘It was a very well organised visit,’ Pat says. She also favours factory visits but these, she notes, are harder to book than they used to be because fewer sites now offer tours – either because they no longer produce goods in the UK or safety legislation has become too restrictive.

Like many GTOs, Pat tries to add value to each of her trips, to make sure there’s a benefit to going as a group that couldn’t be accessed by visiting on your own, such as a guided tour or a ‘meet and greet’ at the beginning of a visit. As she explains, a cheery greeting and a brief talk is an invaluable way that an attraction can add that ‘little something special’ to a visit. Some attractions only offer tours to groups – such as the gardens of Buckingham Palace and Cutlers Hall in Sheffield.

The group on a visit to the Sikh temple in Peterborough.

The group on a visit to the Sikh temple in Peterborough.

Other notable visits have been to a Sikh temple and to a mosque – both in Peterborough. ‘On each occasion we were made to feel very welcome,’ Pat says. ‘It was very interesting to have an insight into these religions and their traditions. After sitting on the floor for over an hour at the temple, some of the group needed aid standing up, but there were plenty of helping hands!’ she jokes.

Coming up for the group this year is a day trip to Norfolk, to the Davenports Magic Kingdom in North Walsham, followed by the RAF Air Defence Radar Museum in Horning. Whenever possible, Pat researches itineraries by pre-visiting an attraction to check the quality of what’s on offer and to make sure it will be suitable for the group. She also notes any steps or inclines that might cause a problem for her less active members. ‘This promises to be an exciting trip,’ she says. ‘I went on a familiarisation trip organised by the museum and was delighted in what I saw, and I am really pleased to support the Davenports in their new family business. The Radar Museum was fascinating too. It will be an early start for the group but it should be a ‘magical’ day out.’ The Davenports Magic Kingdom is part museum, with a large collection of magic-related memorabilia, and part show – with a 30-minute live magic show included. The Davenport family has been involved with magical entertainment since 1898.


The group in Llandudno, North Wales.

The group in Llandudno, North Wales.

The May break for the group (see panel for autumn breaks) has taken them to many different areas of Britain such as Devon in 2012 and Llandudno in 2008. For the spring holiday, Pat works with a tour operator who can help negotiate the best deal for hotels and help with the single room challenge. For many years, Pat has used West Yorkshire-based Airedale Tours, whom she praises. ‘They are an excellent tour operator, and the team is always helpful and friendly.’ For this year’s trip to Morecombe and Lancashire, she is working with just for groups! of Norwich for a change.

The key qualities Pat looks for in a hotel are good food and friendly staff; the group doesn’t have any particular favourites and is happy to use local independents as well as the more well-known chains. Pat arranges the five-day excursion programme herself and for each visit she also tries to make sure there are options that will suit the less as well as the more active members of the party.

For last year’s holiday to Derbyshire, the outward journey was broken with a lunch stop at Nottingham’s Gallery of Justice Museum. This preserves Nottinghamshire’s old courthouse and county gaol and a vast collection of spine-chilling artefacts relating to crime and punishment. Costumed re-enactors bring the exhibition to life and, as part of the visit, Buckden Friends dressed up in wigs and acted out a trial. Pat says, ‘This was a brilliant lunch stop. One of the best we’ve ever done.’

The group stayed in Belper at the Clarion Collection Hotel Makeney Hall, the former home of the Strutt family, who developed the town from a small hamlet to a thriving industrial community. The five-day programme included a tour of Strutt’s North Mill, in Belper. ‘This was very good,’ Pat explains. ‘The group was split into smaller sets of six, allowing everyone to hear the guide and to have the chance to ask questions.’ They also visited Eyam, the Derbyshire village that sealed itself off from the outside world to prevent the plague spreading in the 17th century.

Pat is now working on her programme for 2016 and, following a GTO Readers’ Day event with Visit York in October 2014, she is looking at basing a five-day break around York, with a visit to Fairfax House, Pat and Brian’s favourite visit of the day, being high on the agenda.


With years of experience behind her, Pat has some salient advice for GTOs:

• Always keep your members informed both before and during the trip.

• Smile all the time as this is infectious, and never ever look worried.

