Friday, August 18, 2017

Review: Houghton Lodge and Gardens, Stockbridge, Hampshire

On a sunny day Houghton Lodge and Gardens in Stockbridge, Hampshire, is a beautiful place for afternoon tea, a wedding reception or simply a stroll around the gardens. It has an orangery, a manor house, various sections of gardens, a river running through the bottom and – this is the best part – a field with alpacas.


My husband and I considered Houghton Lodge as a wedding venue as it was in the right area and we were quite taken by the idea of the above – a former work colleague of mine got married in the church in the village and had his reception at Houghton Lodge in a marquee by the river and the photos looked lovely.
However, when we came to look around the venue and ask questions, we were rather underwhelmed about actually having it for our wedding. The orangery by the entrance and the attached conservatory looked to me like a garden centre cafĂ© – albeit a nice one. As we didn’t want to get married in church, the only option for enough guests at Houghton Lodge was to hold the ceremony itself in the orangery, a long rectangular room that forms an L-shape with the conservatory.
What put me off was that we were told if we did this and hired the orangery for the ceremony, the conservatory would remain open to the public as the owners didn’t want to close the entire place for a wedding. That meant there would be complete strangers sitting literally just behind our guests watching our wedding which I thought was very strange! Admittedly this was nearly two years ago and perhaps things have changed so if you are considering getting married here then you should get in touch with the wedding coordinator and find out what they can offer.
The reason I mention this, though, despite it being two years ago is that I went back a couple of months ago for a friend’s birthday. She had chosen Houghton Lodge for afternoon tea, having never been here before and not realising I’d considered it as a wedding venue- I was looking forward to visiting and seeing the alpacas again.
As my husband and I arrived, I joked to him that we might find that there was a wedding happening while we had our afternoon tea – and there was! As we paid for entry to the gardens, the lady on the till told us there was a wedding party arriving in an hour and that part of the gardens would be shut but we could still access the rest of the grounds. It was actually a wedding reception so they wouldn’t be having a ceremony here and we had a table in the orangery set up for us to have afternoon tea, so I didn’t think we would be in the way.
I had a quick look around the top part of the gardens, which I think is the walled kitchen gardens, then went to sit inside and waited for my friends. There was a door from the orangery directly into the garden so I figured when they arrived we would go outside and enjoy the grounds.
I also tried out my macro lens after doing a macro photography lesson recently.
However, when the wedding party arrived this door was locked, meaning we had to stay in the orangery (watching the bride through the windows which must have been a little odd for her) and then if we wanted to go out, walk around the outside and down into the other gardens, which in my opinion aren’t anywhere near as pretty. In fact we headed towards the river and saw a marquee being set up for the reception and thought perhaps we shouldn’t walk through that part either, so went the other way and down to the alpacas instead. 
By the time some of my friends arrived the wedding party was already here, meaning they paid full price for entrance to the gardens on arrival only to find they couldn’t actually go into all of the gardens. It was also surprising that the cost of afternoon tea didn’t include entry into the gardens and we’d had to pay for that separately.
The afternoon tea itself was nice though nothing that special, and my friend had pre-ordered a vegan afternoon tea for one of our party which the caterers had completely forgotten about, and the only vegan item on the menu they could offer her was a vegetable soup.
We had a selection of sandwiches that were nice but fairly basic – ham, cucumber, cheese and smoked salmon followed by scones with cream and jam, and two or three types of cake – what I think was a lemon and pistachio savarin (a small ring-shaped cake) with icing, mini Victoria sponges and I think something else I can’t remember. I was a little underwhelmed, I suppose having had some amazing afternoon teas before, but it was nice enough (aside from the lack of promised vegan option).
You can spend quite a lot of time here exploring the gardens and walking by the riverside, and there are things to look out for around the gardens that would be fun for children (such as a dragon and a topiary peacock) but in my opinion it was a shame both for visitors that they can be charged admission then told parts of the garden are closed for a wedding, and also for the wedding party who have to put up with random members of the public walking around and watching them. Some people wouldn’t mind that as you can’t always expect exclusive hire of your wedding venue especially if you are in a hotel but given the size of the gardens I am surprised that they don’t just close them to the public, or at the very least warn people when they book afternoon tea that there is also a wedding booked. 


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