Stourhead Garden is my favourite place in the world - a magical fantasy landscape nestled in it's own valley with eccentric follies and rich dense woodlands. Although keen to introduce my son to this fairytale setting I was concerned that the two mile trek around the lake would start a chorus of 'My legs hurt', 'Carry me!', or 'Can we go now?'. As it turns out I underestimated both my little man's stamina and the ability of Stourhead to captivate.
Like many National Trust venues our journey begins with the obligatory shop, restaurant and visitor centre where you can buy tickets to both the gardens and the grand Palladian house. I've never been inclined to visit the house and I'm not in the mood to take a small person with wandering hands into an antique-stuffed museum. Anyway the gardens are the real attraction.
The entrance fee into the gardens is around £20, money well spent I assure my grumbling partner as we trudge across the drab car park and wind our way down to the picturesque village of Stourton. There are a range of perfectly pretty buildings here including a decent pub but the decision has been made to eat our sandwiches on the grass down by the lake - a seemingly ideal picnic spot until we are engulfed in a cloud of ravenous, sandwich-stealing ducks forcing us to flee.
We decided to follow the suggested route around the lake which takes in all of the architectural highlights and makes the most of the views. The first couple of follies are passed without much enthusiasm ('they're just buildings, Mum') so it is down to the famous grotto to really inspire us. Through a mysterious rock archway we descend into the cool, damp and drippy space where we are greeted by statues of gods and water nymphs. Never one to miss a chance to indulge my inner nerd, I start telling The Boy tales from Ancient Greece. Before I can finish the first sentence he's off exploring but a lovely American couple are enthralled. The grotto has one of the best vantage points of the lake - a stone window which feels as if you are floating on the water itself.
After soaking up the mystical vibes we ascend from this underworld and race off to our next stop, the Gothic Cottage. This building is pure fairytale; wonky walls, mullioned windows and a huge open fireplace...all that's missing is a witch and her cauldron. There are some pencils and paper for visitors to create their own pictures or leave messages and this proves a welcome break for little legs.
We don't stop for long as there are some wonderful tree climbing opportunities to be had. I'm not sure what the National Trust policy is on tree climbing but it had to be done.
As we continue around the lake we struggle to keep up with The Boy as he races ahead of us bursting with excitement, wondering what he will find next. More mythical temples, more trees to get entangled in, a bridge over the water, and a cascade waterfall. He's delighted to find a frog (or was it a toad?) lurking in the undergrowth. The poor creature is left quaking after very enthusiastic attempts to befriend it.
Soon we arrive at The Fairy Stairs. They probably have a far more mundane name in real life but fairy stairs is exactly what they are. We climb the steep, rocky path, carved from jagged rocks, stopping at the little hidey holes and miniature caves to catch our breath. We burst out from the relative gloom of the woods and find ourselves high above the lake at the Temple of Apollo. This is the spot for a duck-free picnic and so we sit on the low walls of the temple to soak up the astonishing view below us as we eat in peace.
Ambling back down the hill we go through a dark rocky tunnel, plucked straight from the pages of a Brothers Grimm tale and wander back to the village enjoying the warmth of the sun as it dips low over the lake.
By the time we retrace our steps to the car park little legs are in need of a carry (at this point he isn't the only one with aching legs!). Having run himself ragged he's asleep in his seat before we leave the car park. This would be the end of our day had the Other Half not spotted a sign for a farm shop near the entrance. Intrigued he insists on a flying visit and is delighted to discover it specialises in local artisan cheeses. So with one snoring child and a stinking bag of cheese we leave this magical land behind.