Friday, 18 July 2014

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



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Thursday, 26 June 2014

Reincarnation or Just Coincidence?

I have written about the ‘dream’ house before but recently the mystery of it took an unexpected leap forward. 

I am a small child running through the countryside when I arrive at what appears to be a derelict house.  At least I always assumed it was derelict for the two windows looked as if they had silted up and instead of being full length they were only one-third of their normal height.

The windows are at the back of the house but initially I approached it from the front.  There is a long driveway and as I run around a bend suddenly there, in front of me, is the house.  It is huge but very symmetrical – just as a small child would draw one if asked.  No sooner have I seen it than, in that typical disjointed dream way, I am around the back by the windows.

 I manage to wriggle through one of them and as I do I fall a short distance to the floor.  It is a small circular room with several doors leading off it; as I stand up I lift my head to look at the ceiling: it has stone vaulting just like an abbey might be.  And then … I wake up.  I don’t feel scared, I feel happy and warm inside as if I’ve come home after a long time away.

The dream recurs regularly from my very early childhood right through to the day in my late twenties when I awake and for some reason decide to draw the house.  No matter how hard I try, I can only draw it as a small child might but, somehow in doing so, I break the spell and I never dream of the house again.
Fast forward fifteen years and a career change to gardening for a living.  Now a trained Head Gardener I apply for a post in a village I have never heard of and arriving for my interview I proceed up a long, half mile driveway, round a bend and, yes you’ve guessed correctly, there is the house of my dream.  I am shown around the gardens and finally, at the end of the interview, approach the house from the rear.  There are the two windows…      

Having successfully got the job, part of my remit is to tend the house plants.  The room with the two windows is a small circular library with three doors leading off.  When I pluck up the courage to talk to my employer of the dream she tells me that the house was once a convent and this room is adjacent to the old chapel, now used as a dining room.  As for the vaulted ceiling she says there could be for the present plain one is false although they have no intention of changing it to find out.  I ask her what the tall obelisk at the front of the house commemorates.  She tells me it is rather a sad story: it is a memorial to the only son of the family for whom the house was being built in the early 1700's.  He died before it could be completed and so they gave it to the nuns to live there.

I officially left the job – and I thought the house – thirteen years ago to take up a new position in the Cotswolds.  In many ways I was sad to go for I loved being there but a change had beckoned. Some months later I receive a telephone call asking me to act as a consultant on an occasional basis – is it the house that has prompted this – and I have returned regularly ever since.

Move to the present day after a gap in visits of several months where I admire the new building set in the grounds close to the house, an indoor swimming pool.  I am told that there were a number of problems in completing the work for when they started digging the builders dropped into an underground room.  Its existence had not been known of before and yes, you’ve guessed correctly, it had a stone vaulted ceiling…

Reincarnation or coincidence – I’ll leave you to decide.  I’m happy either way and if it is reincarnation I am delighted with the obelisk that has been placed in my memory.  I shan’t be asking for it to be taken down just because I’ve returned…



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Saturday, 7 June 2014

Don't Be Put Off By Its Name...

Slaughter may not sound the most promising of names but Lower Slaughter situated in the heart of the Cotswold Hills is one of the prettiest and most unspoilt villages you can visit.  Its unusual name is a derivation of the Old English word ‘slough’ meaning muddy patch but, if it was many years ago, it is certainly not one now.  In fact, three years ago it was described in a poll as having ‘the most romantic street in Britain’.
Although there is some more recent housing discreetly tucked away most of the buildings date from the mid sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries.  Its origins are even older  for it was well established even before being recorded in the Domesday Book; this means that it has been continuously inhabited for over a thousand years.
Many of the oldest houses cluster around the the River Eye which, although shallow, is powerful enough to feed the undershot waterwheeel of the mill.  This building, which now houses a small museum, is made from red brick - an unusual building material in this area – and was working as recently as the the late 1950’s.  It is a comparatively modern building having been built in the 1800’s although a mill was recorded on the site in 1086.  The tall chimney was built to give the mill additional steam power.
A similar tale can be told of the picturesque church with its tall spire which also dates from the ninteenth century.  There are a few traces of the original building within it: an arcade of four bays dating back to the early 1200’s.  The lichen encrusted gravestones in the churchyard also belie their age for burial rights were only granted in 1770 – before then villagers were buried in nearby Bourton-on-the-Water.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The countryside surrounding Lower Slaughter, and also the village itself, may not appear to have changed much in centuries but there is no doubt that they are very much ‘tidier’ than they once were.  An old Pathe News clip shows the banks of the Eye overgrown – there probably wasn’t the same enthusiasm for cutting its grassy banks when it has to be done by scythe.  Another change the film shows is the ‘locals’ sitting on the benches: nowadays, many of the houses are owned by the wealthy as weekend retreats and those exploring its lanes are visitors. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Lower Slaughter, despite its obvious attraction, has done very little to encourage tourism.  It is still possible to sit there or cross its little stone footbridges or paddle in the ford and be transported back to a time when life ran at a much slower pace.  It makes a very refreshing place for visitors to recharge the batteries after the crowds of its larger neighbours, Bourton and Stow-on-the-Wold or, for us lucky enough to live in the Cotswolds, to do the same after a hard day’s labour. 
 
