Winter warmers

There’s no shortage of festive activities for groups to enjoy this yuletide. From carols round the tree to tales of Christmases past, Carrie Drage takes her pick of some of the most group-friendly events taking place around the UK.

Christmas at the Tower of London.

Christmas at the Tower of London.

There are a number of highlights in store for groups that book a festive excursion to one of the UK’s visitor attractions this Christmas. Be it a roast dinner with all the trimmings, a turn on an outdoor ice rink or mulled wine and mince pies beside the fire at one of Britain’s finest stately homes, there is plenty to stave off boredom this winter.

Experience Christmas in the 1800s at Blists Hill Victorian Town.

Experience Christmas in the 1800s at Blists Hill Victorian Town.

Seasonal splendour

Set against the backdrop of their wintry landscapes, Britain’s stately homes look truly magnificent during the festive period. Adorned with decorations and beautifully lit Christmas trees, they provide a warm welcome to all who visit. From atmospheric markets to traditionally-decorated houses, The National Trust has lined up a number of special events to keep groups entertained over the festive season. In Devon, ‘A Servant’s Christmas’ at Saltram will invite visitors to meet the Victorian cook and kitchen maids as they prepare a great feast, enjoy storytelling and decoration-making, and join Saint Nicholas, the butler and housemaids as they sing carols round the tree between 3rd and 4th December. In Kent, Knole plans to recreate Thomas Sackville’s 17th century Christmas pie which, according to house records, he ate before waiting on Elizabeth I at court. Volunteers are currently researching what went into the dish and a modern version with a raised crust over seasoned lamb will be served for lunch during the first two weeks in December. Meanwhile, in the north of the country, Quarry Bank Mill and Styal Estate in Cheshire will present ‘Christmas at the Apprentice House’ on 14th to 16th December, comprising a two-course Christmas lunch and a guided tour of Apprentice House, which will be decorated for the season. Also at the site, Victorian-themed Christmas weekends will take place on 10th and 11th, and 17th and 18th December. Over in Yorkshire, Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden presents ‘Christmas Music and Lights’ on selected weekends in December, with seasonal music resonating around the floodlit ruins, while Erddig in Wrexham will welcome back its Victorian Christmas village with market. Open to visitors on the first three weekends in December, the event will feature over 50 wooden cabins selling all variety of gifts, decorations, food and drink, as well as live music. There will also be the chance to meet Father Christmas in his winter wonderland.

A wintry landscape at Knole.

A wintry landscape at Knole.

Opening for the first time at Christmas, Longleat House is offering 90-minute guided tours exclusively for groups on selected dates this winter (17th and 24th November, and 1st, 8th and 15th December). Taking in the ground floor rooms dressed for Christmas as well as a selection of Lord Bath’s private apartments, tours are followed with either Christmas lunch or afternoon tea. The house can also be visited during standard opening times (18th November – 2nd January) on a free flow basis. An outdoor ice rink and Santa Special Train to visit Father Christmas in his log cabin will be operating over the Christmas period too, although there is an additional charge for these. Plus, don’t miss Longleat’s giant Christmas tree, decorated with hundreds of lights that ‘dance’ in time to festive tunes.

Meanwhile, in Wiltshire, Salisbury Cathedral is holding special ‘Christmas Carol Services’ for groups on 6th and 15th December. These will present the opportunity to hear the renowned cathedral choir sing, listen to Christmas readings, join in with traditional carols and enjoy seasonal refreshments of hot mulled wine and mince pies in the cloisters immediately after the service.

Osborne House bedecked in all its Christmas finery.

Osborne House bedecked in all its Christmas finery.

On the Isle of Wight, English Heritage will give groups a flavour of Christmas at Osborne House when Queen Victoria was in attendance, from 23rd November to 8th January. The house will be traditionally-decorated in the style favoured by Prince Albert, with some of the gifts and cards given to Queen Victoria on display as guides lead themed tours of the ground floor rooms. A large part of the royal celebrations were the extravagant plays performed in the Council Room, with painted backdrops and props, and members of the royal family taking starring roles. For the first time this Christmas, these theatricals will be in the spotlight at Osborne House, with original programmes and photographs of performances on display. Also taking place at the site on 19th and 20th November, visitors will be able to experience ‘A Victorian Christmas’, complete with side shows, singing chimney sweeps, Victorian fairground stalls and the chance to meet Father Christmas and ‘Queen Victoria’.

