Cawdor Castle, Oh, Yes Please…

I have to be honest – I’m insanely jealous of the people who own Cawdor Castle. I first went there with friends in 1995 and from the moment I walked inside, I felt comfortable – it’s one of those places, where you feel that you could just slip off your shoes, and curl up in a chair with a good book and a mug of tea.

We went back there this year, on the return leg of our Scottish Odyssey, this time taking our daughters too.

Gorgeous Cawdor Castle

My youngest daughter has promised to buy it for me, so that when we’re very old, we can retire there – how thoughtful of her!

The husband thinks it’s more of a house than his idea of a castle, and I suppose you could think of it that way, but for me, it’s simply divine.

Now I don’t propose to give you a room by room description of the interior – the late Earl Cawdor, did such an excellent job with the room guides, that it would spoil the surprise. Suffice to say that if you go there, buy the guide-book, you won’t be disappointed.

If you’re studying country house style, then Cawdor would be a perfect place to visit. It seems to sum up everything you’d need to know, if you were wanting to re-create the style. I just love soaking in the atmosphere.

Cawdor has a very good restaurant, (although don’t expect things to happen quickly, just relax and read the guide-book while you wait for your lunch). And just next to the restaurant, is a rather nice little book shop.

This year, I was impressed by the trailing nasturtiums in the pots around the courtyard. Somehow, everything at Cawdor seems lush and well cared for.

The gift shop is definitely a cut-above the average stately home offering. Last time I went there, we bought a plush bat, which now hangs (upside down), in the bell tower at our local church.

This year, we couldn’t find any bats to add to the collection, but there were lots of other lovely things to tickle your fancy. Be strong – or give your wallet to someone else to look after for you – or you’ll find it difficult to get out empty-handed.

An avenue in the garden

Whatever you do, don’t miss the gardens. As with the rest of the castle, the gardens are gorgeous – the sort of thing you’d just love to have at home. Full of inspiration for the gardener. There’s a maze, but they won’t let mere mortals go round it – sad really, but it’s still impressive.

It’s also one of those gardens, designed to have hidden places, you come upon by surprise.

Looking through the branches of a Cawdor giant.

Perhaps best of all, are the walks outside the gardens through the woods. They’re graded and signed, so you can choose the distance that seems right to you, but they’re not difficult, so if you have time, go for a stroll. Some of the trees are huge and there’s a river running through, which you cross and re-cross by a variety of bridges.

If you’re hoping for a Macbeth experience, it’s probably going to disappoint you. The castle wasn’t built for years after Macbeth died, and it doesn’t really go over the top on the connection at all.

However, if you’re interested, there are some fascinating pieces of artwork, dotted about the place. I think the late Earl must have been a collector – I admire his taste.

So, Cawdor Castle remains an enormous hit with us and we’re looking forward to our retirement there!



The Romance of Tomb Effigies

I’ve just realised something – I’m an effigy junkie. I’ve been visiting churches for as long as I can remember, fascinated by the architecture and the history, but it only dawned on me at the weekend, how much I’m drawn to the effigies.

It was really brought home to me, when I visited Paulerspury (Northamptonshire, just off the A5) church on Saturday. There, in the church dedicated to St James the Great, tucked in to one side of the altar, is a rare wooden tomb effigy of a knight and his wife, dating to around 1329. The description said that it is Laurence de Paveley and his wife.

Try as I might, I couldn’t get a photo of the whole effigy – I’d have needed a step-ladder – but never mind – it was the lady’s face that had me entranced.

Just look at that expression. She’s quite a beauty, don’t you think? And her eyes are open aren’t they?

What do you think she’s supposed to be looking at?

And would you say that her husband’s eyes are open or closed? I’m not sure.

I’m guessing that these were originally painted, although there’s nothing left of that to see now.

If you’re at all interested in the history of costume (as I am), then this is the sort of reference that I’d imagine is invaluable. You can make out quite clearly what they’re wearing.

Well, I’m just fascinated by these people. It makes my mind go off in all directions, thinking about what they were like in life. How did the carpenter decide what to carve. How well did he know them in life – if at all? Were they meant to be life-like?

So many questions, and no answers other than what your mind can invent.

The biggest question I have about this particular tomb is, why does the lady have such an incredibly long neck?

Can’t really have been that long do you think?


So, there they are – lying side by side for nearly seven hundred years, through plague, civil wars, industrialisation, immense social change – unchanged.

