Among the silk spinners of Sherborne

From butterflies and stick insects to peacocks and rabbits, Worldlife in Dorset makes a spectacular day out, writes Emma Haughton
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Worldlife certainly puts up a spectacular front to visitors. As you wind down the lane into the car park, you have to be careful not to run over the peacocks wandering around the grounds of stately 17th-century Compton House, the unlikely setting for one of the UK's largest butterfly collections, and for the Lullingstone Silk Farm.

Entering the first room at Worldlife, containing the giant moths and other insects, is like stepping back 100 years. Compton House, with its faded grandeur and high-ceilinged rooms, gives the distinct impression that you've been invited back to examine the private collection of some dedicated Victorian naturalist. Soothed by the sound of field crickets chirruping in a nearby display, you can examine the spectacular giant atlas moths from Asia, with a wing span of more than 6in. The staff invite you to handle the moths and stick insects, which curl up their tails and pretend to be scorpions. You can wander round gazing at Peruvian fern insects, the praying mantis, and a surprisingly attractive troop of desert locusts.

There are colourful displays on many aspects of the environment and conservation, and the walls are adorned with long-deceased specimens of every description. The collection of dead arthropods will send shivers up many a spine, with its bird-eating spiders and red-legged tarantulas, its scorpions and numerous bugs and beetles. The butterflies, arranged in their pristine glass cabinets, make you ache to have seen them alive and free. Their iridescent colours of turquoise, yellow and deep blues are as brilliant as a catwalk summer fashion show. Sadly, the live butterflies in the several glass and heated enclosures around the site are less spectacular, but it is a joy to watch them fluttering over your head and settling on nearby leaves and flowers.

Upstairs, you can discover how Lullingstone Silk Farm provided the silk for the last two coronations, and for the wedding dresses of the Queen and Diana, Princess of Wales. You can watch the doomed silkworms in various stages of growth (and oblivious to their coming fate) munch their way through pounds of specially grown mulberry leaves before spinning their delicate, oval cages in shades of white and yellow. They end their lives in the boiling water of an ancient reeling machine, which can unravel up to three miles of silk thread from each of the boiled-sweet-sized cocoons.

The visitors

Lisa Faiers, a shop owner in Devon, took her three sons, Ned, seven, Monty, five and Archie, two.

Lisa: Unfortunately we went on a bit of a dull day, so we didn't see as many butterflies about as we might have done; apparently they prefer the sun.

Nevertheless, it was great fun holding the moths and the stick insects, especially for the children. The collections were good, but as I've been to a similar thing in Australia, I guess I was expecting to see more tropical butterflies flying around. I'd forgotten that this was rainy old England.

The silkworm part was very interesting. It was fascinating to see the different stages of the caterpillars as they ate the leaves and then spun the silk. It was really good for the kids to learn about how they make silk and to see the old machine they use to unravel the thread from the cocoons.

I was a bit disappointed with the tea rooms, though; I was hoping there would be a bit more on offer. I could have murdered a cream tea.

Ned: I really enjoyed watching those caterpillars making the silk - it looks like long white little strips of thin wool. I thought the video was good, too: it showed you how they make silk, right from the tiny worms to dyeing the material.

I also liked the butterfly greenhouse; it was so hot it choked in your throat, but the butterflies need hot weather.

I enjoyed feeding the peacocks. One of the bags went over the peacock's head as I was feeding it, and it ran off shaking its head until it came off. I liked holding the big moths and those stick insects, but they felt a bit horrible, all prickly and stuff. There were some great butterflies on the walls, too - a gigantic one with really long legs that was absolutely amazing.

Monty: I liked the sticky insects best. And the moths. I didn't hold them because I didn't want to; they looked a bit scary; but Ned did. I liked the butterflies in the hothouse - I saw some flying about and landing on plants.

My favourites were the peacocks. They were really good, all lovely colours like green and blue. Ned got a peacock feather and we put it on the wall when we got home.

Archie: I saw a moth and I held it. I saw some peacocks, too. I liked the butterflies best because they fly about like an aeroplane.

The deal

Worldlife (01935 474608) is situated midway between Yeovil (Somerset) and Sherborne (Dorset). Follow the tourist signs from either town on to the A30. Compton House is just off the main road.

Opening times: 10am to 5pm daily, from April to the end of September.

Admission: adults pounds 3.95, children 5-16, pounds 2.50. A family ticket for two adults and three children costs pounds 1l.90.

Facilities: the Nectary tea room serves hot drinks and prepacked snacks. The Conservation gift shop has a wide range of books, toys and silks from around the world. Outside there are large gardens planted to attract local butterflies, and for 25p you can buy a bag of feed for the peacocks, or for the rabbits and pigs in the small farm section. There is also a playground for children.

Access: most of the ground-floor exhibits are accessible with a wheelchair, but getting to Lullingstone Silk Farm does involve several flights of stairs.