Tuesday, 3 October 2017

A very dapper house

Can a house be dapper?

If it is indeed possible, Montacute House in southern Somerset, would surely take the cake. Or bow tie & bowler hat, probably.

We visited last month, and it was well worth the drive down there from north Wiltshire. Look at that driveway! In fact, the whole village is picture perfect.

The 'grandness' of Montacute is especially impressive as it was originally built by a family of yeomen farmers who rose in status to become one of the preeminent families in the district. Montacute has a long history and consequently a roll call of notable tenants. Once home to Sir Edward Phelips, a key prosecutor against the gunpowder plotters, and for a short while, Lord Curzon.

The yew hedges in the formal gardens are almost as handsome as the house, at the very least they are tall, well groomed and in places quite quirky, very befitting of a house such as Montacute.

These days, Montacute boasts a small collection of works owned or entrusted to the National Portrait Gallery. They hang in what is the longest 'long gallery' in England. At 53 metres in length, it runs the entire width of the house, and was once used as a sort of exercise room. When the weather was too bad to be outdoors, the family would walk up and down the gallery to get their daily steps in. Pre pedometer times call for such measures I suppose.

The lawn was being put to good use the afternoon we visited. A group of silver-haired locals had gathered to play croquet. If it weren't for their 21st Century attire, I am sure the scene would have looked not unlike that of a summer afternoon a century or two ago. 

The everlasting sweet peas were living up to their name, still in flower and reaching high, even at the very end of summer.

This is what passed for graffiti in the 18th Century. And in the library no less!

See those quirky yew hedges, trimmed to imitate the irregular shapes of clouds perhaps? I love how they're allowed to grow into that undulating, almost pulsing, formation along the pathway.

An Elizabethan mansion is always going to be predictably impressive, but Montacute House is beautifully kept and somehow 'elevated' above other homes of the same era that I've visited. It might be the orderly garden with just the right amount of quirk. It might be the collection of exquisite and historically important portraits. Or it might just be that sweeping driveway, emphasising the perfect symmetry of the house.

What ever the magic of Montacute, I stand by the 'dapper' description.

Kate  x

Friday, 15 September 2017

As summer winds down

Having just about finished my first summer in England I think I am well placed to say the season was a blink-and-you'll-miss-it affair here. As the leaves turn to gold at an alarming rate, I can't help but think of all the quintessential summer activities we didn't manage this year. No trip to paddle the frigid water at the seaside, no late night dinners al fresco under fairy-light lit trees, no croquet on spongey green lawn, no village cricket spectating. I think I only had one glass of Pimms. Here I am, perusing the spring bulb catalogue, all the while thinking where on earth did summer go?

As proof, and a reminder that it did happen, if only for what felt like a few weeks, here are some summer photographs that perhaps didn't make it to the blog or INSTAGRAM at the time.

A stop by Kelmscott Manor on a weekend away for a friend's wedding was the perfect way to embrace the approaching summer.
Though still technically spring, the signs of summer were abundant. The air was heavy and damp the morning we stopped by, we could practically taste summer on the grassy scented breeze.

We visited Bibury too, ice creams in hand, we walked along the River Coln soaking in the early summer.

Lacock village was dripping in roses in June. 

I was particularly envious of the delphiniums on show in the walled garden at Lacock Abbey. I had only a single larkspur shoot up in the garden, with only four or five flower heads. Still, better than nothing.

The Abbey looks great in any season, but the climbing roses really put on a show in early summer. Right now the creepers are turning crimson as the autumn chill sets in, but in June it was all about the roses.

The long garden beds at Dyrham Park were filled to the brim with summer perennials in mid-June. The bumble bees were working hard to make the most of the short pollen season.

It takes quite a warm day before i'll consider plunging into water, but when we walked around Badminton House for their summer open garden day I experienced pool envy like I never have before. Yes, it looks like a well maintained water feature, but it is in fact the family pool, overlooked by the orangery. I'm not remotely envious of big houses and vast estates, but if a pool as charming as this one was part of the deal, then I guess I wouldn't say no.

