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Lydiard Park - Swindon's Surprise

A gentle rural ramble from a Palladian mansion and country park on Swindon's urban fringe.

Distance 3.3 miles (5.3km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 65ft (20m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Field paths (can be muddy), tracks and metalled lanes, 11 stiles

Landscape Farmland, parkland, woodland

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 169 Cirencester & Swindon

Start/finish SU 101844

Dog friendliness Can be off lead in country park

Parking Free parking at Lydiard Country Park

Public toilets Lydiard Country Park

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1 Turn left out of the car park, pass the Forest Café and a wooden barrier and continue along the track to Lydiard House and the church. At the church, bear left through the car park, ignoring the stile on your right, and go through a gate. Walk beside a walled garden and follow the path left into woodland.

2 Just before reaching a small clearing, turn right (it's marked by a red striped post) to reach a kissing gate and cattle grid on the woodland edge. Proceed straight ahead across the field on a defined path to a stile and plank bridge in the right-hand corner.

3 Continue through the edge of a small plantation, passing beneath electricity cables, and turn left across a stile in the corner of the plantation. Follow the waymarker across the field to a stile and turn right, following the path within the edge of woodland. Bear left, then right, climb wooden steps and, emerging in the corner of a field, turn left with the red striped post marker and cross a stile.

4 Go across the gap (can be muddy) between two fields to a waymarker, then follow the right-hand field edge to a stile and gate. Follow the farm track ahead, then just beyond the first of two metal barriers, turn right down the track to the road.

5 Turn right then, in about 200yds (183m), take the arrowed footpath to the left through a gate. Bear half-left to double stiles and maintain your direction to a further stile. Turn sharp right along the field edge to reach a gate by a barn, then bear half-left across the field, passing beneath electricity power cables to a stile in the corner.

6 Cut diagonally across the road to a stile and gate. Bear right around the field edge, alongside a small copse to a stile. Almost immediately turn left through a gate and walk down a long narrow field. Swing right with the field boundary and eventually turn right across the stile by the cattle grid encountered on your outward route. Retrace your steps back to the country park and car park.

Right on the edge of the modern town of Swindon lies the 244 acre (99ha) Lydiard Park, an easily accessible and delightful buffer against any further westward urban spread. Within the wooded and eminently explorable park is one of Wiltshire's smaller and lesser known stately homes, a Palladian mansion, the ancestral home of the Viscounts Bolingbroke and their church, St Mary's, in the village of Lydiard Tregoze. This walk takes you through the park and across farmland following rights of way and Swindon's new Millennium Trail.

The present house, built in 1743, was saved from dereliction by the Swindon Corporation in 1943. Part of the property now serves as a hostel but the ground floor has been restored to its former 19th-century glory, complete with ornate plasterwork, original family furnishings, a rare painted glass window, portraits of the St John family (the Bolingbrokes) who lived here from Elizabethan times and lifelike waxwork inhabitants. As one of Wiltshire's smaller stately homes, it has an intimate atmosphere rarely found in larger houses which have opened their doors to the public. Here you have the impression of stepping back in time to pay a social call on wealthy relations, a family, which like many of us, has had its share of ups and downs. Even the park has had its misfortunes; it was used as a prisoner of war camp at the end of the Second World War and lost all the fine elm trees, which lined the driveway from 1911, to Dutch elm disease.

During the Civil War the Bolingbroke's sided with the losing Royalists and although rewarded during the Restoration were disappointed when Henry St John (1652-1742) was bestowed with the title of a 'mere' Viscount in 1712 rather than becoming an Earl. Rather too close a friendship with France in the early 18th century led to a period of exile for Henry before he received a royal pardon. In 1768 the Second Viscount, Frederick St John, sensationally for the time, divorced his wife, Lady Diana Spencer, daughter of the Duke of Marlborough. Further periods of 'absenteeism', this time to Germany and heavy mortgage liabilities finally saw the break up of the estate in the 1920s and 30s.

The church contains a further history of the family in the form of memorials. Family trees, paintings, stained-glass windows and tomb effigies are all in evidence. The most impressive of the latter is The Golden Cavalier, a magnificent, lifesize, fully gilded, statue of Sir John St John (1585-1648). He emerges from his tent fully clad for one of the Civil War battles. As imposing as he looks one cannot but think of the inner sadness of a man who in that conflict lost his King and three of his sons.

What to look for

Look out for the ice house, which supplied ice to the Lydiard kitchens, and the 18th-century Ha Ha, a steep-sided brick-lined trench which kept cattle and sheep out of the park. In St Mary's Church look for the 15th-century wall paintings and the splendid 17th-century St John Triptych, a monument of painted display panels commemorating the St John family.

While you're there

Near by, in Swindon, you'll find Steam - Museum of the Great Western Railway, where you will discover the remarkable story of the railway by means of various imaginative and fascinating exhibits. At Blunsdon Station, near Purton, is the Swindon and Cricklade Railway, Wiltshire's only standard gauge heritage railway which operates both steam and diesel locomotives.

Where to eat and drink

Seek refreshment in the Forest Café within the park's visitor centre, or head further afield to the Three Crowns at Brinkworth (west off B4042) for excellent pub food. Alternatively, picnic beneath shady trees on the lawn in front of Lydiard House.

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