• Make sure you take care of the people on your trip – you will be sure they’ll book again.

• Preparation is everything! Pat advertises forthcoming breaks towards the end of each holiday; last October for instance, 34 out of the 36 members on the holiday signed up for next autumn’s break at Thoresby Hall.

• Pat’s challenge is finding hotels who can supply sufficient single rooms – sometimes between 16 and 20; she says there’s a big market for hotels who can work with groups in providing the required allocation at an affordable price!


Two-wheeled group travellers ride for fun together!

The first day of a cycling tour the group enjoyed with French Cycling Holidays.

The first day of a cycling tour the group enjoyed with French Cycling Holidays.

Malcolm and Gia Margolis founded the Harrogate Wheel Easy cycling group to cater for people who wanted to enjoy friendly, not competitive, cycling. Continuing our focus on highlighting ‘groups who like to be active’, Val Baynton finds out more about tourism on two wheels.


Malcolm and Gia Margolis began cycling as youngsters and continued to follow an active lifestyle as they became adults and parents, with Gia playing competitive tennis and Malcolm opting for squash. For nearly 30 years, they ran a sports business - Argos Sports (no connection with Argos Stores, the name was derived from Margolis!) They specialised in quality products for a wide range of sports and leisure activities, and gave excellent ‘old-fashioned’ service, which multiples couldn’t match. When they retired in 2005, they had time to take up cycling more regularly, and the following year they set up the Wheel Easy Cycling Club. Gia is currently the Chair of the group and Malcolm helps to look after publicity and the website. Gia adds,‘Our whole committee is vital to the success of the club; everyone puts in a lot of work to make sure it runs smoothly. From my point of view, it’s one of the most satisfying things I have done.’

Malcolm and Gia Margolis began cycling as youngsters and continued to follow an active lifestyle as they became adults and parents, with Gia playing competitive tennis and Malcolm opting for squash. For nearly 30 years, they ran a sports business – Argos Sports (no connection with Argos Stores, the name was derived from Margolis!) They specialised in quality products for a wide range of sports and leisure activities, and gave excellent ‘old-fashioned’ service, which multiples couldn’t match. When they retired in 2005, they had time to take up cycling more regularly, and the following year they set up the Wheel Easy Cycling Club. Gia is currently the Chair of the group and Malcolm helps to look after publicity and the website. Gia adds,‘Our whole committee is vital to the success of the club; everyone puts in a lot of work to make sure it runs smoothly. From my point of view, it’s one of the most satisfying things I have done.’

The opening three stages of the Tour de France’s 2014 visit to Yorkshire and London revealed the enthusiasm for cycling that exists in Britain, an interest that was kick-started by the London Olympics in 2012. It’s not just competitive cycling that is attracting record numbers of participants and spectators; there’s a growing trend for getting on bikes for simply social activity. Groups of enthusiasts meet up locally to enjoy outings aimed at discovering the countryside, making friends and gently increasing fitness. The Wheel Easy Cycling Club in Harrogate, established by Malcolm and Gia Margolis in 2006, is one such group and now encompasses nearly 300 members aged from their mid-twenties to 82 years, with outings for all levels of ability organised twice a week as well as overseas trips.

One of the factors in the growth of ‘pedal power’ is that the support infrastructure for cycling has developed over the last 20 years. The National Cycling Network was officially created in 1995 and has grown from 5,000 miles in 2000 to 14,700 miles today. Cycling is now actively promoted by VisitBritain, and many local tourism destinations, while specialist operators help groups plan and enjoy longer cycling breaks both within this country and around the world. See page 48 for more about all these initiatives.

Setting up Wheel Easy

Malcolm and Gia Margolis retired in 2005. Feeling that it would be more fun to explore their enthusiasm for cycling with other like-minded people, they decided to set up a group. ‘For us, cycling was, and still is, about enjoyment,’ Malcolm explains. ‘We don’t want to go fast or compete against other cyclists.’ Since they couldn’t find a local group of this sort, they contacted the Harrogate Advertiser, announcing that, on 7th May 2006, there would be an easy 10-mile cycle ride to Knaresborough and back, and inviting cyclists to come along. The route also took in the Beryl Burton Cycleway, named after the internationally renowned cyclist who was born in Leeds in 1937 and received the OBE in 1968 in recognition of her achievements. To the couple’s amazement, 35 people turned up and the group was born!