The conservatory at the rear of the house was quite pretty too. I have never really liked geraniums, but these soft pink ones climbing up the lattice made for a very pretty and feminine display.

As did the rose gardens, in full flush, under a bright summer sun.

And that bright summer sun was positively ablaze on the evening of the summer solstice. The temperature topped 30 or 31 degrees, so I slipped into a linen dress to wander the village taking photos to mark midsummer. I was glad I went out when I saw these spectacular roses basking in the golden light from the evening sun. Such a perfect capture of summer abundance. I'd love an outbuilding that looked like that each summer.

Yet more roses, this time at Snowshill Manor in early July.

We visited Snowshill when the lavender was in bloom, walking amongst the rows and rows of purple at the Cotswold Lavender farm. 

Bold summer colours were the theme of July. Gem coloured hydrangeas were everywhere. These are a small section from the V&A Museum courtyard. They truly were this vivid and psychedelic, and en masse they were super impressive.

I snipped lots of white buddleia from our garden, bringing that strong honey scent indoors to enjoy as often as I could. It doesn't hold up for long in a vase, but the smell it puts out is just so amazing it's worth cutting as much as you can.

Over the summer I met up with an instagram-turned-real-life friend for the first time. Since then we've met up a few times. I am so fortunate to have met her- a fellow Aussie who lives on a stunning 18th Century farm with her husband and two gorgeous tractor-mad boys in a neighbouring village to ours. I took some photos for her to use on her business website, and she sent me home with these beautiful cornflowers from her garden and a whole load of homegrown vegetables. It was the perfect exchange in my eyes!

August was a wash out. I snapped a photo of these distinctly summery blooms in Bath at the very end of July. In retrospect, from this point on, we had more than our fair share of soggy days and less than summer like temperatures. I thought for a day or two we would get a resurgence of summer, but autumn is really starting to bite now. I tried to hold off on putting the heating back on as long as possible. I just wasn't ready to return to that enveloping heat and stuffiness just yet, it was such a relief when we turned the heat off for good sometime in May (or maybe even early June). But as the autumn sets in and the chill of the early morning becomes undeniable, the heating comes on for 90 minutes first thing in the morning to make getting out of bed bearable. I still open windows as much as possible on a warm and dry day, and when i'm sitting at home studying i'll grab a hot water bottle to keep the cold away, loathe to give the heating a boost. Part of me is tempted to admit defeat, order firewood, and pull all my winter knitwear out. But the other part of me feels deeply unsatisfied by the inadequate summer warmth.

Still, that firewood will need ordering sooner rather than later, and those spring bulbs need to get in the ground this month. We're hurtling towards Samhain, Guy Fawkes night, mulled drinks, frost encrusted everything and twinkly lights. 

Hello autumn, I know you won't disappoint! And right on cue, it has just started teeming rain. Again.

Kate  x

Monday, 11 September 2017

The Lake District, Part Two: Hiking the Langdale Valley

It's been almost a month since we left for our Lake District trip, but I have only just found time and motivation to sit down to edit photos and write a bit more about our holiday in the incomparable Cumbria.

I was keen to do some walking whilst we were in Cumbria, after all, that is one of the main reasons the Lakes are such a popular destination. We're not outdoorsy people, or at least we weren't before we moved to England. So it shouldn't shock anyone (who knows me at least) that about 72 hours before we left for the Lakes I reached the realisation that I probably couldn't hike miles and miles in Hunter wellies and that my very well worn suede ankle boots were likely not the best footwear for hiking the rocky, muddy and steep footpaths of the fells either. Yes, I had managed to live almost a whole year in England without a decent pair of outdoor, weather resistant, warm, supportive shoes. That could continue no longer! The remedy was some last minute internet shopping. Thank goodness for express post, and warehouses & courier services that work round the clock! I chose a pair of Panama Jacks, which I highly recommend if you're looking for an outdoorsy winter shoe. I am confident that I will wear them a lot, and that they will hold up for a decade or two, probably more, which is really important to me. Even Alex was jealous.

