The heat was still sweltering as we headed off at dusk towards the hide to watch wildlife with our enthusiastic guide, Leonie. My wife and I were on our first ever safari — or rather ‘stayfari’. No, we weren’t in deepest Africa, but in deepest Gloucestershire. And we weren’t on the look out for lions and elephants, but beavers.
We were staying at Lower Mill Estate, near Cirencester. Consisting of 550 acres of beautiful lakes, fields and woodlands, it’s been described as the most important private nature reserve in Europe. In Lower Mill, the houses fit around the wildlife, and not the other way round: all of them have bird boxes and bat-friendly roofs.
We arrived in our spacious lakeside apartment to find a welcome pack including a bottle of wine, milk, eggs, bacon and other provisions. We sat on our balcony and were immediately in ‘the zone’.
On Saturday evening, Leonie called to take us beaver-watching. Beavers were native to Britain but became extinct around 500 years ago. Then in 2005, six from Bavaria were reintroduced into the wild at Lower Mill. We waited a good 45 minutes before we finally spotted some splashing at the far end of the lake and managed to get a sight of these commendably industrious but very shy creatures.
Next morning we headed off to the spa, sauna and outdoor swimming pool. In addition to outdoor and indoor swimming pools there was also a ‘lily-filtered outdoor eco-pool’. My wife — fearful of frogs, which as it turns out we didn’t see — decided to give this one a miss.
Now if your ultimate dream is relaxing by the water on a warm Sunday morning and then going back home to find a high-class and very affable international chef already cooking your Sunday roast, Lower Mill is the place for you. Rod McCormick, from New Zealand, cooked us organic roast beef, herb-roasted potatoes, cauliflower cheese, minted peas and roasted root veg — followed by an amazingly delicious apple pie made from local apples and with freshly made custard.
The Lower Mill estate, we learnt, was the brainchild of aviator Jeremy Paxton. He was flying over the area on a hot summer’s day around 18 years ago, and decided to land and go for a swim and a snooze. Immediately enchanted, he bought the land, and what started as a second-home estate now also offers luxury holidays. Paxton died last year, but Lower Mill is still owned and run by his family. A book by Paxton entitled Love, featuring the 100 things he most loved about Lower Mill, was in our apartment.
What we loved most of all was the wonderfully retro feel of the place. Children can play in the streets in total safety. People go fishing and messing about in boats and do all the things that people used to do before computers were invented. We returned home feeling completely relaxed. Lower Mill felt like a world away — yet it was only fifty minutes drive from our home. No need to queue up at crowded airports to get this ‘safari’ experience. Just head to GL7.
Lower Mill Estate, Somerford Keynes, Gloucestershire GL7 6BG. Tel: 01285 869489; www.lowermillestate.com