The name Longleat is practically synonymous with lions, and the beasts still roam regally in the Safari Park, with giraffes, zebras, camels, llamas, tigers, wolves, rhinoceroses, and elephants. The lions were brought to the Wiltshire estate in 1966 by the late Lord Bath with the help of the circus owner Jimmy Chipperfield, and no matter what attractions are added to this extraordinary collection, and the facilities of the great Elizabethan house, the lions stick in our minds.
But among the non-lion reasons to take a school group to Longleat are the activities for children, including a sculpture workshop and an event in a Victorian kitchen.
The sculpture workshop takes place in the orangery where, standing among exotic palms, orchids, cacti and other hothouse plants, it is possible to make a mess without anyone minding. The artist-in-residence Mark Ashton-Barrett offers the facility of plaster-casting the human hand, an idea imported from Osborne House.
For a group of top juniors from St Mary's School near Bath, the swift production of the casts bring cries of delight. "I feel like a real artist!" says one child. "It's a miracle!" says another. Each casts his or her own hand in modelling material so fine that the lines in the skin are reproduced. Their teacher Sandy Shepherd says such work would have been much harder to organise at school. She believes the whole experience "fires the children, gives them an edge", and points out that not all of them work with 3-D forms, which are required by the national curriculum. Afterwards pupils take their hand sculptures back to school and sketch them.
The cost of the journey to Longleat for the art workshop is deemed worthwhile by Iris Grix of Samborne Primary School in nearby Warminster. She quotes a Year 6 pupil: "It was special, the place was relaxing." Like St Mary's School, her group took part in a workshop that included the creation of a huge oil painting made with hand prints. "The big picture is fantastic; we've got it up now in the hall," she says. "At school, people would have been afraid to have made such a mess." A drawback mentioned by the teachers is the limit on the size of art groups. It is not practical to have more than a dozen working in the orangery at once, although groups can be split in two, allowing one group to look at the house while the other sculpts. "The workshop is fine for a small, after-school art club like ours," says Iris Grix. She praises Mark Ashton-Barrett: "The children all liked him." "It's nice to see people enjoying it," says the artist, modestly.
Animal workshops next, and once again there is much that is positive to say. The animal handling situations are safe and protected and Longleat staff clearly love the animals but respect them. Thus, with a temperamental parrot on their arm they will direct children to keep back, but in a friendly manner.
Mixed-ability pupils from a special school on the outskirts of Oxford are enjoying their handling session at Pets Corner. Children who are afraid are encouraged to stay at a distance where they feel safe and after some initial giggling and sqealing they soon settle down.
The children examine Hocus Pocus, the royal python - a substantial creature 42 inches long - and handle a tarantula that seems the size of a hen, after which the domestic tortoise is a breeze. "The visit was pitched exactly right, " said Eira Evans of Iffley Mead Special School. "The children learned most about habitats and their own fears," she adds.
The visit took place on a day of unsettled weather, which seems to have added to the fun. "Hail, snow and rain on the same day," says Eira Evans, "meant they had to shelter in the animal houses several times." A favourite was the baby goat. "These are experiences city children don't have. It is very valuable. "
The Victorian kitchen experience involves a certain amount of dressing up, no baking or cooking, and an examination of contemporary kitchen tools. "What do you think this is used for?" is the main question. The answer might be snuffing out candles, or blowing the fire to get it to burn.
The children of the Cwmarfan School, Port Talbot were reasonably engaged by this visual quiz, then they got the chance to write on slates using lead pencils.
Opportunities at Longleat are many and the best of them seem to involve animals or art. The education department produces some printed materials but not worksheets. Older pupils may enjoy visiting the house itself, not least for the staggering collection of 40,000 books is held in seven rooms. The books include volumes printed by Caxton as well as some that are hand copied. Books can be handled only by arrangement with the librarian and are released on application to special interest groups, schools and institutions.
Longleat, Warminster, Wiltshire, BA12 7NW. Tel: 01985 845421