Free pass for time travellers

HUNDREDS of Chilterns venues throw their doors open next month for ten days of free open days, tours, walks and talks as part of England’s largest festival of history and culture.

Each September thousands of volunteers across the country do their bit to allow guests to experience local history, architecture and culture with no entrance fees.

RAILWAY AGE: the ward-winning Victorian station house at Ridgmont in Bedfordshire

This year’s festival will take place from September 11-20, supported by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery.

From a Victorian station house in Bedfordshire to a derelict wire mill in Berkshire or a haven for wildlife in suburban Reading, venues offer a chance for local people to connect with the past – and the natural world.

POND DIPPING: Lousehill Copse is a haven for wildlife in suburban Reading

Nationwide, destinations range from castles to factories, town halls to tithe barns and temples. Not all events are registered yet, but several hundred Chilterns venues are already listed on the Heritage Open Days website.

As well as experiencing local events, this year virtual visitors can participate in activities further afield and see even more hidden places.

TWITCHERS’ TRAIL: try birdwatching at Linford Lakes Nature Reserve in Milton Keynes

For the first time, the programme will include a range of digital events allowing communities to celebrate their stories while adhering to social distancing measures. Some venues and outdoor spaces will open for pre-booked events and visits by small groups, while others will offer virtual tours and digital experiences.

Every year around 50,000 volunteers give their time and effort to help create the largest cultural grassroots festival in the country. Last year 5,700 events were organised which welcomed more than 2.4 million visitors.

This year’s theme is Hidden Nature, which offers an opportunity to discover the nature that exists on our doorsteps, as well as the built heritage. Areas of the countryside that aren’t normally accessible to the public will be opened up and events will reveal the hidden history of not just our natural landscapes, but also gardens, green spaces, urban parks, orchards, vineyards, farms and forests.

Annie Reilly, head of producing for the National Trust, said: “Heritage Open Days is about connecting people so we can share in the amazing stories of the places, spaces, nature, heritage and history around us.”

Heritage Open Days is coordinated and promoted nationally by the National Trust with support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery. All events are free, including access to many sites that usually charge for admission.

Exotic sights in St Albans

VISITORS get a last chance to savour some spectacular floral displays and exotic butterflies this weekend as Aylett Nurseries’ “autumn festival” draws to a close.

The Hertfordshire family nursery has long been associated with cultivating dahlias, and has won awards for decades for its stunning displays of the bushy perennials which first arrived in Britain from their native Mexico more than 200 years ago.

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A marquee in the main nursery contains a magnificent splash of colour with its array of home-grown dahlias on the travel theme of “The Way To Go”, while the Celebration Garden and dahlia field where the plants are grown are also open for charity as part of the National Garden Scheme.

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Dahlias were a great passion of the late Roger Aylett, who started the business on the same 7½ acres of land at the age of 21 and was soon dispatching the stunning plants to all corners of the country.

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Inside the marquee this year are more than 55 dahlia varieties freshly cut from the dahlia field, where visitors can use ribbons to pick out their favourites.

The “flagship” of the nursery for over 60 years, since 1961 Aylett displays have picked up 55 gold medals at Royal Horticultural Society annual shows – and it’s not hard to see why.

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Declared the national flower of Mexico in 1963 and grown as a food crop by the Aztecs, there are 42 species of dahlia, with hybrids commonly grown as garden plants.

The official RHS classification lists 14 different groups and there are more than 57,000 cultivars providing an extraordinarily diverse array of colours and shapes.

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For younger visitors less overwhelmed by the displays in the dahlia marquee, there is a last chance to visit “Butterfly Corner”, an enclosed area housing an array of tropical plants and exotic butterflies.

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These include the postman, flambeau and stunning blue morpho, one of the largest in the world. Guests can learn about the fascinating life cycle of the butterfly and watch butterflies feed and fly.

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There is a puparium where new butterflies emerge and younger gardeners can enjoy spotting the different species, caterpillars and butterfly eggs. The butterflies, eggs, caterpillars and plants will be relocated to the Butterfly House at Whipsnade Zoo when the exhibition closes this weekend.

Visitors to the nursery this weekend also get the chance to vote in the Around the World Crate Competition where individuals, schools, clubs and associations were invited to compete for £100 of gift vouchers.

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The competition focuses on the theme of transport and travel and entrants were encouraged to create a miniature world inside a wooden crate which could be displayed during the festival.

Winners will be decided by public vote, with the winner announced on Monday.

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