Initially rides were Sundays only but, as the weather improved in the early summer, more people joined the group and weekday rides were introduced. Longer and harder rides were also offered to cater for more experienced cyclists but the social and pleasure focus remained key. A committee of 10 people was formed, a leaflet was created – which became the basis for the website – and the name for the club, ‘Wheel Easy’, was coined. As Malcolm says, ‘It’s a very appropriate name; it is exactly what the group is about and the bonus is, when you say it, you can’t help but smile.’

An important ethos guiding the group has been the principle of ‘looking after the slowest rider’ and this spirit has encouraged a lot of new or returning cyclists to join, and is particularly attractive to women. ‘Members really do look after each other,’ Gia adds. ‘A lot of new friendship groups have been created and the ethos has sustained the group. Over the last eight years, some members have suffered bereavements, illnesses and undergone replacement hips or knees, yet the caring philosophy has encouraged individuals to get back on the saddle, knowing the support from the club is there.’

New cyclists join the group each week, learning about it from word of mouth and also from the weekly article in the local newspaper’s ‘clubs and societies’ section. Gia notes that in the last year more women in their 30s and 40s have taken up membership. Annual membership is £5, the club has insurance from CTC (the Cycling Touring Club, which dates back to 1878 and is now also the national cycling charity) and members are encouraged to take out personal insurance from CTC too.

Members went on a short ride in Yorkshire to look at some of the decorations organised for the Tour de France including the Dotty House.

Members went on a short ride in Yorkshire to look at some of the decorations organised for the Tour de France including the Dotty House.

Typical Rides

Rides now take place every Sunday and Wednesday, with cyclists meeting at Hornbeam Park Railway Halt, Harrogate, for departure at 9.30am, and there’s a choice of routes from 25 miles to 100 miles or more, with beginners’ rides of around 15 miles also taking place on Sundays. Return time is usually by 3.00pm. Routes are detailed in advance on the website and confirmed on the day, dependent on the number of members and their abilities.

Each ride is led by one of the club’s 40 ride leaders, who has researched the route. The Wheel Easy committee encourage members to observe basic rules, as framed by the CTC, covering equipment, the Highway Code and safety and etiquette. To ensure safety, especially on road routes, members are usually split into groups of around eight cyclists, taking slightly different routes with rendezvous points. ‘Cafe stops are an important part of every ride, as is chatting!’ laughs Gia.

Exploring Yorkshire

Setting off for Blubberhouses!

Setting off for Blubberhouses!

Routes take members all over Yorkshire and favourite stopping places include Fountains Abbey, Studley Royal Deer Park, Ripley Castle and Beningbrough Hall Gardens, as well as a host of cafes enroute such as Oliver’s Pantry in Ripon.

Over the last seven years, Malcolm has been involved with the development of the Nidderdale Greenway – a former railway line – connecting Harrogate to Ripley, which has brought back into use the Grade II listed, seven-arch Nidd Gorge Viaduct and provided a new safe crossing of the A61 near Ripley. ‘We’ve worked with the transport charity Sustrans in developing the route, and it has made a fantastic difference to off-road cycling,’ says Malcolm. ‘We are trying to extend the route to take it into the heart of Nidderdale.’

Occasionally, the club takes in a cultural visit or annual events such as Kettlewell Scarecrow Festival in August or the Masham Steam Rally in July. The Yorkshire Stages of the Tour de France were on the group’s programme – with ringside spots in Harrogate for the final sprint on the first day, 5th July. The next day, eight members rode to the Cote de Blubberhouses to enjoy the carnival atmosphere and to watch the professionals speed past.

There’s also a varied social programme with different members organising activities within the group such as theatre trips and visits to the Velodrome at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester, as well as inspiring talks from members about overseas rides.

Pedalling further afield

Terry Wadkin (second right) and the Wheel Easy Group enjoy some sightseeing whilst on tour with Simply Cycling Slovenia.

Terry Wadkin (second right) and the Wheel Easy Group enjoy some sightseeing whilst on tour with Simply Cycling Slovenia.

