Britain Days Out: Butter-making, rat skeletons and picnics in the orchard

The Drinkwater family travelled back a century in time at Cogges Manor Farm Museum in Witney, Oxfordshire. Catherine Stubbings talked to them afterwards.
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The Independent Online
The pace is slow at Cogges Manor Farm. A couple of Jersey cows lazily chew the cud, pigs and piglets lie sprawled across the straw in their sties and an old donkey gently nods off to the sound of children playing in the orchard. The dairymaid wanders through the farmyard, introducing animals to visitors and saving hens and ducks from enthusiastic young poultry-batterers.

This 20-acre farm is run as it would have been in Victorian times, with traditional breeds of animals, staff in authentic costume and not a tractor in sight. A few of the Cotswold stone outbuildings are used to show farm implements and machinery, where hens peck around the old seed drills.

Nestling in the water meadows beside the busy market town of Witney, the Manor at Cogges is in stark contrast to the housing estates around it, yet surprisingly unspoilt by them. Although the charming house dates from the 13th century in parts, it is presented as it would have been at the turn of the 20th century, when the Mawle family owned it as part of a 500-acre estate. The simply furnished rooms have flagged stone floors, panelled walls and many original features.

Upstairs a nursery and bedroom tell more about the life of the Mawle family. Another room shows rare 17th-century painted panelling. One bedroom is an activity centre where children can play traditional games or dress up in Victorian costume.

Throughout the house the smell of baking wafts up from the kitchen, where the cook makes cakes, pies and biscuits.

There is nothing particularly rare or remarkable here, but it is a lovely, low-key history lesson. Rural life at the turn of the century is perfectly shown.

The visitors

Philippa Drinkwater took her children Harriet, eight, Charlie, five, and William, two.

Philippa: We all had a very happy day. Cogges was relaxed, low key and not commercial. William loved all the animals and the older two enjoyed the house. Charlie seemed to enjoy the historical aspects; he was very worried about the maid getting cold, having to sleep in the attic.

We arrived just in time to see the Jersey cow being milked and the eggs being collected. Then we looked around the farmyard and barns. In the house, someone was busy in the kitchen making apple pies with apples from the garden and eggs and butter off the farm. She cooked on an old, solid fuel range and handed out biscuits and apples to hungry children. We had a lovely picnic in the orchard, then the children joined the storyteller under the apple tree.

It is not huge, but there was just enough to keep the children going. The displays of old farmyard implements and machinery didn't really appeal to them because, with sharp blades involved, one can't expect to work anything. However, it was nice to tie in a little local history with the display on Witney blankets. I did feel it could have been a little more hands-on.

The activity room was good, with something for everyone: Gothic arches to be built, barns to be constructed, puzzles, games and some wonderful dressing-up clothes, complete with Victorian face masks. The old-fashioned kitchen garden was full of all the sorts of things I would love to grow: apple trees, artichokes, pumpkins, lavender, flowers for cutting.

Harriet: It was quite a big house, with all the rooms as they would have been in the olden days. I liked the room where they showed what they had found when they were restoring the house. There were lots of drawers with old wallpaper and plaster and things. There were also lots of things that they had found under the floorboards, like buttons, coins, jewellery and a horrid rat skeleton,

I found the farmyard and machinery a little bit boring but I liked the house. In the activity room I built a barn by putting the timbers together. It looked quite like the one where we had our drinks.

Charlie: It was not very big, just a house, a farmyard, an orchard, a few fields and a little wood, but I had a good time. I liked the farmyard best, with all the animals: cows, pigs, rabbits, funny hens with fluffy feet, a donkey, horses and some cats.

I sort of know what it would have been like in the olden days, but you had to live then to know what it was really like. There would have been no electricity, so they had candles and lanterns instead of lights. There was no television, so in the evenings they had to read or talk or play, and the girls had to sew or knit.

The people who work here all wear olden-day clothes. They are very nice, but they don't talk much.

William liked the farm puzzles in the activity room.

The deal

Getting there: Cogges Manor Farm Museum, Church Lane, Witney (01993 703056) is signposted off the A40. There is a free car park a short walk from the museum and disabled parking on site.

Opening times: March-2 November. Tuesday to Friday, 10.30am-5.30pm; Saturday and Sunday, noon-5pm.

Admission: adults pounds 3, children (5-16) pounds l.50, OAP pounds l.75, family (two adults, two children) pounds 8.

Access: Limited for wheelchairs; some uneven ground and steps on site, especially in the house. Tape commentary and history file for Manor House first-floor displays. Call in advance for help during your visit.

Dogs: on lead in gardens, not allowed in the house.

Events: Daily events such as milking, pig feeding, work with the horse and storytelling are listed on a board at the entrance. Butter-making can be seen most Sunday mornings and there are regular lace-making and spinning demonstrations. Special weekends are 6-7 September, steam-threshing, 5 October, harvest home, 11-12 October, rag rug weekend, 6-7 December, Advent weekend 11am-4pm.

Food: Small cafeteria serves light meals, snacks, teas, home-made cakes. Children's meal: roll, juice and fromage frais, pounds l.50.

Shop: Small but imaginative, selling local crafts, toys, souvenirs, Witney blankets and fruit, vegetables and eggs from the farm.

Tollets: Good clean facilities.

pit stop

After your trip to Cogges Farm take the family to Witney Lodge, Ducklington Lane, Witney, Oxfordshire OX8 7TJ.

Situated just outside Witney at the junction of the A40 and A415, Cogges Farm is a modern hotel with an attractive stone frontage. It has bright, practical accommodation, a rustic-style bar-lounge and a purpose-built leisure centre with a decent-size indoor pool. Family facilities include a splash pool for toddlers alongside the bright, daylight pool; children up to 16 stay free in parents' room. Other facilities include a gym, indoor swimming pool, spa bath, sauna, solarium, snooker. Access, Amex, Diners, Visa. Tel 01993 779777; fax 01993 703467

From Egon Ronay's Guide And Children Come Too. Bookman pounds 9.99.