In the Footsteps of the Danes

In 858AD Hubba the Dane invaded England to be defeated by the Saxons at the Battle of Arx Cynuit. Recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Asser, biographer of King Alfred the Great, the site of the battle it is thought took place at Countisbury, a tiny clifftop community on Exmoor. Whether true or fanciful, a walk to Wind Hill hillfort* is well worth the effort. It is a place where it is possible to experience all the elements that Exmoor offers in one glorious 360 degree panoramic view.

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All the best English country walks should start and end at a pub and there are plenty of options to choose on this one. Mine started from the Blue Ball Inn at Countisbury which is as welcoming now as it was when I first crossed its threshold fifty years earlier.

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Turning left from the pub, walk down the road for a few yards before entering a gate to National Trust land, also on the left and the starting point of several extensive walks. Our destination is a short walk and is the high point close to the road. The path to the fort is well defined and grass covered; it merges with a field access track that leads gently uphill to its entrance. The second photograph below is taken from the fort: the pub is the white building.Wind Hill (9) copyrightWind Hill (5) copyright

The fort is a rare example of a promontory fort where the natural landscape has been adapted to create the defences. The coastal cliffs which form its northern defence are the highest in England rising to over 300 metres, to the west and south the East Lyn River has cut a deep gorge. Where necessary double ramparts were built to defend the weaker areas: at the entrance they still rise, after two thousand years or more, to an impressive thirteen metres.

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Although it is possible to make Wind Hill part of a longer walk I prefer not to do this. It is rare to meet anyone else here and to be able to explore the 85 acre site in splendid isolation gives a real feel of the place. Just spend time enjoying the silence,  lying down with your back propped against the ramparts listening to the wind and sheep calling.  As mentioned earlier, the views from the fort are magnificent: heather moorland, ancient woodland, hills, villages, sea, cliffs, the distant coast of Wales as well as wild creatures, ranging from the iconic red deer to seabirds and butterflies.

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* also known as Countisbury Castle

 

 

Links:

Historic England

The Megalithic Portal

Exmoor National Park

The Blue Ball Inn

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2014 in Review: July – December

Christmas has been and gone, even the New Year is a few days old.  A time of old traditions and also some new ones – one of which is the review of the year past.  The first six months can be found by clicking here; now for the next six.

This is the time of feasting, of plenty but in days gone by the essential time of year was harvest.  Without a successful gathering of the corn life during winter would be tough for country folk. Harvest, which starts here in July, is still one of the busiest times of the farming year and despite modern machinery replacing many of the labouring jobs in many ways the task remains unchanged. As a young man I helped on what must have been one of the last farms to harvest in the ‘old way’.  Working from dawn to dusk, it was hard but we didn’t stop until we knew “all was safely gathered in”…

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I tend to avoid Exmoor, England’s smallest National Park, in August for it can become quite busy with visitors (I’m selfish and don’t want to share it with others).  This year was different and I arrived in glorious sunshine, the perfect time to see the heather moorland which is in full bloom this month, a purple haze.  To keep it looking as perfect as in the image below, the moors are set alight, an ancient practice known as ‘swaling’. The resultant new growth provides food for the sheep, the wild ponies and the other wild birds and animals that roam the moor…

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Horses play an important part in my life and in September the Burghley Horse Trials take place.  The trials feature three elements of horsemanship: dressage, show jumping and cross-country.   It takes a brave horse and rider to tackle the latter element for the course is very testing and some of the jumps huge.  Accidents do occur, fortunately rarely seriously but when there is a problem with perhaps a fence needing repair, part of my job is to prevent other competitors from running into them. Stop That Horse! lets on what happens ‘behind the scenes’…

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The story of Lorna Doone and John Ridd, the man who saved her is a well-known and much loved tale of romance and treachery, set on 17th century Exmoor.  Many of the places and people – but not all – that feature in the book do or did exist.  In October I explored what is fact and what is myth? Click here to find out…

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There can be fewer more bizarre buildings in the world than The Pineapple in Scotland.  In November I was lucky enough to stay there and to explore the other fascinating and ruined buildings associated with it.  I also found time to travel further afield and take in the spectacular scenery around Loch Lomond…

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Rummaging in a cupboard at home in December I  came across some old photographs that had been inherited many years earlier.  Noticing a signature and doing some research turned into something far more exciting than I ever could have imagined – it turned out to be ‘a great game’…

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2015 looks to be a good year with a number of exciting projects and travel ahead giving plentiful topics for blogging.  May it be a good one for you too.   Thank you for your support and may the New Year bring you all health and happiness.