Each year, members of Wheel Easy organise longer trips, which any member of the club can join. They’ve taken the train to Edinburgh and over four days cycled back to Harrogate. Other journeys have taken coast to coast paths such as the Ways of the Roses from Morecombe to Bridlington and the Sea to Sea route from Whitehaven to Sunderland. Generally, members carry all their luggage on these rides, staying in pubs or small hotels enroute.

Trips to Europe include a memorable break in Slovenia in 2013. This was organised by Paul Wadkin of Simply Cycling Slovenia (SCS), whose father, Terry, is a member of the Wheel Easy Club. Eight members flew to Ljubljana in Slovenia from Stansted with easyJet and SCS organised transport to their first hotel near Ljutomer in the Pomurje region of north east Slovenia. The week-long tour gave members an insight into the beautiful landscape of the region, and they crossed borders cycling into Hungary, Croatia and Austria too. Around 50 miles were covered each day, with time to visit local landmarks. Highlights included relaxing in the thermal baths at the hotels, being together and socialising as a team. The last day was spent exploring Ljubljana’s castle and trying out the funicular railway. Luggage was transported between hotels by SCS and Wheel Easy members used SCS’s bikes – it is usual to hire bikes locally for overseas tours, although it’s possible to pack a bike in a special box for transport by the airline. To ensure members don’t get lost, mobile phones and sat navs are essential equipment, especially in countries where little English is spoken. A number of countries are ideal for European cycling tours (see below).


European wide cycling

Canadians riding in support of the Wounded Warriors charity pedal  away during their tour around Canadian War Memorials in Northern France.

Canadians riding in support of the Wounded Warriors charity pedal away during their tour around Canadian War Memorials in Northern France.

The National Cycling Network is a series of safe, traffic-free lanes and quiet on-road routes that connect to every major city and now stretches for 14,700 miles across the UK. The concept began in Bristol in 1977 with a campaign to improve conditions for pedestrians and cyclists in the city. The first success was the opening in 1984 of the Bristol and Bath Railway Path, a 17-mile traffic-free trail along a disused railway. The charity Sustrans continued to develop the idea and routes elsewhere in the country opened, with the overall network being established in 1995 with a grant from the National Lottery, and officially opened in June 2000 when 5,000 miles had been completed.

The network links into the European Cycle Network, known as EuroVelo, and one third of a projected 37,000 miles of cycle paths are already open in countries including Austria, France, Germany, Italy and the UK. EuroVelo routes in the UK include the Atlantic Coast Route stretching from Plymouth to Aberdeen and the Capital Route starting at Holyhead, travelling through Snowdonia to Cardiff, visiting Bristol, Bath, and London, and finally travelling north to Harwich. The North Sea Route starts in Harwich and travels north through Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Northumberland to Edinburgh and the Shetland Islands. In development is a route linking Devon and Cornwall with Brittany and Normandy. To find out more about both networks visit


Ways to get you Cycling at home…

Going for a ride away from home can be a challenge to plan but there is plenty of advice to help groups spread their wings. VisitBritain has put together its favourite 10 routes around the UK, with distances varying from under 10 to over 100 miles, and covering both hilly and flat terrain. Choose from beautiful countryside, such as a circuit of Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland and the Millennium Coastal Path in Llanelli, Wales, to the foodie-themed Chocolate Tour around the canals of Birmingham, and the Crab and Winkle Way linking Canterbury with Whitstable Harbour. Many regional tourist destinations such as the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley or Visit Kent give details about local cycle trails, and where to hire bikes, on their websites. London-based cycling specialists include Mind the Gap, which organises small group cycle rides from London to Windsor, led by guides who recount interesting histories and anecdotes enroute. Discovery Richmond’s expert guides lead a tour around the town taking in a short part of the route used in the 2012 Olympics. Admission to Strawberry Hill House – one-time home of the 18th century politician, Horace Walpole – is included in the price. Both companies include hire of the bike, so this is a good option for a non-cycling group looking to try a new activity.

