Why getting lost on this Welsh estate is the best thing you can do

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Holly Tuppen heads to Wales for a wholesome weekend of nature-walks, local produce and hunkering down in Old-Lands’ 300-year-old stable block.

Holly Tuppen 28 January 2019

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Doted on by the combined passion of a photographer and a conservationist (Clare and Sam Bosanquet), Old-Lands had my heart racing long before I stepped foot on the 80-acre estate. 

From afar, mostly thanks to Clare’s beautiful images of Old-Lands’ self-catering cottages and rewilding projects, I knew that this was one of those rare finds where creativity and consideration outrun everything else. 

Last autumn, just as a bitter frost took its first bite out of an otherwise balmy October, I discovered it for myself. 

Slap bang in the middle of Monmouthshire, Old-Lands is a convenient base for exploring the dishevelled abbeys of the River Wye and stomp across the Brecon Beacons’ untamed hills. 

Despite being only three hours west of London, this part of Wales is often overlooked, but it shouldn’t be: the landscape is epic; overcrowding is never an issue and over the last ten years, Monmouthshire has garnered a reputation as a foodie hotspot.

Local producers have hero-status in these parts and the overflowing farm shops in every other village could easily give Wholefoods a run for its money. Four vineyards, three microbreweries, and two cider producers help to quench any thirst and one of the county’s two Michelin-starred restaurants, The Whitebrook, sends customers out foraging for ingredients. 

Slow living is part of this region’s DNA and Old-Lands follows suit.

Old Lands Travel Feature
“The honesty shop is crammed with seasonal produce mostly from the estate’s walled vegetable garden, alongside plastic-free jars of oats and cereals”

While the main house has a grandiose air about it, everything else glows with a more humble and wholesome warmth. 

We quickly settle into Horseshoes, which has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a kitchen and a snug partitioned by the original stable panels. The flagstone floors, hessian carpets, eclectic furniture and cosy Welsh tapestry blankets, make the little cottage sing with homeliness. A welcome pack of apple juice (pressed locally with apples from the estate), activity packs for the kids, letter-boxing maps, a compass and freshly picked wildflowers sets the tone perfectly.

At the back of Horseshoes, a heavy old door opens onto a grassy courtyard where bee-friendly flowers spill over pathways and scattered communal tables catch the sun at different times of the day. 

Next door, the honesty shop is crammed with seasonal produce (kale, chard, pumpkins, squash, potatoes) mostly from the estate’s walled vegetable garden, alongside plastic-free jars of oats and cereals, choice cuts of organic meat, eggs from a local farm, and other essentials. 

Old maps and crockery foraged from the attics are for sale alongside an old-fashioned weighing system to work out what you owe; the whole set up provides a healthy nostalgia kick.  

Old Lands Travel Feature 6

Take one of the row boats out for a spin and take a pond dipping kit to explore with

Opposite Horseshoes, a nature-room is packed with outdoor fun — pond-dipping kits, oars, maps, intriguing finds like skeletons and snake-skins, and more nature info than David Attenborough could absorb in a weekend.

There’s no need for David here. Before we get stuck into exploring for ourselves, Sam, who grew up on Old-Lands and has spent 25-years documenting its natural history, whisks us off on a nature walk. Shy at first, Sam lights up when it comes to the natural world and Old-Lands isn’t short of talking points. 

As we meander between fields, gardens, the lake, and woodland, Sam points out fairy-tale fly agaric mushrooms, mounds of cauliflower fungus, timid deer in the distant fields (that are starting to stray from the Forest of Dean) and brazen woodpeckers flying overhead. For the finale (before our toes freeze off), he leads us down to a secret stream to reveal otter spraints and pulls huge 50-year-old swan mussels out of the boggy water.  

This Old-Lands safari experience (which Sam explains is much fuller in spring, summer and early autumn when insects and birds are busier) is part of Sam and Clare’s environmental vision for the estate. As with so many estates across the UK, grant-funded farming intensification in the 1970s damaged the ecological balance of the land and endangered wildlife. By working in partnership with the Gwent Wildlife Trust, whose offices are in the Old-Lands’ courtyard, Sam and Clare hope to revert 80-acres of parkland and pasture into a species-rich meadow, low-intensity arable farming, small woodlands and marshy grassland. Restoring the balance of the land will help to support the micro-fauna needed for small mammals and their predators, including barn owls and stoats, to thrive. Tourism plays a crucial role in making this vision economically viable. 

Alongside the rewilding programmes, the entire estate is managed on traditional green principles. 

The three generations of Bosanquet’s are proud to be ‘slow to change and careful of consequences’ and this catchphrase springs to mind throughout our stay. The letter-box trail, the forest school for the kids and the lake’s small rowing boat incentivise us to explore Old-Lands’ many nooks and crannies, emulating Sam’s enthusiasm for micro-fauna along the way.

After scrumping apples for a crumble, we stumble upon the walled garden to wander among unruly creepers and abundant greens as dusk settles in. Before heading off for the weekend, one of the gardeners, Cherry Taylor, explains that since 2015, organic vegetables have been churned out of the walled garden using the Charles Dowding no dig method. I later discovered that Cherry herself is an expert and Old-Lands courses throughout the year support others in doing the same. This time, we were more than happy to just enjoy the fruits of Cherry’s labour.   

Sam and Clare are not alone in their desire to future-proof their estate, environmentally and economically. A rising tide of landowners across the UK (Knepp Estate, Lower-Mill Estate, and Comrie Croft to name a few) are stepping up conservation and rewilding efforts with visitors in mind. Just as tourism has funded the preservation of wetlands and wildlife in places like Botswana, the hope is that it can do the same right here in the UK. In case you’re not yet persuaded, that’s reason alone to visit.

Book a stay or find out more at www.old-lands.co.uk.

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