One of the finest collections of American antiques and decorative arts might not be a place you’d think to take children, but Winterthur is a lot more than its 175-room mansion. The museum itself, located north of Wilmington in Delaware’s Brandywine Valley, has some excellent children’s programs, but what your kids will remember longest is the Enchanted Woods.
Not far behind the mansion, on a knoll at the beginning of the estate’s vast gardens and grounds, a copse of oak trees almost hides this magical Lilliputian world. Approaching from the house the first things children will notice is a stone circle, a miniature Stonehenge made of salvaged building and millstones that invite sitting on as kids try to figure out what they were used for originally. It won’t take long for kids to spot the giant bird’s nest just beyond, which they can climb into for a bird’s eye view of the forest and the Faery Cottage.
There’s a map of the garden on the Winterthur website, or you can pick one up when you enter, and it adds some comments and a few interesting details about the garden — for example, that woodland spirits found this crumbling stone building and made it into a playhouse. You can also pick up an activity set designed for ages 5–10, which includes binoculars, a sketchpad, a magnifying glass and more. Fortunately, benches and chairs are scattered throughout the garden so you’ll have a place to sit as your kids explore and weave their own stories about the Faery Cottage.
Beside an arched bridge behind the cottage is Frog Hollow, where the sharp-eyed may spot frogs in the water. More likely their attention will focus on the Tulip Tree House just ahead. The house is made from the base of a giant tulip-poplar, topped by a pixie-cap roof. It’s big enough for you to walk into. So is the other “tree house,” formed by an upside-down section of tree.
The tea table in the Acorn Tea Room is engraved with oak leaf shapes, and the ground around yields plenty of acorn caps for fairy teacups. Flat oak leaves make fancy plates for imaginary tea sandwiches. This is, of course, the whole point of the garden — to charm children and tickle their imaginations into action.
Some of the features they may have to look for include the giant face of the green man hidden in the ground, in a nook surrounded by shrubbery. It’s just behind the circle of mushroom-shaped stones, the Forbidden Fairy Circle. Children who step inside are liable to be whisked off to fairyland.
There’s more, including an enchanted frog, a troll bridge, a serpent with a message and a labyrinth with a Navaho walking song engraved in its stones, so don’t plan on hurrying through. Bring a picnic and find a spot on the lawns or in the gardens; a garden tram roams the estate so you can ride until you find the right spot. You can picnic on the lawn right next to the Enchanted Woods, or on the one beside Clenny Run. Or on a hot summer day, choose the shade of one of the park’s regal centennial trees.