At the 2011 Burghley Horse Trials – part 1

One of the highlights of my social calendar is the annual trip to Burghley for the horse trials. Although I ride and, probably immodest of me to say it, ride rather well, neither my horse, nor my skill, nor my nerve would take me to this level. As it happens, we have just got an additional new horse that has competed at Burghley in the past – as has my partner – but just the sight of some of the fences fill me with such fear we won’t be attempting it!

There is something rather special about Burghley that is quite difficult to define. The atmosphere is electric yet relaxed, a great team of people organise it, the visitors all thoroughly enjoy it and, of course, there is the splendour of the magnificent Burghley House that dominates the grounds.

Burghley House was built in the 1500’s for the first Earl of Exeter, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favourites. Today it is considered to be one of the finest Elizabethan houses in England and is still owned by the same family. Dominating the west front of the house and its turrets and towers, the great gilded gates were designed to catch the rays of the setting sun. These, and the huge numbers of windows, create a blaze of light on a summer’s evening , exactly the image that was required: power, wealth and fine enough to impress the Virgin Queen when she visited.

The Exeter crest is designed into the gates and, elsewhere, there is yet more gilding. The levels of craftsmanship is outstanding, not just in the architecture but down to every detail. Even the garden railings are beautifully crafted.

The grounds, where the horse trials take place, are also kept beautifully. A dominant feature of the parkland is the large numbers of Sweet Chestnut trees, mostly planted in avenues. Their immense girth really shows the twisted bark that is seldom seen on younger trees.

However, it is the lake and Lion Bridge that creates the focal centrepoint whether from the park or when seen from the house. These were created later than the house by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (who else?!) around 1778. The lake is designed to give the impression of a winding river and features as an obstacle in the trials.
Trialling or eventing, for those unfamiliar with the sport – the word ‘horse’ is only said by those that don’t ride and is a social faux pas when used – is one of the toughest tests of endurance for both horse and rider. First there are dressage tests where the skill and accuracy of both are measured. This is followed by the most popular part of the contest (although all have their aficionados), the cross country course (link here). At a length of 6686 metres with 33 fences – the highest standing at 1.45m – it has a target time of just over 11 minutes to complete. Cross country tests the bravery, strength and stamina of both horse and rider. Finally, there is the showjumping on the last day. Here, the test is for stamina, accuracy and skill. This year, William Fox-Pitt won Burghley for the sixth time, a record, which made a very successful end to Burghley’s 50th anniversary.

If you are not horse crazy – and the majority of the thousands of people that come here are – there are other things to occupy your time. Socialising is important, catching up with people that you may see only here, and shopping is even more so. There are over five hundred shops to visit on the site selling everything from clothes to furniture, to paintings and sculpture and, of course, lots of horse related products. The food halls are important too: my favourite was the Neil’s Yard cheese shop with its amazing displays of English cheeses. They tasted good too!

For those of you that have never been here, do give it a try, especially at this time. The house and gardens are open to the public all year and, from time to time, concerts are performed here. Burghley House should be on every persons agenda to visit at leat once. If you need convincing, follow this link to their website.

The next post will concentrate more on the cross country course and will even have some ‘horsey’ photos!

First Signs of Autumn

To quote from the Keats poem ‘To Autumn’, is rather cliched I know but it really is becoming the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” here in the secret valley. I have to admit until I decided upon the theme for this post that, although I had heard this line so many times before, I’d never read the poem. I suspect a large number of people would admit the same so I have included it here, in full, at the end.
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Almost imperceptably, the leaves have started to turn colour although they are still more green than yellow, orange or red. The most noticeable sign of the new season has been the berries and other fruits. Despite the heavy, late spring frosts we had, it seems to be a bumper crop this year although I have heard that commercial crops of apples are down by 30%.
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The river a few hundred yards downstream from our little stone cottage broadens to become a small lake, created 100 years ago to attract duck and fish for the pot. Invisible throughout the summer months because of the leafy shrubs that shield it, it gradually comes into view as the foliage withers and falls and the water levels rise with the winter rain. Then it gives us what one of our friends describes as “the best view from any bath(wash)room in England” – and it is! What can be more decadent than lying in the bath with a glass of wine in hand, watching the wild geese and swans flying in from who knows where, for we rarely see them during the summer months?
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And it is the river and lake that tends to give us the mists on cool mornings. There is such a subtle difference between these mists and the fogs that are much more widespread across the country. We can recognise the difference instantly but how do we describe it in meaningful words? Perhaps mists drift to rise and fall as strands of it are caught on the slightest breeze, an uplifting experience for the soul, whereas fogs sit heavily both on the ground and on our spirits?
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A few days ago, on such a misty morning, it was cool enough for a heavy dew to form transforming the scenery with its silver frosting. Cobwebs hung from every available perch: strands of wire, branches and twigs, even the dying flower stems of the wild plants were draped with them. The scene was of silence and stillness, no bird sang and even the brook seemed to gurgle and babble more quietly than normal, as if reluctant to wake the slumbering countryside.
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As if to confirm the silence and emptiness of the landscape, even the new seasons swan, that I had admired on the lake the day before, had gone. Heavily in moult, all there was to confirm its arrival were white feathers slowly drifting on the surface saying “Hush! Be still. All is calm”.
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To Autumn
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Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernal; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease.
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
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Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
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Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too –
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
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Stll Waters Run Deep

A little, winding river flows through the heart of our secret valley. As far as rivers go it isn’t still, it isn’t deep and it certainly isn’t wide – you can jump across it in places. But it is important: in its very short journey of 15 miles from start to finish it passes through several historic country estates where it has been broadened to form ornamental lakes for fishing and pleasure. The photograph on the header of this page shows the river just above our home.

You wouldn’t believe

there was our valley in this photograph. It’s just the other side of this hedge – no wonder no-one knows it’s there! It’s also time to meet She-dog, our lurcher, who insisted in being included in the photograph.


Outside our cottage

and just downstream, the river has formed ‘our’ lake (really only a little larger than a pond, but that description doesn’t seem to give it enough dignity) where, today, I watched a kingfisher perched on a low bough of a willow. A flash of iridescent blue and orange and it was gone, its shrill call giving warning to all around.

Pretty as they are, the lakes were built for a purpose. In winters past, their frozen water would be carried to specially built ice houses: pits made from brick or stone, deep underground. When full they would be sealed making ice available throughout the summer months. Of course, this was only available for the wealthiest few and it was in the kitchens of the gentry that ice cream recipes were devised – a luxury unimagineable to the poor cottagers. They often struggled to feed themselves the most basic diet.
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Many of these ice houses still remain, usually derelict and unsafe, but sometimes restored and open to the public to view.

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