…and away

There are plenty of options in Europe too. In Germany, there are 200 long-distance cycle paths following rivers, and linking historic towns, coastal routes and mountain scenery. The German National Tourist Office website,, has helpful advice about where to go and how to plan your cycle route with online interactive maps, as well as hotel listings including over 5,400 ‘Bed & Bike’ accommodation offers, which cater specifically for cyclists with lockable and sheltered racks, and drying rooms. French Cycling Holidays offers a complete solution to a cycling break in France. Fully tailored cycling tours can be arranged – whether a tour of the World War One Battlefields, as recently booked by a 100-strong Canadian group supporting the charity Wounded Warriors (similar to the UK’s Help for Heroes), or an energetic ride over the Alps! There are many other options too, but beautiful views, charming hotels and fine regional cuisine are always part of the package! Meanwhile, for trips further afield, gadventures organises bespoke international cycling tours for private groups to places like Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, China, Cuba and India, tailoring each adventure to take in specific needs and budgets. Meanwhile, Exodus has 12 new cycling itineraries for 2015. Half of these are road cycling tours, reflecting the growing popularity of Exodus’ cultural road trips. Farflung destinations include Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica and the Mekong Delta.

Organising travel is in Stuart’s genes!

The bulb fields near Volendam, Holland.

Stuart Wood is a second generation group travel organiser who learnt much invaluable expertise from going on trips with his  father, Jim. Val Baynton discovers how organising trips has changed in the last 50 years.

Stuart Wood is Vice-President and Life Member of Bexhill Horticultural Society and has been organising day trips and short breaks for his members since he joined the society in 1994.

For Stuart Wood, organising holidays and outings is second nature; he learnt the ‘tools of the trade’ as a young boy, accompanying his father, James (known as Jim), on the trips he organised for the Newport and County Horticultural Society in Monmouthshire in the 1950s. Now, for Bexhill Horticultural Society, he organises around eight one-day outings and one four-night break for his 450 members each year. Members of other local gardening clubs such as the Allotment Society and the Flower Arranging group, which Stuart is also involved with, often join the outings too. Whilst visiting gardens is a priority for his group, Stuart’s trips include historic properties and heritage attractions such as steam railways, and he has several tips to share with other GTOs looking to create varied and good value itineraries. For example, many horticultural societies and gardening clubs are affiliated to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), and membership brings many benefits such as special rates at RHS gardens.

Learning the ropes

After the Second World War, there was much interest in gardening as a result of the ‘Digging for Victory’ wartime effort and the Horticultural Society in Newport was well attended, says Stuart. The society had talks during the winter evenings from a variety of experts and nurseries such as Williamson Nursery in the Wye Valley (the pre-cursor of the national Wyevale Garden Centre chain). In the summer, the group would visit the places they had heard about in these talks and the trips were organised by Jim.

Jim was an assistant clerk in the goods department at the Great Western Railway and qualified for free tickets for his family for up to eight journeys a year, and discounted fares after that, so it was easy, Stuart says, ‘for dad to go to venues to check their facilities and to organise the details for the society’s visit later in the year, and I would often go along with him.’ In those days, Stuart recalls, days out took time to organise as they didn’t have a phone or a car, and so requests for information, and making and confirming bookings for coach hire and the attractions, all had to be made by letter. The society usually travelled on coaches hired from the Western Welsh Omnibus Company. He adds, ‘It was fun to go out and about, and I remember the delightful treat of being given an ice-cream during a visit to a cafe in Stratford-upon-Avon, made as part of our preparations for the society outing taking in Shakespeare attractions such as Ann Hathaway’s House.’ Gradually, throughout his childhood, Stuart learnt the ‘ins and outs’ of organising and, as a result, he says, ‘group organising is in my blood.’

Another difference Stuart singles out from organising today is the popularity of evening trips in the 1950s. Stuart explains, ‘So few people had a car and televisions were still rare in most households so people enjoyed going out mid-week on an evening coach trip.’ Popular destinations were private gardens and nurseries in the Wye Valley.


Beautiful blossoms at Highdown Chalk.

