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”…

All is Safely Gathered In?

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

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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

The Dog with the Poorly Paw

Deerhounds are the gentle giants of the canine world: despite their size and, to some people, fierce looks (never fathomed that one out!) they are docile, kind and trustworthy.
Sometimes known as Scottish Deerhounds, they are one of the oldest and least changed of breeds.  Scenes depicting hunting with dogs almost identical in appearance to them can be found on ancient pottery or manuscripts and because they have never become a ‘fashionable’ breed the excesses of inbreeding for the showring has not occurred.
  Deerhounds are not for the faint-hearted!
Similar in bone structure to the greyhound, this is most obvious when the dog is wet and its wiry, long coat clings to its body.  Although not as fast on the flat, over difficult ground it can easily outrun them.  It is also slightly larger reaching 32” in big males and can weigh up to 50kgs.  There is little variation in colour, blue-grey being the most prized but in earlier times there were a variety of colours, now all lost.
     the dog with the poorly paw
Tarff, my first deerhound and named after a Scottish loch, proved to be a near disaster.  Soon after he arrived and playing in the garden, he knocked his leg.  After a moment’s yelping it was forgotten by both him and me until his paw started to turn outwards; he had damaged the leg’s growth plate, resulting in the bones growing at different rates.  By the time of his first operation his paw faced backwards; treatment and further operations made it gradually turn again towards the front.  It never quite made it and as a result he was instantly recognisable by his 45 degree turned out foot.  Once strong and hardened it really made no difference to his mobility. 

      

unruly teenager

Having been told that he was unlikely to survive the operations and during that time was to have no exercise he was spoilt unmercilessly.  Proving the pessimists wrong, he became the deerhound from hell – an unruly and totally undisciplined teenager. An uncontrollable dog with the weight, power and speed of a deerhound can be lethal and a rigorous training regime had to start, carried out in short and frequent bursts.  He excelled himself and became a great companion for several years.

the ‘butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth’ look
It is always heartbreaking when a much loved pet dies, regardless of its age but sadly, as is common with the other giant breeds, deerhounds are not long lived.  Tarff died at just seven years old although others that followed lived to thirteen, a great age for a deerhound.
  just twelve weeks old, the ‘greyness’ comes later

Would I recommend a deerhound?  Probably not, despite their many good traits: they are docile, kind and trustworthy and have no agression in them.  They are also quite silent which can be an advantage – but not if you are looking for a guard dog.  However, they need frequent, although not especially lengthy, excercising and it is essential that they have free running.  Being sighthounds, they are great chasers which can be an issue, especially in suburban areas.  Mine have all proved to be great pets but I doubt if I shall have more despite having unlimited access to open countryside from the back door.   These days I am content to pet other people’s deerhounds assuming the dog allows it for this is another of their odd traits: a deerhound can be aloof at times.  It is the one that decides if cuddles are allowed, if not it will pretend you just don’t exist.

                                               

at rest

Links:

UK  The Deerhound Club

USA  Scottish Deerhound Club of America

Update:  I’ve just come across this great new resource for dog-loving visitors and residents of the Cotswolds alike  Dog Friendly Cotswolds

Summer, Autumn, Summer, Autumn

It is said that the English, compared to those from other countries, always talk of the weather and, I have to admit that it is true. I have also heard it said that, whereas other countries have ‘climate’, we just have ‘weather’. And it is weather that has shaped the nation’s psyche, especially those of us that earn our living standing outside in it.

It has been an odd year. The hardest and earliest winter for years gave way to a lovely spring, March and April being mild and sunny. We were then hit by the hardest May frost that anyone could remember and here, in the secret valley, many of the trees had their newly formed leaves and flower buds blackened. The horse chestnuts and oaks seemed hardest hit, although oddly enough, not all of them and not even all of the leaves or flowers on the same tree. Those damaged leaves fell and bare braches remained until July when, suddenly, they sprouted fresh leaves with the same verdent intensity as you would find two or three months earlier.

One moment bright green growth, the next ……..

