Babies Everywhere

Everywhere I  look at the moment there are babies – it’s that time of year.  I’m not talking human babies although quite a lot of my friends seem to be having new grandchildren, yet another sign of our ageing.  In the secret valley animals outnumber humans by dozens to one so it isn’t surprising that all around us there are signs of new life.

Lambing starts later here than in many places, for the spring grass is also later, so it is with impatience that we wait to see them skipping in the fields and chasing one another up and down the  river banks.  Of course, that was some weeks ago – now they are grown quite large and, as I write this, very noisy as they call for their mothers who have been separated for shearing. It will be a few hours before they have all found one another and normality returns again; the sound of contented and playful bleating telling us that all is well.

Calves can be born in spring or autumn.  Beyond the secret valley is a beautiful herd of Red Devon cattle and they make good mothers.  I first came across this gentle breed when I worked on a farm as a teenager on Exmoor and they have been a firm favourite ever since.  Bred for beef, we used to hand milk a few for the farm’s own use and the milk was very rich and creamy.   Large enamel basins of it would be placed on top of the Rayburn stove (fired by the peat turves I have recently written about, click here)  and I would watch fascinated as the cream would rise in large clots to be skimmed off  to be eaten with afternoon tea, that most traditional of West Country meals.

The bantams – Lavender Pekins (Cochins) – are all rapidly going broody.  I find that they are only good layers in spring, the rest of the year they lay fewer eggs.  We always set some of these under them so that we have a new supply of youngsters: if we get too many there is always a ready home for them but mostly they are there as ready-made meals for Mr Fox who is a far too regular visitor.  I’d rather see the bantams having a short but very lovely time wandering about the place than cooped up in a pen somewhere.  When left to free range it is amazing just how far they travel up and down the field which does make them rather vulnerable.  As the fox usually visits in the early hours of the morning I try to always remember to shut them away safely for the night.  In the cold weather earlier in the year a fox visited the garden regularly during the day – at one time actually peering through the glass garden door at us.

We don’t keep duck but that doesn’t stop us from seeing them in the garden.  Usually one raises a brood of ducklings somewhere secluded: often under a large clump of oat grass or, before it rotted away completely, a few feet up on top of a rotten tree stump at the foot of a hedge. As soon as they hatch, she leads them away down the field to the river below the house.

Every year, there are many pheasants that survive the shooting season.  Last spring we had one nest in a planting trough beside our kitchen door.  Despite the constant activity, she sat tight and none of the dogs, visiting or resident, discovered her.  I have read that, when sitting on eggs, the hen pheasant can supress any scent so as to avoid predators.  No sooner had the chicks hatched than every dog in the neighbourhood was investigating the planter but by then, of course, she had led them all to safety.

Partridge also visit the garden but are much more wary.  When their eggs hatch the chicks are not much bigger than bumble bees and swarm about their mother.  They are so tiny they appear to have no legs moving as if somehow they are fitted with wheels instead!

I almost certainly won’t find it necessary to blog about the next ‘hatching’ for an eagerly waited event is the royal birth.  When Kate has her baby it will make world news – you won’t need to see a photo of it here!

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Around the World with Queen Elizabeth

Last October my partner and I were surprised and delighted to receive an invitation from the Duke of Edinburgh to a reception at Windsor Castle.  It seemed unreal passing through the State Entrance, walking up the Grand Staircase to the magnificently restored St. George’s Hall and spending several hours being able to explore the historic rooms at leisure.  To read more about that evening, click here.

This weekend, the whole country is in a Royal frenzy as there is a four day holiday break from routine to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  Everywhere, there is red, white and blue bunting and Union flags flying in preparation for street parties, village dances and fetes.  For many of us, the Queen represents more than just our Country, partly because, having been there for sixty years, the majority of us have no memory or knowledge of any other monarch.  She has always been there, always consistent and that is quite a comfort when the news is full of political and monetary chaos throughout the world.

Windsor Castle is not just a grand, old building; it is also a much loved home to the Royal Family, so it was only natural that it would play a lead role in the Jubilee celebrations.  “Around the World in 60 Years” was an extravaganza that celebrated not just the Queen’s achievement (Queen Victoria, the present Queen’s great-great-grandmother is the only other monarch that reigned for over 60 years) but also
a record of the many countries that she has visited during that time.  When we had the opportunity to be at Windsor for this once-in-a-lifetime treat we leapt at the chance.

The performance, which took place in the private grounds of the castle, began with the entrance of the Household Cavalry and King’s Troop, which is always guaranteed to whip up a fervour of patriotism.  Behind the arena, the stage was a massive recreation of the facade of Buckingham Palace. 

The arrival of the Queen and Prince Philip brought everyone to their feet.  The British don’t display their patriotism openly very frequently but when the band played the National Anthem, “God Save the Queen”, there were many – men and women – whose voices faltered over the words “long to reign over us”….  For me, the raising of the Royal Standard above the mock Buckingham Palace, which is only ever flown in the presence of the Queen, was my emotional downfall, for I am always aware how fortunate I am to live in a free democracy:  one half of my family did not and perished because of it.  My friends tease me, saying that now my family have lived here for 100 years, I will soon be a ‘proper’ Englishman!

Over 550 horses and 1000 people took part in the Pageant.  Performers from every continent and the numerous countries the Queen has visited, displayed their horsemanship, danced or sang.
North America was represented by cowboys, by native Americans and by the Canadian Mounties. The Mounties are always very popular with the British and played a leading role in the Pageant. They also mounted guard at (the real) Buckingham Palace, a great honour (click here).

