Lauren Kramer | 07/18/2019 | Bicycling, Coffee, Tea & Sweets, Insider Blogs, Tours |   

Glamping, Tea and Bike Tours at Willowbrook Manor in Sedro Woolley

The most perplexing dilemma at Willowbrook Manor is the selection of tea.

There’s passion berry fruit tisane, herbal jahva (composed of roasted dandelion and chicory root mixed with chocolate barley malt), cranberry orange and rooibos chai masala, each one served British-style in delightful teapots bearing floral prints. Terry Gifford, the owner of Willowbrook Manor, an English teahouse and chamomile farm in Sedro Woolley, arrives bearing a platter of fresh, buttery, sweetmilk scones straight from the oven for her teatime guests. “I feel tea is a gentle thing, as is a garden. We can all use a bit of ‘gentle’ in this world we live in,” she says with a smile.

Gifford and her former spouse purchased a nine-acre parcel of land in 1996, planted a garden of flowers, fruit and vegetables and later added the manor house, a 4,500-square-foot home that’s fairly new, but looks straight out of a fairytale. The pair infused their striking property with antiques and the patina of age, creating a stately, grand home that’s also warm and welcoming.

I visited for the newly established “tea and tour” offering, starting my day with a refreshing cup of herbal tea at impeccably laid tables in an outdoor tent, steps from the arches, pergolas and flower gardens she tends. Then we clambered on bikes and headed out on the Cascade Trail, a bucolic rails-to-trails route that passes farmhouses, pastures and grazing horses.

Our destination was the abandoned North State Hospital, a campus that sprawls over 1,100 acres and during its active lifespan from 1910 to 1972, housed over 2,000 patients considered mentally ill. But this was no ordinary mental asylum. Patients at NSH were free to roam the property and were given occupational training in a variety of fields. Some worked on the NSH farm, which produced voluminous quantities of vegetables and berries, while others sewed linens, worked the kitchen and cleared trees. The work was believed to give their lives focus, purpose and dignity.

Many of the NSH buildings, bearing their majestic Spanish colonial architecture, are standing to this day. Some are derelict and overgrown with foliage, their windows shattered by wind or vandals over time. Others have been taken over by businesses that are slowly colonizing the long-vacant property. Public access to the site is highly restricted, but Gifford has special permission to bike the pathways of the NSH with a local history buff, who has researched the NSH era extensively and is thrilled to share the anecdotes she’s gleaned. 

“This is Travenin,” she says, pointing at one building that looks like a Spanish castle. Built in 1938, it served as quarters for student nurses who would do their psychiatric internship training at NSH. “Those nurses had to follow the rules,” she says with a laugh. “No married women were allowed, there was no cooking permitted in the rooms and 10:30 p.m. was lights out.”

We bike past the medical building where procedures today considered downright illegal took place frequently in years past. Still, on the whole, the Northern State Hospital was an unusual institution that offered outings for its patients and created a healthy, work-based environment. In that sense it was far ahead of its time. “There was reverence and appreciation for the humanity of these people,” Gifford reflects. “The hospital did a lot of good for patients who needed good done to them.”

Our time at the NSH is enlightening and fascinating and the stories are rich with detail of those who lived here – the administrators, doctors, nurses and patients. We sit down on the bank of a creek for a boxed picnic lunch of salads and croissants before biking the five miles back to the manor.

This is just one of several tours Gifford offers. On the nine-mile farm-to-forest history bike tour guests head to Lyman, while on the 12-mile Sedro Woolley historic bike tour, the history of the town comes to life. Back at the Manor guests who want to spend the night can choose between the High Camp, a deluxe glamping tent complete with comfy bed, tea-making facilities and an ensuite bathroom, or the loft, which can accommodate a family.

        We acknowledge that Whatcom County is located on the unceded territory of the Coast Salish Peoples. They cared for the lands that included what we’d call the Puget Sound region, Vancouver Island and British Columbia since time immemorial. This gives us the great obligation and opportunity to learn how to care for our surrounding areas and all the natural and human resources we require to live. We express our deepest respect and gratitude for our indigenous neighbors, the Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe, for their enduring care and protection of our shared lands and waterways.
Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism
Visitor Center Located at I-5 Exit 253 - Check Hours
904 Potter Street, Bellingham, WA 98229
Phone: 360-671-3990

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