Lower Slaughter is just 2½ miles north of Bourton-on-the-Water and 3 miles west of Stow-on-the-Wold.  The Old Mill sells great ice cream!
To see the Pathe News Clip from1939 click here





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Thursday, 22 May 2014

Fetch me a Handkerchief...

When you come to think of it, gardening is a strange hobby.  What makes people want to spend hours of their time, let alone their hard-earned cash, toiling away in the hope that something might grow?   Why get wet or too cold or too hot and far too tired just to watch your favoured plant being ravaged by pests and diseases or, just when you think all is going swimmingly, to see it being struck down by an unforeseen frost?  On bad days it hardly seems worthwhile.

Of course, the answer is because gardeners are eternal optimists.  Just because something has failed this time means, surely, that it will be a great success the next. And, generally speaking, the good results far outnumber the bad.  What can give more joy than eating, say, a juicy, full-of-flavour pear that you have nurtured knowing that it is free from pollutants and raised by your own hand?  Or, plunging your snout into the centre of a rose bush knowing that it will come out, as the saying goes, smelling of roses?
If all of this sounds slightly odd to a non-gardener, then stranger still must be the thought that many professional gardeners never see the end results of their labour.  They do a task and move onto another garden, often never to return. As a member of this strange breed a question I often get asked is what motivates me.  The answer is always the same: it is the thought of success, of planting for the future and the sheer pleasure in working alongside nature.  And, of course, some gardens we return to again and again.

And so it is with my 'oldest' garden: one I have worked in for twenty years, first as Head Gardener and, after I moved miles away to the secret valley, on an occasional basis doing more specialist tasks.
One of the last jobs I carried out was to plant that most celebrated and notorious of ornamental trees Davidia invoulcrata, the Handkerchief Tree, to announce the arrival of the new millennium.  Celebrated because of its wonderful flowers resembling a pocket handkerchief; notorious because it can take twenty years before they appear.
 Davidia originates from China and although first discovered in the mid 1800's it was not until 1904 that the first one was to be grown in England.  If given the right conditions they grow quickly and although they aren't fussy about soil type they do like a certain degree of shelter - mine is planted on the edge of woodland which gives protection from strong westerly gales.  They do not respond well to pruning so it is important to allow it space to grow up to 60 feet in height and 20 feet across. They are attractive in a quiet sort of way even when young for, although they lose their leaves in winter, they are of a pleasing shape and shade of green during the summer months.
Every May, I have checked the tree to ensure that it is growing well and looking healthy and wondering if I would ever see it in flower - and this year I did.  Along its uppermost branches, fluttering in the breeze were fifteen flowers, one for each year of its planting.  I stood watching them for several minutes and, as many a gardener will understand, felt quite emotional that I had been instrumental in growing something that will become more spectacular with every year that passes.  Could it be that its English name was given not just because of the resemblance to a clothing accessory but because those early growers, seeing them for the first time, reached out for their own handkerchiefs?  It is special moments like these that keep gardeners, both amateur and professional, gardening.
The flowers of Davidia are, in reality, only the round reddish centre; the white parts are bracts, leaf like structures that are often brightly coloured or in the case of Davidia, white.
A mature Davidia seen at Hidcote Manor Gardens - it will be some years before the one I planted will look like this...


