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You are cordially invited...

PUBLISHED: 11:07 17 November 2008 | UPDATED: 15:35 20 February 2013

Several stately homes are throwing open their doors this Christmas,<br/>inviting us to join in the seasonal cheer and sample the sumptuous<br/>surroundings of bygone years. Jane Tovey takes us on a tour...

Lights twinkling warmly through stone mullioned windows, banks of crimson poinsettias and statuary sparkling with hoar frost: these are just some of the simple and evocative pleasures on offer this Christmas when both Windsor Castle and The National Trust throw open their doors and invite us to enjoy sumptuously decorated rooms, delicious seasonal food, craft workshops and shopping opportunities.

Queen's Victoria's Windsor

This year there's a Victorian theme to the special Christmas displays and activities at Windsor Castle.

From December 8, the Castle's Christmas tree from Windsor Great Park will go on display in St George's Hall. Windsor is closely associated with the tradition of the Christmas tree, and Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, is credited with popularising tree decorations. The baubles and crowns that adorn the Castle's tree today are exclusive to the Royal Collection and can be purchased from the onsite shops, along with a range of luxury seasonal foods.

From December 9 until January 6, Queen Victoria's winter sleigh will be on public display for the first time at Windsor. Painted in dark red and gold and lined with red velvet, it was built by carriage-makers Hooper & Co. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert spent many Christmases at Windsor, and the queen often enjoyed sleigh rides through the park. Prince Albert drove the sleigh, which was pulled by a pair of horses with harnesses decorated with ostrich plumes and silver bells.

Families visiting on December 20 and 21 can learn how Queen Victoria and Prince Albert celebrated Christmas at Windsor. A special activity trail will reveal royal feasts and festive games, and the Victorian customs and traditions we maintain today. Children can then make their own traditional Victorian Christmas cards and decorations to take home.

For those looking for a very special experience this December, for the first time ever you can start your seasonal celebrations in style with a visit to the Castle once its doors have closed to the public. The Castle's new exclusive evening tour takes you through the sumptuous State Apartments in the company of an expert guide. Available on four evenings in December, it offers a unique opportunity to do something very special this festive season and go behind the scenes.

Visitors can soak up the atmosphere of the State Apartments after dark, see the Christmas tree from Windsor Great Park in the magnificent setting of St George's Hall and enjoy a glass of mulled wine at the end of the tour. There is also the opportunity to do some Christmas shopping in the peaceful surroundings of the Castle precincts, where a 20 per cent discount will be available in the Royal Collection shop, where you will find a host of original and unique gift ideas, as well as tree decorations and a range of luxury seasonal foods.



Basildon Park

This magnificent Georgian mansion, near Pangbourne, offers unrivalled sophistication, with the entire house, stable yard and tea room decorated in nostalgic styles from the past, and no fewer than seven beautifully dressed Christmas trees.

The floral decorations are the work of house steward and professional florist Neil Shaw, while local bell ringers and carol singers are visiting Basildon over two weekends in December, to evoke a festive feel.

The garden's woodland trail gives children the opportunity to run off some steam; these famous pleasure grounds overlooking the River Thames contain several delightful waymarked trails, making them an ideal location for winter walks.

Afterwards, visitors can enjoy delicious festive treats, such as roasted butternut squash and thyme soup followed by salmon with champagne sauce.

Hughenden Manor

This historic Victorian estate, just minutes from the centre of High Wycombe, is hosting a lively programme of events for all ages throughout December. Visitors can view three of its fine rooms decked in winter finery and fragrant spices to capture the atmosphere of a 19th-century Christmas. Below stairs in the servants' quarters, Christmas puddings are waiting to be stirred and guests are invited to make a wish as they mix up the delicious ingredients.

Again there'll be visits from local hand-bell ringers, carol singers and a brass band, creating a really traditional Christmas experience. There are heaps of activities for youngsters too, from the winding garden trail and story-telling spots, to that all-important chat with Hughenden's roaming Santa! The huge Christmas tree lit up on the North Lawn is a welcoming sight as people enter the grounds.

National Trust restaurants and tea rooms change their menus throughout the year, using seasonal produce wherever possible, and the Christmas season is no exception. At Hughenden Manor, the Stableyard Restaurant's Christmas lunches include such delights as roast partridge on a bed of spiced cabbage and Old English trifle.

Don't forget a trip to the gift shop either. It's heaving with goodies, some of which are unique to the Chilterns. Hughenden sells the locally produced Benjamin Disraeli Hughenden Ale, brewed by the Chilterns Brewery. Other popular items include the best-selling 'Henkeeping' guide for amateur smallholders and the Trust's famous Christmas pudding wrapped in traditional muslin and bow.

For details of all National Trust

opening times over Christmas, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

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