Picture postcards from island to mainland
Date Posted: 02/12/2010
We explore the county of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight to see what's in store for visiting groups.
Picture postcard villages, ancient forests, a beautiful coastline and a rich history of royal and military connections provide plenty of variety for groups in this pretty part of the country that also includes Winchester, the ancient capital of England renowned for its splendid Norman cathedral and King Arthur’s legendary round table.
The world’s finest collection of ancient ships, including Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, can be found at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. The city’s enduring naval legacy will be highlighted in 2011 when the dockyard celebrates the 150th anniversary of the first iron-hulled ship, HMS Warrior, and the tenth anniversary of Action Stations, its contemporary interactive attraction.
This year, work started on a £16 million project to build a new museum to house Henry VIII’s 16th century warship Mary Rose. Whilst the vessel will not be back on show until the building opens in 2012, the existing museum remains open and groups can see more than 1,000 artefacts. New for 2011 are exclusive group tours of HMS Warrior and the current Mary Rose Museum, where your members can learn about what goes on behind the scenes and meet the experts who bring the iconic ships to life. Group rates and benefits apply to parties of 15 or more.
Of course, if it is views you are looking for, Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower (pictured) is for you. Joint tickets for the tower and dockyard are also available and your party can ascend to the top of the 170-metre attraction while taking advantage of discounted rates for groups of 15 or more people, with free admission for the GTO and coach driver, among other group benefits.
More seafaring tales can be uncovered at picturesque Bucklers Hard, an 18th century ship building village on the banks of the Beaulieu river. The Maritime Museum introduces different characters from the village and on the Heart of Oak tour, your group will discover how Nelson’s fleet was built. Group visits can also be combined with a 30-minute river cruise.
Marwell Wildlife is celebrating the recent birth of its latest baby, a Brazilian tapir. A visit to the 140-acre zoological park, eight miles outside Winchester, will give your group members the chance to get close to the wonders of the natural world, and play a big part in helping to save them. Marwell is home to over 250 exotic and endangered species and themed areas include an African valley, Australian bush walk, tropical rainforest and Penguin World offering fantastic underwater views.
Opening for Easter is a new home for Marwell’s family of cheetahs, and your group will be able to watch the world’s fastest land mammals from up high on a walkway. Marwell provides a range of options for groups of 12 or more including discounts, free land train rides and optional tours.
With up to 350 ferry, hovercraft and catamaran crossings each day, it’s easy to add a trip to the Isle of Wight to any Hampshire itinerary. Wightlink, one of the operators, reports that two-centre breaks have become increasingly popular with groups that can stop off at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard before continuing their journey to the Isle of Wight. Another option is to travel from Portsmouth and return to Lymington, which provides the opportunity to take in the countryside of the New Forest. Hovertravel is the fastest connection to the Isle of Wight from the mainland, with journeys from Portsmouth (Southsea) to Ryde taking just ten minutes.
Visits to Robin Hill, the 88-acre adventure park and gardens near Arreton, previously involved some long walks to enjoy all the attractions such as the daily falconry shows, woodland water gardens and Roman villa site. From next year, the park will be far more accessible thanks to the introduction of a new land train that will be available to take groups all around the park. Other benefits include discounted group entry and combination tickets to Robin Hill and Blackgang Chine.
Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s beloved seaside home, is one of the island’s foremost attractions and a perennial favourite with groups. Virtually unchanged since the monarch died there in 1901, the house has sumptuous interiors and stunning views over the Solent and surrounding estate. Groups can now walk around the palm terrace, laid out by keen horticulturist Prince Albert and previously closed to the public.
Another top group-friendly attraction is Carisbrooke Castle with its imposing gatehouse, ramparts and loveable donkeys working the 17th century water wheel. An Edwardian-inspired garden opened last year to celebrate the role of Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Beatrice, as Governor of the Isle of Wight, and other recent improvements include an exciting new interpretation on the history of the castle. Osborne House and Carisbrooke are English Heritage properties and offer a range of group discounts and incentives.