HAPPY NEW YEAR

2014 in Review: the first six months

So another year is almost over and it certainly has been a busy one for me.  Living and working in the spectacular Cotswold countryside, a classified area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is a great treat and one of which I never tire.  It’s also nice to go off exploring other places so 2014 found me in other parts of the UK and  Ireland too.  One of the first places I visited, however, was only twenty miles down the road but light years apart in reality!

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typical Cotswold countryside

Like many people that live close to tourist attractions I don’t often visit the ones on my doorstep but last January found me walking the streets of Oxford.  I hadn’t come to explore the colleges but the covered market which dates back more than two hundred years.   The history of the market and the building is fascinating and is well worth making the time to visit – especially if you like a bargain.  To read more about it and to see other photos click here.

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One of the fathers of ecological writing died tragically young and in February I matched quotations from his work to images I had taken (to see them, click here).  My favourite was noticed by the Society that bears his name and reprinted in their journal.  I felt very honoured!

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Wild and rugged scenery is often best appreciated over cake and coffee and at Watersmeet in Exmoor National Park you can do just that.  Two rivers collide spectacularly besides the Victorian fishing lodge that is now owned by the National Trust and run as a café. March found me walking through beautiful scenery as well as indulging myself and the link to this remote but very accessible place is here.

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Dublin, the capital city of Ireland is a favourite place of mine and in April I visited the Casino Marino, one of the most impressive and perfect neo-classical buildings in Europe.  Everything about it was designed to deceive so although you only see one window on each side you actually have – well, click here to find out what plus all the other deceptions the Georgian architect managed to fit in.

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Planting trees is a long term project for they rarely mature during the life of the planter.  Of all the hundreds I have done in my professional life none has given me as much pleasure as this particular one.  I have waited for years for it to flower and in May it did so for the first time.  I felt quite emotional – it was a case of finding a handkerchief.  Take a look by clicking the link here.

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The Cotswolds are world renowned for their ‘chocolate box’ village scenes and Lower Slaughter must be one of the contenders.  Despite its name it is a beautiful and tranquil place to visit for it has everything from crystal clear trout streams to olde-world stone cottages to a mill complete with working water wheel. If you choose the right time to explore you can have the place to yourself.  To learn more click the June link here.

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The Scottish Pineapple

The statement “I have been living in a Pineapple” may give cause for surprise but is, in fact, quite true for I have just returned from a brief trip to Scotland.  To stay in a building that puts a smile on your face whenever you catch a glimpse of it ought to be on everyone’s ‘to do’ list – if it is, The Pineapple is the place to go.

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Originally part of the Dunsmore Estate, it was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland in 1974 and leased to the Landmark Trust who undertook its restoration.  Neglected for very many years, the Pineapple proved to be in remarkably good condition for every ‘leaf’ was designed to prevent water collecting within it and damaging the stonework.  The remainder of the property was very unstable and derelict.

The Scottish Pineapple

When the two walled gardens were enclosed at Dunsmore in the mid 1700’s there was no ‘big house’ attached.  They were purely used for producing a supply of fruit, vegetables and flowers to be sent to the Earl of Dunmore’s home in Argyll. It was some years later (it is thought) that the Pineapple was added as a folly and summerhouse, probably after the Earl’s return from Virginia and the Bahamas where he was Governor.

The Scottish Pineapple

Why a pineapple?  In the eighteenth century, pineapples were a rare luxury that had become associated with wealth and hospitality.  They began to appear on pillars, railings and weather vanes and, indoors on fabrics and wall coverings.  The building of The Pineapple was, perhaps, the grandest of all grand gestures.

