Barmy aristocrats, a family feud, a great Elizabethan house and lions in the backyard - why would anyone not want to visit Longleat?
Not too long ago the BBC program All Change at Longleat offered viewers a revealing behind-the-scenes look at what's been going on since the endearingly loony Lord Bath (Alexander Thynn, 7th Marquess of Bath) handed over the business reins of the Longleat estate to his much less colorful son and heir, Viscount Weymouth.
The show was better than a soap opera as Ceawlin (the Viscount, whose name is pronounced Syoolin) and his new wife Emma took over the place and immediately fell out with the old man. It's available on YouTube and it's worth a look in for a giggle.
Meanwhile, life goes on as normal for visitors to the great stately home and amazing safari park. Here's what you need to know to plan a visit.
First A Bit of Background
Longleat has been welcoming visitors since the late 1940s. The house an outstanding example of High Elizabethan architecture in England, was the first stately home ever opened to the public on a commercial basis. In a way, Henry, the 6th Marquess, father of the current Marquess of Bath, pioneered the tourism genre of stately homes as multiple activity attractions.
In 1966, Longleat opened the first drive-through Safari Park outside of Africa. It has since been seen by millions, worldwide, through the BBC's Animal Park television series.
Today, Longleat, set within 900 acres of Capability Brown landscaped park and 8,000 acres of woodland, lakes and farmland, is crammed with family activities and attractions, including:
Completed by 1580, Longleat was already a splendid house when it was visited by Queen Elizabeth I in 1574. Today's visitors can enjoy the remarkable collections of one family who have looked after the house for 14 generations, over 400 years. Among its treasures are masterpieces of Italian Renaissance and seven libraries (some of which are included in tours) filled with 40,000 books - the largest private collection in Europe.
One of the gorier items in the family collection is the bloodstained waistcoat worn by King Charles I at his execution. You can see it displayed in the Great Hall.
The notorious murals and portraits painted by the current Lord Bath decorate the private apartments and can be seen on morning guided tours of the ground floor. One reason for the family feud, as seen in the BBC documentary, was Viscount Weymouth's removal of one of the murals - his wife said they smelled. She meant they smelled of oil paint, but some art critics have been of the same opinion.
Longleat Safari Park
When Longleat first opened its safari park in the 1960s, the locals worried about lions roaming around the Wiltshire countryside. It's not an idle worry.
One of the revealing snippets of All Change at Longleat was the fact that estate managers carefully check the three miles of fencing around the safari park every day. They don't expect the big cats to tunnel out. But if a large branch falls in the night, it could provide a ladder for a lion or tiger to climb over a fence.
Visitors don't have to worry - as long as they stay safely locked in their cars. As you drive through, you can expect close encounters with wolves, giraffes, rhinos, two prides of the famous black-maned Longleat lions and, if you are lucky, the shy Siberian tigers. The gangs of Rhesus monkeys that commit all kinds of mayhem on cars passing through the monkey jungle are very popular with families. And, if you take a boat ride on the park's lake, you may spot members of the new colony of lowland gorillas on the island in the middle. This was once the home of Nico, the park's Silverback gorilla who was one of the world's oldest known Silverbacks and a widower. He lived in splendid isolation on his own island. Sadly, Nico died at 56 years of age in 2018. The new gorillas are now settling in.
Also settling in is the family of Koalas. The park has created an Aussie paradise for them at Koala Creek.
Besides being a park attraction, with more than 100 species to see, Longleat plays a vital role in international breeding, conservation and rescue programs. Every year there are new arrivals. In 2019 the park celebrated the birth of two Amur Tiger cubs. This endangered species is the world's largest cat. Later in the year, seven wolf cubs were born in Wolf Wood.
- Where: Longleat, Warminster, Wiltshire BA12 7NW England
- Phone:+44 (0)1985 844 400
- Visit their website
- Open: Longleat House, the Safari Park and the Adventure Park (with a superb Maze) are open from late March to November 1, from November 13 to December 6 and from December 11 to January 3, except for Christmas Day. Last admission and closing times vary based on daylight hours. Check the website for dates and times because opening days and hours vary slightly from year to year.
- Admission: Adult, child and senior tickets (for 60+) are available for the whole park, including Longleat House, or for the house and garden only. No family tickets are offered but online tickets cost 15% less than full price.
- How to Get There:
- By car: Longleat is just off the A36 between Bath and Salisbury on the A362 Warminster – Frome road. It's about 106 miles and 2.5 hours from London.
- By train: From London, take the Paddington to Penzance service to Westbury Station, 12 miles from Longleat. Warminster Station, 5 miles away, can be reached from London Waterloo, changing at Salisbury or from London Paddington, changing at Bath Spa. Check National Rail Enquiries for times and prices. Taxis from both stations can be booked.