Attractions in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight scooped several honours in the recent 2010 Beautiful South Awards for Excellence. The top gold award for the Best Tourism Experience went to Seaview Wildlife Encounter on the Isle of Wight. Situated in a parkland setting with waterfalls, lakes and views across the Solent, your group can meet cute penguins, meerkats, otters and a host of other birds and animals. Highly commended in the same category was the Isle of Wight Zoo.
Beaulieu took silver in the Large Visitor Attraction of the Year section. The site, which includes the National Motor Museum, Palace House and gardens, and Beaulieu Abbey ruins, is launching new themed tours for groups in 2011. These include visits linked to the story of early motor racing history, falconry displays in the abbey cloisters, the workings of a Victorian kitchen in the main house and tours and tastings in the vineyard.
Highly commended in the Small Visitor Attraction of the Year category was the New Forest Museum at Lyndhurst, which is packed with informative and interactive displays that set the scene for any visit to the forest.
Winchester Tourist Information Service, which can provide tailored itineraries according to your group’s area of interest, was named Tourist Information Service of the Year, and you might want to make a tasty date for next summer by planning your visit to coincide with the Hampshire Food Festival, which won the Flavour of the South East section. Running throughout July, the festival showcases delicious regional produce through a host of special events.
Staying in the Winchester area, an educational experience is on offer at the INTECH Science Centre, with its new Planetarium, which is beginning to attract groups looking for something different. This state-ofthe- art digital theatre shows spectacular programmes on the huge dome screen, and in the Science Centre there are 90 hands-on science exhibits to have fun with. A group booking more than a month ahead can select the planetarium show of its choice, and special rates are available for parties visiting in the afternoons outside of the school holidays.
Five glorious gardens
Exbury Gardens: This 200-acre woodland garden near Beaulieu is famous for the Rothschild Collection of rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and rare trees and shrubs. The steam train, which can take groups on a tour of the gardens, celebrates its tenth anniversary in 2011 and there are also new garden display boards, plus a new website that helps GTOs plan the best time to visit.
Mottisfont Abbey and Garden: Situated in a beautiful spot alongside the fast-flowing River Test, this 19th century garden is noted for its collection of historic roses and trees, including what is believed to the country’s largest plane tree.
Mottistone Manor Garden: Set in a sheltered valley on the Isle of Wight, this magical 20th century garden is full of surprises, with shrub-filled banks, hidden pathways and colourful herbaceous borders.
Sir Harold Hillier Gardens: Groups can admire more than 42,000 plants from around the world in this 180-acre garden in Romsey. A new addition is the all-ability path, with pond features and a look-out point, for visitors using mobility scooters and wheelchairs.
Ventnor Botanic Garden: Set in a mild micro-climate this 22-acre garden on the Isle of Wight is home to rare and exotic plants from around the world. Admission is free and there is a fee for guided tours.
Five great group attractions
Blackgang Chine: Described as the country’s oldest theme park, this Isle of Wight attraction is an eccentric mix of rides, dinosaurs, fairies, cowboys and other characters set within rambling Victorian gardens. Based on the popular television series, there’s a new exhibition called BBC Coast and an inspiring aerial film about the island.
Highclere Castle: Home to the Carnarvon family since 1679 and instantly recognisable as the setting for ITV’s hit period drama Downton Abbey, the castle and its fascinating Egyptian exhibition reopens to the public at Easter. There is discounted admission for groups of 20 or more.
Milestones: Groups can explore shops, a village green and pub dating from Victorian times and the 1930s at Basingstoke’s living history museum, a few minutes off the M3. Set inside a huge modern building, it provides all the interest of an open-air museum without any need to worry about the weather.
Royal Marines Museum: Situated on the seafront at Southsea, Portsmouth, the museum charts the illustrious history of the Royal Marines from 1664 to recent campaigns. Group benefits include a free introductory talk and discounted admission for parties of ten or more.
Watercress Line: Take a journey back in time on the heritage railway running through beautiful countryside between Alresford and Alton. Special rates are available for groups of 15 or more, and visits can include lunch or cream teas and a visit to other nearby attractions.
Isle of Wight Tourism: