Heaven for the curious

DAYS OUT From a magic garden to parrots and narwhal tusks, Sheldon Manor exudes eccentricity - as Catherine Stebbings found out
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The Independent Travel
Sheldon Manor has been a family home for more than 700 years. While generations have passed and names have changed, it is still tangibly alive; its ancient rooms and rambling gardens welcome you as warmly as its present owner, Mrs Gibbs.

The magnificent vaulted 13th-century porch, with "priest's room" above, is one of the finest in England. Extensions to the original structure include a 15th-century east wing with a wonderful library and a 17th- century west wing. But while the architecture is impressive, the interiors are richly beguiling. Antique and ancient furniture is surrounded byeccentric collections. This is a heaven for the curious of any age.

The gardens were largely created by the present owners. Formal terraced lawns in front of the house lead down to a magical water garden. Here a swimming pool is set into the bottom terrace, surrounded by lawn. Around the garden colourful blooms fill massive Dutch cheese vats and roses ramble over high stone walls.

If you come here for lunch there's a treat in store. The-18th century stable block now serves as the restaurant. Old mangers brim with fresh flowers and trestle tables are decked with checked tablecloths, more flowers and candles. Lunch itself is delicious - a family affair, prepared with local ingredients and old-fashioned family recipes.

The visitors

Catherine Stebbings, writer, and her husband Jonathan, teacher, took their daughters Imogen, seven, Polly, five, and Claudia, three.

Catherine: Sheldon epitomises all things English. The beautiful house, eclectic contents, extensive gardens and charming owners exude an eccentricity that is uniquely native. Mrs Gibbs welcomed us at the door and handed us a decorated paper plate with details of the most eye-catching objects in the hall. We admired the huge narwhal tusks propped against the fine Dutch cabinet while the children were encouraged to beat an African drum. Lunch was superb. Ham was carved off the bone as we chose from among 10 interesting salads and wonderful accompaniments like spiced pears, pickled oranges and sensational chutney.

Jonathan: The wonderful ramblingmanor house is very much someone's home. The quirky collection of things, from fine paintings, superb furniture and impressive china, is complemented by family photos and grandchildren's doodles. One gets the feel of the place being lived in and loved which makes it very different from formal heritage sites. The most peaceful place is the simple chapel in which the family's young are still christened and there was a notice asking you to keep the door open for nesting swallows.

The children were encouraged to do things for which you would be thrown out in other places; sitting on the furniture and handling the delft. They were thrilled to spot the pet parrot in the kitchen: "I hope you said hello," said Mrs Gibbs, totally unconcerned that they may have peeped through a screen to see it.

Imogen: The front door was very old - it looked just like a church door with its pointed top and heavy studs. Inside it was very homely and they seemed to like children. This was much better than a museum because we could touch things, ask questions and run around the garden. I liked the cream tea in the garden.

Polly: We had such a lovely day I didn't want to go home. We played hide and seek in the wild garden's long grass. There were lots of secret places and we could explore all day. We saw a four-poster bed, lots of glass walking sticks, and in the library there was a camel saddle.

Claudia: For lunch I ate chicken and bread at the kitchen table. The cat sat next to me. On the table there were flowers and a candle in a bottle. I had a really nice day running around the trees and singing in the garden.

The deal

Sheldon Manor, Chippenham (01249 653120) is sign-posted off the A429 and the A420.

Open: Easter Sunday-October, Thursday and Sunday only. Grounds and restaurant 12.30pm-6pm, house 2pm-6pm. House entry - adults pounds 3.50, children (11-16) pounds 1, seniors pounds 3.25. Garden - adults pounds 2, children 50p, seniors pounds 1.75 (children under 11 free). Dogs on lead.

Access: Paths are well maintained and access on foot is relatively easy. Disabled access is not possible indoors but wheelchairs could cope with much of the garden.

Food: The licensed restaurant serves excellent homemade cold lunches, pounds 6.75, soup pounds 2. Reduced rates for children.