Back on the mainland, why not bring seasonal cheer to a midweek group visit to Beaulieu with a ‘Palace House Soirée’, available throughout November and December. On arrival, warm yourself in front of the fireplace with a glass of hot fruit punch then join a Christmas carol sing-along around the grand piano in the Lower Drawing Room. The occasion is presented as a rehearsal for an event to be staged one evening, in the year 1889, for Lord Henry and Lady Cecily Douglas- Scott-Montagu. There will also be plenty of time to admire the Victorian-style decorations around the house and the magnificent Christmas tree in the Upper Drawing Room. Entry to other Beaulieu attractions is also included in the admission price.

Beaulieu’s Palace House in the snow.

Beaulieu’s Palace House in the snow.

In Kent, Hever Castle will be festively dressed with sumptuous decorations, sparkling lights and welcoming log fires between 30th November and 24th December, much as it would have been in Edwardian times. Visit Santa and his elves in the snow-dusted Christmas grotto before shopping for gifts and stocking fillers in the beautifullydecorated shops. As dusk falls, see the gardens transformed into an illuminated winter wonderland. Traditional Christmas lunches and afternoon teas can also be prebooked for groups.

Also in the county, Leeds Castle will be bringing classic Christm as stories to life through colourful costumes, decorations and props between 5th December and 2nd January 2012. The Queen’s Gallery, for instance, will be transformed into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, while the Queen’s Bedroom will become tales from the Arabian Nights, with inspiration taken from Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The Lady Baillie Bedroom will be inspired by a scene from the classic ballet, The Nutcracker, and the Seminar Room will become Willy Wonka’s famous chocolate factory. Adding to the magic, a host of winter wonderland characters will be leading entertaining and lively Christmas evening tours of the castle on 15th, 19th, 20th and 22nd December; among these will be Jack Frost. Prior to the tour, there will also be the chance to enjoy a glass of warm mulled wine or hot chocolate, together with a mince pie, in the Gatehouse. Also at the castle, children can visit Father Christmas in his grotto in the courtyard on 10th and 11th December and daily from 16th to 24th December. Pre-booking is essential.

A wintry view of Leeds Castle.

A wintry view of Leeds Castle.

Close by, Penshurst Place and Gardens will be running behind the scenes tours for groups this winter, with festive refreshments served to visitors throughout December. Join the housekeeper on a tour of the property to learn how they ‘put the house to bed’ and how it will be cleaned before re-opening to the public in the spring. Groups also have the option to combine their visit with a seasonal workshop. This year, there is the opportunity to create an advent ring table arrangement and a Christmas door wreath, with refreshments, materials and tuition included in the price. Finally, Father Christmas makes a guest appearance every weekend in December leading up to Christmas Day.

Two of London’s historic palaces are also offering opportunities for Christmas excursions. The Tower of London will be bringing medieval history alive this Christmas by recreating the court of Edward I from 27th to 31st December. As the king prepares to invade Scotland, visitors can watch on as sparks fly between the aged king and the Prince of Wales, with the young queen attempting to keep the court happy with music, dancing, plays and the Court of Love. There will also be another opportunity to ice skate against the backdrop of this infamous fortress between 19th November and 8th January.

Penshurst Place and Gardens decorated for Christmas.

Penshurst Place and Gardens decorated for Christmas.

Meanwhile, at Hampton Court Palace, guests are invited to join Henry VIII for an extravagant Tudor Christmas between 27th and 31st December. Join the king and his new wife, Catherine Howard, asthey plan their Christmas merriment with songs, stories, music, dance and madcap humour from the king’s fool, Will Sumer. But what will be done to keep his previous wife, Anne of Cleves, happy as she too joins the party… Henry’s Great Kitchens will also be a hive of activity as the Tudor cooks prepare a seasonal feast fit for a king on 3rd and 4th December. Plus, don’t miss the ice rink from 26th November to 8th January, with the famous West Front as a spectacular backdrop.

With its festive decorations taking on a different theme each year, Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire has revealed that Italy will be the theme this season, which begins on 3rd November with its popular ‘Christmas Gift Fair’ (until 6th November). The East Wing will be open between 16th November and 2nd January and, during this period, its beautifully-decorated rooms will resound with seasonal music, with dancers and musicians also on hand to entertain visitors on the annual ‘Floodlit Christmas Evening Openings’ between 25th and 27th November. A ‘Christmas Food Market’ will add to the Christmas offering on 3rd to 11th December. A special early bird rate is available for groups that visit between 16th and 30th November.