Stuart takes charge

Managing the Oakhaven Holiday Home in Bexhill, Stuart found he was organising many trips including theatre visits and days out at the races for his guests, who came for holidays in the seaside resort from their homes in Southwark, London. He was also involved in planning itineraries for the groups that visited Bexhill as part of the twinning towns scheme and this was how he met his first wife, Romanie. In 1976, she came to Oakhaven as the leader of a group of disabled adults from Deventer, Holland, and eventually moved to Bexhill and married Stuart. With such experience of, and passion for, organising outings, it was inevitable that when Stuart joined Bexhill Horticultural Society in 1994 – reflecting the interest in growing plants that he had developed as a boy and young man – that he began organising trips for the members, especially as this was an aspect of the society that had lapsed. He also became its Chairman, revitalised the finances and increased the membership of the group.

All in a day

The first trip Stuart arranged for the society was in 1996 to a private garden at Cobblers in Crowborough. This was very pleasant, he recalls, with ponds and herbaceous borders, and it was extremely successful with two coaches of members going along. Since then, Stuart has developed varied

­­itineraries for each year’s programme of eight trips. He works around a year ahead so the itinerary can be published in the diary at the start of each year with reminders in newsletters that are sent by email and by post to members. To add variety and to suit as many members as possible, he selects different days of the week for the trips, varies the start and finishing times and the direction of travel, and in this way the group takes in Hampshire and west of London, West Sussex, East Sussex, Kent, Essex and London itself. In spring 2009, for example, the programme offered Highdown Chalk Pit Gardens, Worthing, in March and Athelhampton House and Garden, Dorchester, in April whilst, in May, the group visited Chichester and the private Cookscroft Garden with a stop at the nearby Aldingbourne Trust Centre.

The group explore at Marle Place in Brenchley.

Stuart generally books a 53-seater coach through Ramblers of Hastings and it is usually full. The group finds the drivers are always friendly and helpful, and the service reliable. Generally, the society travels for around two hours and then stops for refreshments before driving on to the main attraction. The journey home is also broken into two segments. ‘I plan the comfort breaks very carefully,’ Stuart explains. ‘We like to support gardens that are run by disabled groups such as the Aldingbourne Centre and these make ideal short stops as do garden centres and RSPB wildlife reserves. I try to avoid motorway service stations as I think there are so many more interesting places to see and these breaks add value to our day out.’ Other good refreshment stopovers are National Trust properties as restaurants can often be visited without paying an entrance fee (although most of the group are members of The National Trust) and gardens in the National Gardens Scheme (NGS), which open to raise funds for charity (see panel on page 42). These, Stuart notes, include Marle Place in Brenchley and are often very unusual, with surprising gardens – sometimes the group can book afternoon tea or lunches, frequently with delicious home made food. ‘Supporting charity is very important to me and it’s great that, whilst we are enjoying ourselves, we can help others.’

A bird’s eye view of the gardens at Sissingshurst Castle, Kent.

Although Stuart ensures his itineraries always include fresh ideas, the society does have some favourite attractions such as Sissinghurst Castle, Sheffield Park and Garden and the gardens at Nymans, which are all close to Bexhill. Further afield, the beautiful chateau Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire is also popular. ‘There is so much to see in the gardens and aviary, as well as a good restaurant and garden centre,’ says Stuart.

Over the years, the group has been to just about every National Trust property in the south east. Stuart states, ‘We like to combine buildings and gardens. Some houses can only be visited with a guided tour but generally I don’t book a guide so that members can go at their own pace and focus on the parts of the attraction that interest them most.’ The RHS gardens at Wisley, Rosemoor, Hyde Hall and Harlow Carr regularly feature too. The group can make a complimentary visit each year to one of the gardens as part of the benefits of membership of the RHS, and Stuart makes sure the visits are timed for different seasons so that they get to see varying aspects of the garden .

Breaks away

The group’s annual four-night break is usually in the UK, although they have visited Holland twice (where Stuart’s Dutch connections were very helpful) and Normandy. Stuart masterminded the first trip to Holland in 2002, personally booking the whole itinerary including hotels and excursions. This was a complicated undertaking, he quickly realised, and now he uses a tour operator if travelling abroad, as this helps with currency and insurance issues. The trip was very successful though and, based at the hotel Avifauna at Aplhen ann den Rijn where there’s free access to the adjacent bird park, the group visited the Floriade, which takes place every 10 years, and many gardens including Keukenhof.The second visit was a cruise through the bulb fields and was part of the society’s 80th anniversary celebrations in 2009.