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Although the building is of such high quality in both its materials, cratsmanship and design it was barely recorded in contemporary writing and its designer remains unknown.  One possible reason for this is that it may have been just a little too ‘over the top’ even for flamboyant Georgian taste.  It is even quite probable that the Pineapple may have been painted. The doorway of the undercroft is a very accurate timber carving of Ionic pillars beyond which stone steps lead to the raised northern lawn.  From this lawn there is level access to the summerhouse.

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Either side of the Pineapple are two small cottages, formerly gardener’s bothys.  These have been fully restored by the Landmark Trust to create holiday accomodation with living room and kitchen in one and bedrooms in the other.  The north garden and the Pineapple room are for the private use of guests, the south lawn and gardens are open to the public.

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To be able to grow pineapples required specialist knowledge and skills as well as additional warmth.  Glasshouses flanked the south wall and were heated by the use of specially constructed hollow walls.  At the foot of these, fires were lit and flues within the wall drew the heat upwards, warming the brickwork.  The four decorative urns to either side of the Pineapple conceal chimneys and because of there similarity to those at Casino Marino in Dublin (to read about this extraordinary building click here), it has been suggested that the designer could be Sir William Chambers although there is no documented evidence to suggest this.   At intervals on the southern side of the walls I found sliding stones which could be removed presumably to allow the heat to escape.

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In 1820 William Wilkins, architect of the National Gallery in London, designed a house in the Tudor Gothick style.  Dunsmore Park’s glory was, however, short-lived for by 1911 the family had left although it remained occupied until 1964 after which it was abandoned.  It is now a ruin visible across the fields from the Pineapple.  Another ruin, now very unstable, and also visible from the Pineapple, is the Elphinstone Tower.  Of earlier origin, built about 1510, it became the family vault of the Dunmore family in 1836 with a church built alongside a few years later.  This was demolished in the 1960’s.  Their fascinating stories will be subjects of this blog in due course.

The Scottish Pineapple

The Scottish Pineapple

With so much history and beautiful scenery close by – Loch Lomond is only a short drive away – the Pineapple makes a great and intriguing place to use as a base for exploring the area.  The grounds are open free to the public all year but the building is at its best during the hours when you are alone to enjoy its eccentricity and splendid isolation.

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The Pineapple at night

Links:

The Landmark Trust

The National Trust for Scotland

Where Waters Meet

With two rushing rivers – Hoar Oak Water and the East Lyn River – merging in a series of spectacular cascades and rapids it is hardly surprising that Watersmeet is one of Exmoor’s most popular visitor’s attractions.  Its deep, wooded valley is doubly protected for not only does it lie within the heart of the National Park 340 acres were gifted to the National Trust.   Watersmeet House, now a café but originally built as a romantic fishing lodge, and with car parking nearby makes a good place to begin and end a walk.

There are numerous paths that can be taken from here and most link up to create walks of varying lengths.  They hug the valley bottom or rise steeply to the tops of the surrounding hills so it is possible for almost anyone, regardless of their ability to have an enjoyable outing.  It should be remembered that even in dry weather the paths can be quite rugged so good, solid footwear is always recommended.  A stout stick or walking poles won’t go amiss, especially if you choose the hillier paths.
 Apart from the noise and excitement of the rivers, the other awe-inspiring feature of Watersmeet is its woodland which clings to the steep, three hundred foot sides of the valley.  These are some of the best examples of ‘hanging’ woods in the country and are relics of the ancient woodland that once covered lowland Britain.  Mostly the trees are sessile oak although there are some fine specimens of beech in the better soil of the valley bottom.  There are also a number of Whitebeam species that can only be found here or in neighbouring woodlands making them of national importance.
As soon as you start walking, any crowds are soon left behind and you have the splendour of the place to yourself.  Following the East Lyn River upstream the remains of a nineteenth century lime kiln can be explored.  Lime was brought by sea from Wales to be burned before spreading onto the fields to counteract the land’s extreme acidity.  Fuel for the kilns was provided by the woodland which was coppiced and some of this timber was also sent back to Wales to be used in the iron foundries.
 Wildlife abounds; there are dippers and herons by the water’s edge, and red deer, badgers and otters can all be seen by the fortunate few.  On quieter stretches of the river the calls of raven and buzzard can be heard overhead.
After an hour or so, the tiny hamlet of Rockford appears, consisting of just a few cottages and an inn – another great excuse for a stop.  From here you can trace your route back to Watersmeet or continue along the river to the village of Brendon to make a longer, circular walk.
Watersmeet is open to the public all year round and every season has its special moments.  In the spring, the valley is lush and green; in summer the sunlight filters through the canopy to play on the water’s surface; in autumn there are the changing colours and in winter, the extraordinary beauty of the gnarled trees adorned with grey lichens come to the fore.  It needs to be visited more than just once!
 