Christmas trees will light up the rooms at Waddesdon Manor this yuletide.

Christmas trees will light up the rooms at Waddesdon Manor this yuletide.

A festive experience is also available for groups that visit Sulgrave Manor, in Oxfordshire, throughout the month of December, during which time the Great Hall will be swathed in seasonal greenery and warmed by the log fire. Guests will be entertained with stories of yuletide from the lord of the manor, while the cook describes festive feasting and frivolity.

Staying in the county, Blenheim Palace will be inviting groups to enjoy ‘A White Christmas’ between 12th November and 16th December. During this period, the state rooms will be decorated with icicles, snowflakes and silver
white birches, and Christmas trees will sparkle in the colonnades. In the saloon, the great dining table will be dressed in crystal and white, and in the Long Library, the English National Ballet costume of The Snow Queen, adorned with Swarovski crystals, will be on view. In addition, there are special offers for groups of free pudding with every festive lunch booked, plus 10% off Traditional Churchill Afternoon Teas.

Close by, in Northamptonshire, visitors can step back in time at Rockingham Castle for ‘Christmas Eve 1849’, taking place between 28th November and 8th December. Dressed in costume of the period, the footman, butler, house keeper and governess will regale visitors with stories of preparing the castle for a family Christmas.

Decorations at Rockingham Castle.

Decorations at Rockingham Castle.

Further north, in Staffordshire, Shugborough will present its popular ‘Candlelit Christmas Evenings’ between 1st and 4th December. During this period, the mansion house and servants’ quarters will be bathed in the warm glow of candlelight and decorated with fresh flowers and foliage taken from the estate. Costumed characters will also be on hand with stories of Christmas past, with brass bands, choirs and a large craft and gift marquee also adding to the festivities. Plus, be sure to visit the working brewhouse where the master brewer will be producing his own fine festive ale for visitors to sample. In addition to the Candlelit Christmas Evenings, two other group packages are also on offer at Shugborough during the festive season. Available throughout November and December, ‘Lord Lichfield’s Christmas Pudding Tour’ takes visitors through the servants’ quarters, brewhouse and coach house before venturing into the kitchen and laundry to see the famous Lord Lichfield Christmas pudding being prepared. There is also a ‘Festive Decorations Tour’ on selected dates in December. Both tours include a glass of sherry and can be enhanced further with a meal or Christmas afternoon tea.

In the neighbouring county of Derbyshire, traditional carols are the inspiration for a visual display at Chatsworth this Christmas. ‘Deck the Halls, a visual celebration of carols at Chatsworth’ (5th November – 23rd December) will see the estate transformed into a series of tableaux depicting 20 favourite carols, with 40 Christmas trees, a little drummer boy, Good King Wenceslas and holly and ivy just some of the seasonal ingredients. The popular group guidance ‘Christmas markets’, with more than 100 stalls selling a variety of seasonal gifts, will also be back this year (11th – 13th and 18th – 20th November).

Lastly, in Yorkshire, groups can see the 18th century interiors of Castle Howard transformed with giant Christmas trees, traditional decorations and eye-catching displays between 26th November and 18th December for ‘The Family Home at Christmas’. Tour the elegant rooms, lit by roaring fires and candlelight, and listen to knowledgeable guides as they share the secrets of dressing the house for Christmas, as well as stories of the house, family and collections. Pause in the Great Hall or Long Gallery to enjoy live musical performances, which will be taking place every day. There will also be regular markets in the courtyard for gift shopping and the opportunity for groups to prebook a fireside Christmas lunch in the Grecian Hall.

Festive treats

Besides stately homes and castles, there is a world of other visitor attractions waiting to welcome groups over the festive season.

Just outside Chichester, visitors are invited to experience the traditions of Christmases past at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum. ‘A Sussex Christmas’ will be presented between 26th December and 1st January, and will offer an insight into how our ancestors celebrated the festive season, with houses decorated for Christmas in the style of the period when they were originally built. There will also be a ‘Christmas Market’ at the site on 12th and 13th November, with dozens of stalls selling arts, crafts, food and unusual gifts.