The memorials and gardens at the National Memorial Arboretum touched many members’ hearts.

Stuart continues to organise the breaks within the UK himself, as this gives good value for money, and he adds in as many visits as possible to make the itinerary interesting. Breaks have included Scotland, in 2009, where the programme started in Rutland at Barnsdale Gardens before travelling to Harrogate for an overnight stay, visiting the RHS garden at Harlow Carr. The route north took the society via Betty’s Tearooms in Harrogate and the Lake District. Once in Edinburgh, the Royal Yacht Britannia fascinated members and was one of many visits the group made, whilst the return journey allowed time for a call at Tatton Park near Knutsford.

In 2014, the extended break was to Derbyshire and Staffordshire with visits to Bolsover Castle, where the horse dressage was excellent, Lichfield and the National Memorial Arboretum.

The Future looks rosy

Stuart has been organising group travel for much of his life and his role looks set to continue well into the future. It’s something he really enjoys doing as, through it, he supports the local community and many charitable efforts. Sadly his wife, Romanie, died in early 2012 after a long illness but Stuart has found new happiness with Hazel, and they plan to marry soon. Hazel is an avid flower arranger and members from the local Ninfield Flower Group now join in with the Horticultural Society’s trips.


The National Gardens Scheme

Cookscroft Garden near Chichester has opened under the NGS scheme for 20 years.

As Stuart Wood notes, the private gardens in the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) offer GTOs opportunities for unusual visits to a range of private gardens. The small entrance fee charged is donated to charity. Groups should always pre-book.

The NGS developed from a 19th century movement to train district nurses. After the death of his wife in 1859, Liverpool merchant William Rathbone raised funds to recruit and train nurses to work in deprived areas of the city. This concept of district nursing gained the support of Florence Nightingale and Queen Victoria, and it spread across the country as a voluntary organisation. In memory of its 20th century patron, Queen Alexandra, who died in 1925, a special fund was set up to support nurses who were retiring and one of the volunteer council members, Miss Elsie Wagg, suggested that money could be raised by asking people to open their gardens to visitors and charge a modest entry fee that would be donated. In 1927, the NGS was thus established with a suggested donation of a shilling (5 pence) per visitor. In the first year, 609 gardens raised over £8,000.

By 1931, over 1,000 private gardens opened nationally. Country Life magazine produced a handbook to list the open gardens and it became known as The Yellow Book because of its bright cover.

After the Second World War, the National Health Service took on the District Nursing Service but money was still needed to care for retired nurses and to invest in training. In 1980, the National Gardens Scheme Charitable Trust was established as an independent charity. During the 1980s and 1990s, charities such as Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie Cancer Care and Help the Hospices became beneficiaries of the funds raised. Since 2010, a different annual ‘guest’ charity is also supported, chosen from recommendations from NGS volunteers.

Since its foundation, the NGS has donated over £42.5 million to its beneficiary charities, of which nearly £23 million has been donated within the last 10 years.

Supporting community gardening

RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) is a UK charity, founded in 1804, and aims to encourage and improve the science, art and practice of horticulture in all its branches. Local horticultural societies and gardening clubs are encouraged to affiliate to the RHS to receive a range of benefits such as copies of the RHS magazine Grass Roots, to tap into resources and access a variety of support from expert speakers to insurance cover at competitive rates. Currently there are around 3,000 groups linked to the RHS.

As an RHS Affiliated Society, a group can make an annual visit, for up to 55 members, to one of the four RHS gardens – Wisley in Surrey, Hyde Hall in Essex, Rosemoor in Devon and Harlow Carr in Harrogate. Each garden has its own character and speciality but all offer a great day out. In addition, there are extra-special group rates for affiliated societies who also want to visit any of the other RHS gardens in the same year, and for RHS flower shows, as well as extra discounts on the normal group rate at a number of partner gardens throughout the country. These offers vary from year to year and must be booked in advance with each partner.

For non-RHS affiliated groups, there are special discounts for group visits including free places for GTOs and coach drivers at the four RHS gardens. Groups can explore at their own pace or book a guided tour.