For more information take a look at these websites:
National Trust
The Rockford Inn
Exmoor National Park

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A Year In Review: 2012 The First Six Months

One of the signs of getting older is that the days, weeks, months and years go by ever faster – this seems rather unfair as you are likely to have relatively few ahead of you.  Not that I plan to leave this world just yet (well, not if I can help it), it is just that 2012 was the anniversary not just of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee but also of mine which has focussed the mind, rather.

As the time has sped by so fast I thought I would review the year, if only to remind myself what I’ve been doing the past twelve months.

January:  To London for the New Year.  Whenever we visit ‘The Smoke’ (I wonder if anyone still calls it that now that the days of dense smog have long gone) it always ends up rather ‘foody’.  That trip was no exception; we ate our way up the Kings Road, ate our way around Sloane Square and finally ate our way to Fortnum & Mason arriving in time for afternoon tea.  Fortnum’s is the most wonderful grocery store on the planet – whereas, most people, especially those from overseas, visit Harrods, Fortnum’s is the one place you really shouldn’t miss.  Everything about it is delightful and its afternoon teas are legendry.  We did squeeze in a visit to the National Portrait Gallery but why show you images of great works of art when you can see photos of Fortnum’s?  Add it to your list of ‘places I must visit before I die’.


February:  A visit to Snowdonia staying at a friend’s isolated chapel house on the side of the mountains.  The weather was quite kind to us considering the time of year so we were able to do a lot of walking.  To our dismay, our favourite spot that we had christened ‘The Enchanted Forest’ because of its lichen encrusted trees and great mossy hummocks had been clear felled and all signs of it destroyed.  This may sound like wanton vandalism but the trees had been planted for timber production regardless of the impact they had on the scenery.  Now years later, there is a move to restore the mountains back to their original state which is, I’m sure, admirable and an ecologically sound thing to do.  The trouble is that we loved this silent, brooding woodland that no-one, it seemed, apart from us ever visited and now it is gone.  And with it has gone our desire to return but, who knows, perhaps we shall one day.

March:  Recording the life of a hedgerow seemed like agood idea at the time.  It was supposed to have become a month by month photographic notebook of the changes that took place during the year but sadly March turned out to be the first and only entry.  As April arrived I took more photographs but when it came to blogging them they had disappeared (reappearing months later – one of the mysteries of computer technology).  Then came the rain – and it has rained ever since – and the project was abandoned, apart from a vain attempt in May.  The hedge, which is in the little lane that leads from our cottage up the hill out of the secret valley, is an ancient relic from the time of the Wychwood Forest, cleared in the very earliest days of British history.  It is mentioned in the Domesday Book, that great list of the plunder of William the Conqueror, written in 1086.  Although the forest has retreated by many miles there are still some fine trees standing and wild flowers that would normally be found in woodland still grow on its grassy banks.  I shall make a resolution to resurrect the project in 2013.
April:    Part of my everyday job as a practical gardener is pruning, a subject which is a mystery to many people and often fills them with terror at the very thought of wielding secateurs to a treasured shrub.  Mahonia is one of those useful winter flowering plants that so often look dreadful as they become ever more gaunt and ungainly.  This was the case with one in a client’s garden so it seemed a good idea to photograph the process of restoration and blog about it.  That post has rapidly become my most read and I am glad to be able to report that the plant is thriving.  Now covered in new flower buds and almost ready to open, it will welcome the New Year with the scent of lily-of-the-valley.  If you have one in your garden, cut a few flowers for a shallow vase to fragrance the house.