Two hundred men and women from the Omani Royal Cavalry were a colourful addition, wearing their green, burgundy and gold colours and riding barefoot.
Towards the end of the evening  all of the Queen’s own horses were paraded – or in the case of her racehorses, galloped – through the arena.  Even her ponies from Balmoral in Scotland were brought to Windsor.
The finale was the most incredible sight as all 550 horses and the performers came into the arena together along with the Royal State Coach. 

We were one of the last to leave the arena and as we sat we were noticed by the Cook Islanders who performed a ‘haku’ especially for us.  It was very exciting to have our own private performance and made our evening even more memorable.

And just when the evening could hardly be even more magical, we stepped outside to see the castle lit up in  a dark sky.  Breathtaking!

My photographic skills couldn’t cope with the extraordinary horsemanship of the Cossack riders – to see them rehearsing for their performance, click on the link here.

The Diamond Jubilee Pageant “Around the World in 60 Years” is to be shown this coming Sunday on television: ITV 6.30pm – 8.30pm.

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A Royal Invitation

Like most people, I wait with eager anticipation for the postman to deliver the mail each day and, each day, I find that, if it isn’t bills he’s put through the letter box, it’s circulars that go straight into the recycling bin.  So when a card sized envelope arrived with a nicer quality about it than most – and especially as it wasn’t my birthday – I was intrigued.  Why do we always feel envelopes and squint at postmarks to try and work out what is inside when all we have to do is open them and take a look?

My first reaction upon finding I’d received an invitation from the Duke of Edinburgh to attend Windsor Castle was to think that a friend was playing a practical joke.  But the more I read it the more real it looked:

His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh, K.G., K.T
requests the pleasure of your company
at a Reception to be held in the State Apartments, Windsor Castle

How extraordinary!  Why me?  Why should I be drinking and eating one evening soon with Royalty?  The answer was, of course, it wasn’t me at all, it was my partner who has spent a lifetime working with and competing horses.

Horses have always been close to the Royal Family and both the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh are knowledgable and skilled horsemen.  Carriage driving at top competition level had, until recently, been a regular part of the Duke’s regime and we had often been to watch him race at Windsor Great Park.  We too, have also participated in driving although my competition level is still at the most basic.  My partner is much more skilled and fearless and I always marvel when a neurotic and potentially lethal animal becomes calm and pliable under his control.  The photo below is of us just out for a quiet afternoons drive – although the pony did have his moment a little later when we careered out of control amongst the trees.  Thomas could become quite exciteable at times!

I realised with dismay that the date on the invitation was the day that we would be on Exmoor for a couple of weeks holiday, 150 miles away.  Working on the theory that we’d never likely receive another invitation we postponed the trip by a day.  And so, that early evening we drove up to the closed gates of Windsor Castle, showed our credentials and passed through to be further security checked.  Once this had taken place we were driven by an offical to the Quadrangle and the State Entrance.  Thie entrance, as it’s name implies, is used on State occcasions and the Quadrangle is used for military parades, including the regular Changing of the Guard.  From here is a panoramic view of the castle buildings, the oldest of which date from the 11th century (making Windsor the world’s oldest inhabited castle), and the Long Walk: a tree lined vista that cuts across the Great Park for a distance of over two and a half miles.


We entered the building by the Grand Staircase, with it’s fine displays of armour and firearms.  Here we were able to see the musket ball that killed Lord Nelson which had been presented to Queen Victoria.  Queen Charlotte’s sedan chairs were also here, remarkably small, I thought.

The reception was held in St George’s Hall, which was at the centre of the fire in the 1990’s and completely destroyed.  As a consequence, the restoration work has made the green oak, hammer beam roof the largest to be constructed in that century.  The craftsmanship and colours are extraordinary: set into the roof are the shields of every Knight of the Garter with some shields being blank.  These, I discovered, were not reserved for future knights but were of those that had fallen from Royal favour. 

Nothing prepares you for the sheer magnificence and size of this room as you enter – it measures 185 x 30 feet.  Here we met other guests – there were only about two hundred  – and, finally, the Duke who arrived with little pomp or ceremony.  The Duke made a short speech before joining us informally to champagne and canapes.  I was impressed not just by his energy (he is now over 90) but also by his wit.  He really is very funny, indeed.  I wondered how many other people of his age could carry out all these duties day in, day out and still make you feel as if you were of interest to them.  Both he and the Queen – who works equally hard – may live in splendour with aides and courtiers but I wouldn’t exchange places with them: I will be more than content just to still be able to hear, see, think and garden!

Access was also granted to The Grand Reception Room and The Waterloo Chamber, where the immense and seamless, two ton carpet took fifty soldiers to lift to a place of safety during the fire.  What I found surprising was that we were given free access to wander around these rooms at will, although I’m certain that if we had attempted to go elsewhere we would have found our way blocked!  Sadly, because we were attending a royal event, we were not allowed to take photgraphs, so I am unable to show you the splendours of these rooms.  You will find them, however, if you look in a search engine.

The evening came to a close after two and a half hours and, as we stepped back out into the autumn air in the Quadrangle, I was struck by the realisation why it is traditional to say, upon the death of a monarch, “The King is dead, long live the King”:  for all the affection that the current Queen has in the hearts of many of her subjects, the Office is greater than the individual.  The institution of monarchy has worked well for this country, long may it remain so.

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