Santa Claus brings some treats for the animals too at West Midland Safari & Leisure Park.

Santa Claus brings some treats for the animals too at West Midland Safari & Leisure Park.

Launching its Christmas celebrations on 14th November with a free live performance of ‘A Christmas Carol’ in its courtyard is Dickens World in Chatham. Other events include family pantomime, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, in the Britannia Theatre between 3rd and 30th December, and ‘Christmas Parties’ with a live cabaret show, three-course Christmas banquet and DJ, between 9th and 23rd December. Families, meanwhile, will enjoy visiting Santa Claus in his winter wonderland between 14th November and 24th December. Surrounded by enchanted trees, children will be able to take part in story time with Mother Christmas and gingerbread making, followed by a turn on the outdoor ice rink.

In the capital, Thames riverboat operator, City Cruises, is offering a double helping of festive packages for groups this winter. Available Monday to Saturday evenings throughout December, the ‘Christmas Showboat’ sails to the Thames Barrier with a four-course meal served en route. On the return leg to Westminster Pier, there is live entertainment to celebrate the season. Another option is the ‘Christmas Day Lunch Cruise’ comprising a two and three quarter-hour cruise, complete with a four-course meal with all the trimmings.

Close by, on London’s South Bank, GTOs can arrange a private Mince Pie and Mulled Wine Capsule for their group on the EDF Energy London Eye between 21st November and 1st January. The open air ice skating rink, ‘Eyeskate’, also makes a return to the riverfront for its second year.

In Worcestershire, the annual ‘Santa Safari’ at West Midland Safari & Leisure Park starts on 26th November and runs right up to Christmas Eve. An integral part of the experience is an imaginary sleigh ride to Santa’s grotto, enhanced with realistic looking reindeer and moving scenery. Once there, children can have their photo taken with the man himself and are given a gift to take home with them. An extra 15% off normal group prices is available on selected weekdays during termtime.

Festive treats at Blists Hill Victorian Town.

Festive treats at Blists Hill Victorian Town.

Moving to Shropshire, Drayton Manor Theme Park will be transforming Thomas Land into a winter wonderland, complete with festive music, colourful decorations and snow showers three times a day, at ‘Drayton’s Magical Christmas’ (26th November – 2nd January). In addition, the park’s new Ben 10: Ultimate Mission roller coaster will be open as normal, as will the zoo and 4D cinema, which will be showing a festive film.

To experience traditional Christmas celebrations from the 1800s, why not treat your group to a day out at Blists Hill Victorian Town, one of the 10 venues that make up the Ironbridge Gorge Museums near Telford. The ‘Victorian Christmas Weekends’ take place on 10th and 11th and 17th and 18th December and, during this time, visitors will be able to see the Iron Rolling Mill transformed into a place for a workers’ Christmas party, with festive food and seasonal entertainment such as Christmas songs and stories, Punch and Judy, and a magic show. The rest of the site will be festooned with Christmas decorations too and groups will be able to sing-along with carol singers, listen to brass bands and watch as the townsfolk prepare seasonal goodies and make traditional Victorian presents. If last minute Christmas shopping is in order, there will be traditional gifts for sale, all produced in the gorge by skilled craftsmen. A Christmas lunch package is also bookable for groups in the Forest Glen Refreshment Pavilion, which will be decked with greenery and Victorian-style decorations.

Costumed characters taking a turn on the ice rink at Beamish – The Living Museum of the North.

Costumed characters taking a turn on the ice rink at Beamish – The Living Museum of the North.

Visitors can also immerse themselves in the sights, sounds and smells of Christmas past at Beamish – The Living Museum of the North in County Durham. Every weekend from 20th November to 2nd January, the site will be transformed into a magical winter wonderland with festive fare, handcrafted gifts and traditional entertainment. Why not take a ride on the decorated trams, visit the period houses and shops, decked out ready for the big day, visit Father Christmas in his fireside grotto or take a turn on the outdoor ice rink. A small extra charge applies for the grotto and ice rink.

Meanwhile, in Edinburgh, The Royal Yacht Britannia will be celebrating the spirit of Christmas on 3rd and 4th December, when the state apartments will be adorned with beautiful garlands and decorations. A Christmas tree will also be placed on the Bridge, a long-standing naval tradition, and there will be further festive cheer in the Chief Petty Officers’ Mess where visitors will be offered complimentary mulled wine and shortbread.