…….. dead from frost

A similar thing with the weather has happened again over the last couple of weeks. Late summer proved to be rather disappointing with few really warm days and none where you could sit and relax in an evening with friends, wining and dining under the stars. Autumn seemed to be arriving early. Then, just as October arrived and our thoughts turned to log fires and bowls of soup for supper, summer returned with a vengeance. The temperature soared to 30C, breaking all records, the wind dropped and, for a week, we sweltered under cloudless skies and relentless sunshine. As the leaves on the trees began to crisp and garden pots started to die (I refused to start watering them again at this time of year), out came the garden furniture once again.

But what has happened now? Three days ago, we returned to chill, and with a drop of nearly twenty degrees it suddenly feels more like November. Some leaves have begun to turn colour but others have fallen, too exhausted to give us their fleeting pleasure of golds and yellows. Snow is forecast up north in Scotland and every day the news is full of gloomy stories of an even harsher winter than the last one.

One place that always gives good autumn colour is the Chiltern Hills that rise so dramatically from the Oxford plain. It is a special place for me as I was born and lived most of my life there, a country so different from the Cotswolds where I have been the past ten years. Now I live in watery valleys with far reaching views and open skies. The Chilterns, although no more than fifty miles away, is the opposite – dry, chalky and steep, a secretive place where the clouds and views are hidden by beech woodlands. It is the beech which give the best of autumn colours.

When the M40 motorway ripped a great chunk out of the chalk ridge, no-one anticipated it would alter the climate somewhat. But it is here, where the beech hang precariously to the edge (and sometimes topple over it) that the earliest signs of colour start. And even less did we think that one day Red Kites, one of Britain’s rarest birds of prey, would become so numerous soaring above it and feeding on the road kill that the motorway ineveitably produced. If the view of the chalk cut looks familiar it is because it was used in the opening shots of The Vicar of Dibley, the much loved comedy series on television that was filmed in the nearby village of Turville.

So, we Brits have suddenly become wrapped up and stand huddled together talking about being too hot and too cold and will there be snow. Who knows? One thing, however, is certain: if there is snow down here in the south, it will be the chalk cut on the M40 that will get it first and it will also be the first motorway to be blocked by traffic trying to climb to the top of the ridge.

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What a Difference a Day Makes….

…..Or a night, to be more accurate. We had been spared the snow that had covered most of the UK until now but it has finally arrived – and in force. We went to bed with none of the snow forecast but by dawn, it was another story. Over a foot of snow in just a few, dark hours is not the norm for this part of England, 1983 being the last time I can recall.

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The first thing that greets my eyes upon waking is our beautiful silver birch tree – how different it looks today, with its branches crusted in snow, compared to the photo on my last post (here). No blue sky and gleaming bark, just that flat, leaden cloud, and the colour almost drained from the tree, that warns of worse weather to come.
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The view across the secret valley is also very different from the frosted look of Christmas Day (here). Clearing the car of snow – a task we don’t normally do many times in a winter – is almost a novelty and we are thankful that we have a four wheel drive, for it takes us over an hour to drive to the horses, instead of the usual seven minutes but at least we got there.

The UK has ground to a halt: airports closed, people trapped in their cars overnight, lorries jack-knifed, cars abandoned where they have slid and the councils running out of grit and salt. The latter doesn’t make any difference to the secret valley for the gritters don’t venture down here anyway. It is good to see the horses are safe, warm and well fed and enjoying the sensation of snow under their feet. And like us, they have beautiful views to look at from their barn during quiet moments. I wonder if they are aware how lucky they are! Or ourselves, for that matter – for in Scotland there is a report of a woman leaving home on Christmas Eve to collect the festive turkey and still unable to reach home, the road being blocked by snow. Apparantly, it is the first time in 36 years she and her husband have been apart.


Down by the river, as the carol says, the snow is “crisp and deep and even”. The water is high, almost to the top of the banks and, if we get a sudden thaw, will almost certainlly flood. However, the forecast is for another ten days of this cold spell with more snow at times – the weather is coming from Siberia so temperatures are likely to plummet further. And we do, in theory at least, still have the remnants of the weather systems from America to arrive yet which reach us about six weeks after they wreak havoc in the States.