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Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Casino Marino

Gambling isn’t one of my vices and so when it was suggested that a visit to the Casino at Marino was a ‘must’ when staying in Dublin, I really wasn’t that keen.  Grudgingly I agreed little realising what a treat was to be in store for me.  The Casino was completed in 1775 and just like gambling dens its purpose was to entertain, impress and amuse its guests - but on a very different level.
When James Caulfeild, Ist Earl of Charlemont completed a nine year Grand Tour of Italy, Greece, Turkey and Egypt he brought back to Ireland a great hoard of treasures.  He also returned with a loveand deep knowledge of the classics and he used this to create a grand neo-classical building to house them.  Neither a folly nor a house to be lived in (the main dwelling, Marino House, half a mile away and linked by a tunnel, was demolished in the 1920’s) the Casino was built purely to show off his collections.  Caulfeild employed Sir William Chambers as the architect who, busy with Royal clients in London, never visited the site before, during or after completion; most of the work was carried out by the stonemason and sculptor Simon Vierpyl.  Chambers was, however, reputed to be immensely proud of his work and justly so.
Everything about Casino Marino was designed to impress and it still does albeit that the contents of the building have long been lost.  It stands alone and, nowadays, rather out of context for its landscape of far reaching sea views and open countryside are hidden by the city.  It was also built to deceive and it still does this too: what appears to be a square, single storey building is actually one built on a cross over three floors.  The huge oak doors are also a deceit for they open to reveal a small entrance, the remainder hidden from the inside by ornate plasterwork.  The blacked out single windows are neither  of these things for the glass has been bevelled to reflect light making it difficult to see in from outside yet flooding not one but three or more rooms with natural light.  The urns sitting high above the pediments are, in fact, cunningly disguised chimneys.  Four of the solid looking columns are hollow and channel rainwater from the roof.
The building of the Casino (its name derives from the Italian meaning ‘little house’) was all consuming both in effort and money and the building very quickly fell into disrepair, its art sold to settle debt.  By the 1930’s the building was in danger of collapse.  Now carefully restored it is possile to explore its sixteen rooms, some of which are reached by ‘secret’ doors.  Some of the original parquet wooden flooring survives and one small room has a delightful alcove, its wallpaper still looking fresh.  Interestingly, the printing technology of the time prevented continuous rolls being produced and it is possible to see the joints where several large sheets of paper were hung.
 
Casino Marino is open from March to October.  A very knowledgable guide escorts you around the building bringing it back to life with information sprinkled with more than a touch of Irish humour.  It is well worth making a special trip to see this very rare example of neo-classical architecture, considered to be the finest in Ireland and just one of three such buildings in Europe.
 
Links:
How to find the Casino Marino

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Friday, 4 April 2014

Guest Blogging

My guest blog for the Chipping Norton Literary Festival:

Gardening author John Shortland has put his green-fingers to the keyboard to tell us all about his ChipLit event
Are you sometimes disappointed with the look of your garden? Unsure what to grow where? Or just never seem to have enough hours in the day to get outside?  What happens when you can’t recognise one plant from another?  These are just some of the issues I’ll be considering in my informal, illustrated discussion.

‘Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That?’ is a question I’ve been asked many times during my career as Head Gardener to some of the most exclusive country gardens in Oxfordshire.  I have also been an adviser at the Chelsea Flower Show and worked for Channel 4 television alongside designer Dan Pearson. I’ll be drawing upon my wealth of practical experience to answer this often-asked question.
Most people these days have to juggle careers and a host of other things, leaving little time for gardening. But there are many ways that it is possible to still have a great looking garden without having to spend every waking hour in it.

In my talk (and book of the same title) I’ll look at simple, jargon-free and straightforward methods to improve the layout of your garden.  I’ll also look at different plant combinations and offer tips on how to make your garden one that others will envy.  A short walk will take you to see a garden in the heart of the town where some of these ideas can be put to the test.  Don’t worry – it doesn’t involve getting your hands or shoes dirty!

As the session ends with an opportunity to ask me questions over a cup of tea and a scone, it is quite probable that this event will run over its scheduled time.

John Shortland

Tickets for this event are limited and are already selling fast: Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That? The Vintage Sports Car Club, Sunday 27th April, 1.30pm



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Thursday, 20 March 2014

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 cafĂ© 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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