It took us a good 15 to 20 minutes just to make it out of the carpark at Elterwater. Deciding how many layers to wear, which camera to take or to leave, tying shoe laces, a stop at the public toilets, a trip back to the car for loose change because the toilets cost 20p each... 
Then at the carpark entrance, we stood for another good 5 minutes trying to work out if our map was indicating a left or right. The first fork in the road caused similar confusion. Like I said, we're not the most outdoorsy people. So of course it was inevitable that we took a big wrong turn and had to hike back up a hill to correct our route. I think it added around a half mile or so to our total hike, but at the time it felt more like 2 miles. Of steep, and incredibly rocky, climbing.

Still, I am glad that we corrected ourselves because the Langdale valley is breathtaking! You can see from these pictures that the weather looked rather threatening, with the light shifting constantly, and the clouds building before being blown swiftly away for the sun to burst through. And repeat. We were incredibly lucky, we stayed dry, and smiling for the entire 8 or so miles. No mean feat for a person who hates being even slightly taxed or inconvenienced. Me, not Alex. Alex would smile and remain unfazed through a nuclear holocaust.

The above is the view as you descend to Slaters Bridge. Crossing this bridge was one of the main reasons we chose this route. It is picture perfect.

It is an old pack horse bridge, built across the River Brathay, slightly downstream from Little Langdale. We took quite a few photographs here, I thought it was the prettiest place, and it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere! 

As well as posing thoughtfully for photos, he also carried the backpack the entire way!

Just beyond the bridge is an old disused quarry, worth a slight detour- but only if you're not irrationally afraid of being entombed in a rock fall like I am. I didn't stay inside for very long!

It really does feel very remote in these sparsely populated valleys, and I suppose relative to other parts of England, they are remote. But it is surprising how many of the footpaths skirt close to, or even through, private property. Often we'd walk through a gate and straight past someones kitchen window. I am so in awe of the people who farm the fells. It is an extreme and ruthless corner of the country, exposed and battered by all weather conditions without respite.

The path cut straight through this farm, walking right up to the farmhouse door almost. The property was clearly owned by an enterprising Lakeland farmer as they've capitalised on the passing foot traffic and sell ice creams from their barn. That is some interesting diversification! Herdwick wool and ice lollies. The chickens were very interested in us, I think they hoped Alex had food and not a camera.

In the latter part of the hike there are some amazing and powerful waterfalls. We sat next to one for a while listening to the deafening roar of water. My feet were a little sore by mile 6 or 7.

We finished the hike with a pub lunch at Elterwater, very proud of our efforts on our first ever hike, and discussing when we could come back to do more. We began as complete tramping rookies, were converted to the walking way of life along the way, and finished as experts in our own minds. I am sure the story would have been entirely different had we got rained on, or had I not worn the correct footwear. By the time we got to our B&B in Grasmere that afternoon the weather had truly set in. It made for a spectacular walk to dinner. We sunk into a sofa, G&Ts in hand, at the Grasmere Hotel planning future walks, before gobbling up a four course dinner and walking home in the rain.

The fell sides were turning purple when we were there. I wish I'd hiked closer to some patches of heather to capture the blanket of purple. In certain light it looks like grey rock, but when the sun hits it there's no mistaking the rich purple of the fell heather. The best I could get was a picture from the moving car as we drove near Keswick before rejoining the southbound motorway traffic on the M6, heading for home.

Until next time Lake District!