May:   Despite the rain that seems to have fallen incessantly since April, we had a fine, dry day for the most important day in my social calendar of 2012 which was also an important one for the Queen too.  The Pageant of the Horse was held in the grounds of Windsor Castle and celebrated the Queen’s sixty year reign through her association with and love of horses.  Horses, riders and other performers representing every country from around the world that the Queen has visited gave us a show that both we and she will never forget.  It was a quite remarkable and memorable experience; apart from the showmanship and being so close to the Queen and Prince Philip, we had a private ‘Haka’ from the Cook Islanders when they noticed us still seated after the bulk of other visitors had left.  Very exciting!

 
June:  The Jubilee celebrations continued withthe River Pageant held in London on the Thames in pouring rain, this time.  A much smaller river, the Coln, featured in a post ‘The Most Beautiful English Village’ about the exquisite Cotswold village of Bibury.  With its clear, trout-filled waters fast running past ancient stone cottages, it is hardly surprising that it is protected by the National Trust and much visited by sightseers.  It is said that visitors often don’t realise that it is not a living museum and sometimes walk into people’s private gardens or houses to be surprised to find the owners eating their lunch or watching television.

 


To read any of the posts mentioned above, just click on the links in green.  July to December will appear soon.

 

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A Very English Day Out


Last Sunday turned out to be a glorious day after twenty four hours of much needed rain. Thank goodness it did for a friend had organised that most English of traditions – a posh picnic on the lawns of a large country house, followed by a concert in the music room.


And so we found ourselves eating smoked salmon sandwiches, coronation chicken, salads, ending with strawberries and cream, all washed down with an endless supply of champagne. But our friend didn’t just do us proud with the picnic, she had invited an eclectic mix of guests. There was an art historian, an art restorer, an explorer, a porcelain restorer, myself a garden designer amongst others. And we were international as well, for amongst the guests was an American, a Persian, myself part Polish – but the pure bred Brits did outnumber us….


Boarstall, where the concert took place, is a fourteenth century moated gatehouse. Of course, a building with such a long history has seen many changes and events, a major one being during the (English) Civil War when it was besieged for ten weeks. Damaged by cannon fire, ( the bricked up ‘patches’ can still be seen), upon its surrender the main part of the house, church and village were all destroyed by the victorious Parliamentarians. The mansion and the church were rebuilt but only the latter remains, the house being demolished once again in 1778. Since that time the tower has remained virtually unchanged. Now owned by the National Trust, it is lived in by tenants who organise the concerts.

We had come to hear a young soprano, Luci Briginshaw, sing arias from the great operas, accompanied by Peter McMullin on the piano. Luci’s story is rather like an opera plot in itself – a nice one fortunately rather than one where everyone gets murdered or dies of consumption! Busking in Covent Garden market, Luci was heard singing and invited to perform at Boarstall.

The music room at Boarstall is on the top floor of the tower and is reached by ancient, spiral stone staircases. Light and airy, it holds about 100 people so makes an intimate space where you can really relate to the performers and fellow audience. Luci’s singing was delightful, a pure clear voice, she obviously will – or deserves to – go far. Not just a wonderful coloratura soprano, for her encore, she accompanied herself on the piano singing a great blues number.

After the concert, Luci joined us all with a tour of the tower (how cross I was that, by then, I’d taken the camera back to the car) followed by afternoon tea, where she proved that she had a great personality off stage as well as on.

You will find a link to Luci’s website here, for Luci should be heard far and wide. And if, by a remote chance, Luci you should read this post, thank you for a memorable day out. Can’t wait to hear you again. Bravo!