Kate  x

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The Lake District, Part One: Hill Top Farm

Visiting Hill Top Farm in the Lake District filled me with so much excitement and childhood nostalgia. I can't remember a time before the tales were a part of my life. I watched The World of Beatrix Potter over and over again as a child, my Mum having recorded as many episodes as possible on VHS. Remember doing that with your favourite TV shows?
I even, for a few seconds in the gift shop, contemplated buying them on DVD... but knowing how the story of VHS ended I am anticipating DVD to die a similar death soon. Luckily though I found them on youtube, HERE, if you're interested in a walk down memory lane. I realised when watching some of it that the opening and closing sequences were filmed in and around Hill Top. I don't know why that surprised me, but again, it adds to their charm. These will always be the best small screen adaptations of Beatrix's work. There is a magic to them that is lost in the modern computer animation versions.

Anyway, back to Hill Top. Beatrix's beloved farmhouse is in a tiny Cumbrian village called Near Sawrey, where the neighbours are sheep.

Her home is a time capsule to her inspiration, her curiosity, her brilliance. I'll admit, I had to suppress some tears on the doorstep. What a magical world she had inside her mind.

In each room is a little corner recognisable in her work. The staircase from Samuel Whiskers, a sideboard from the same tale. All over this part of the Lakes are the real life scenes immortalised in her little books. Her husband's solicitors offices in Hawkshead feature in The Pie and the Patty Pan. The garden path at Hill Top is drawn in The Tale of Tom Kitten. I think if I read back through all the tales now, I'd recognise so, so many of her real world inspirations.

This is what she called her entrance hall, a typical room in farmhouses in this district, a room that is more commonly referred to as the firehouse or houseplace by Lakeland farmers. It is obviously the heart of her home. Repeatedly featured in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or The Tale of the Roly Poly Pudding. 

It feels very untouched, much like she just walked out of the door.

Her love of nature is evident in all the curiosities and collections that the farmhouse holds. 

About a one mile hike up from Near Sawrey is Moss Eccles Tarn, a favourite fishing spot of Beatrix and her husband, Mr William Heelis. We had beautiful sunny weather when we walked up. Quiet, except for the sheep in the fields.

On the banks of the tarn heather is in bloom. Bright, iridescent blue dragonflies were flitting about. It was entirely impossible to capture them with the camera as they are so quick, just a flash of brilliant blue on the surface of the water.

It was so warm and sunny that I pulled off my wellies and socks to paddle.

On the same day we checked out other National Trust properties in the area. The Beatrix Potter Gallery in her husband's old offices at Hawkshead is rather lovely, and free for trust members. The Little Ice cream Shop around the corner is also worth a stop.

Wray Castle is very close by, but I think if you weren't a member of National Trust it wouldn't be value for money. It was actually built in victorian times as a retirement home for a couple with clearly too much money and time on their hands, and little sense. It is completely empty, so in essence it is just a house without any tangible history, charm or personality. The views are spectacular from the front entry though. On the afternoon we stopped by the skies were roaring with fighter jets and spitfires flying low over Lake Windermere for no conceivable reason.

Townend, on the other hand is a very pretty and rather interesting National Trust property at Troutbeck. It is a 17th century farmhouse with similarly old farm buildings and barns. Owned and occupied by the same family for about 5 or so generations it is very well preserved and contains much of their loved possessions. With 400 years of family history, there are some treasures in the house, including 45 books in the library that are the only remaining copies in the world.The kitchen is so beautiful and contains some spectacular hand carved furniture, made by one of the men who lived there.

I love an outbuilding, and the washing room at Townend is so pretty. Lace edged aprons hanging on an airing rack gives the place such atmosphere.

This is the view over the top of the centuries old barn, still used by the farm across the road.

Signs of summer are still surprisingly abundant in the Lakes. Hydrangeas are everywhere, in all the villages, the odd foxglove is still in bloom along the drystone walls too.

Beatrix Potter called the Troutbeck Valley her favourite in the Lake District. It is very pretty, traditional fell farming still very much the focus of the district. 

It is such a priceless legacy Beatrix created and left for the British public. With UNESCO World Heritage status just being given to the Lake District, hopefully these beautiful valleys, fells, lakes and farms will remain just as they are for always.

Kate  x