I hope they were happy together in life. And I really wish I could decide what she’s thinking about.

For me, there’s something enormously romantic about these images. I think I might go on an effigy quest at some stage and see how many others I can find to feed my imagination.



Hunting For Castles in Ardnamurchan

When we travelled north in August on our mammoth camping expedition, our first stop in Scotland was at Resipole, on the Ardnamurchan peninsula.

First, one incy-wincy rant: what on earth are drivers doing on those single track roads? If we’d encountered one or maybe two idiots speeding into blind bends on single track roads, we’d have shrugged it off, but no, there were positively hoards of idiots – is it a new pass-time, playing chicken, seeing who can drive the most people off the road?

Anyway, apart from that very small detail – what a marvellous place. I’d been there before when I was a young girl, and I could remember so much. We didn’t want to do a lot of driving, so instead, we got walking.

You'd love the view from Beinn Resipol - if only you could see it!

We walked up Beinn Resipol – the highest mountain in that area.

There were frogs everywhere – well, almost. But as it was also incredibly wet, I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised. Superb views as we went up, but cloud and rain spoiled the descent. At least the showers at the campsite were good and the laundry facilities meant that we could get our clothes dry too.

A prince perhaps?

Now I really don’t want to tell you how good the campsite at Resipole is, but in all conscience, I have to say that it is BRILLIANT – well, we loved it. But you probably wouldn’t like it, no honestly…

The girls were also treated to a walk to the Singing Sands, near Acharacle. This is a bit of a trek – about three miles each way, but the path goes along the edge of a bay and then through a pine forest that smells divine, so really it’s just part of the fun. And when you get there – what a delight. Glorious white sands. This is one of the gems of the Highlands. (Minor detail – no toilets, no cafe etc – naturally this is why it’s so gorgeous, but if you’re planning to go, it’s better to be forewarned – take you own refreshments and prepare yourself for a behind-the-bushes experience).

If you time it well, you can also enjoy fish and chips from the little chippie at Acharacle. Chips and a mug of tea after a long walk and playing on the beach – what more could you want.

One of the things I remembered doing as a child, was paddling in a loch, just in front of a ruined castle that sat in the water. I could remember the approach being along a very narrow road (even narrower than the usual single track efforts), and I thought it was on a road out of Strontian. So it was, that we all took off on the road to Pollock, but after mile of incredible views, you guessed it – no castle.

I’m now desperately trying to work out where it was. Do you know? I can remember walking in the water, picking up shells, whilst pine trees were being felled on the hillside above us, the trees would appear as if by magic, on top of the hill and then be dragged down on chains – very dramatic. But I don’t know where. The castle as I recall it was pretty decrepit, (I don’t think it was Tioram – that’s too well preserved), but I don’t think it could have disappeared in thirty years.

Still, we had a consolation prize – as we were leaving Pollock, two enormous and very beautiful deer popped out into the road and ran along it for a few yards, before detouring into the trees and instantly becoming invisible. It was verging on a mystical moment.

That wasn’t our only contact with elusive nature either – one evening, as the girls were getting into bed in their tent, we heard frantic movement. It turned out that a small lizard had taken up residence between the inner and the outer tent. As the girls weren’t too keen to share their tent, there followed a period of hilarious slap dash activity, culminating in said small lizard crawling up husband’s jumper sleeve – much laughter. All ended well, and small lizard was re-homed on a nearby wall.

Pub entertainment at The Salen Hotel

It was a fabulous few days, despite the lack of castles in the water. Ardnamurchan remains a relatively remote part of Scotland, but I’m glad we’ve introduced our children to the area, and I very much hope that we’ll be back again before too long. (I might fit bull bars to the front of the car though).

PS: Midges – LOADS, but you’re a sissy if you let that put you off.

Lanercost Priory Pilgrimage.

Lanercost Priory: Burtholme, Nr Brampton, Cumbria – CA8 2HQ

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One of the unexpected pleasures of our recent holiday, was finding that we were camping not far from a place I’d heard about, but never visited – Lanercost Priory.

Why I should want to go there, apart from the usual enjoyment of all things ruined, is because it has a link with Edward I. Now I know he’s not everybody’s favourite king. If your only knowledge of him comes from watching Braveheart, then I’d understand, and a nickname like The Hammer of the Scots, isn’t likely to endear him to anyone of Scottish descent, I accept. And then there are the castles in Wales that he had built as a tangible means of domination – OK, so there’s a bit of a theme running here.

But this is also the king, who was loyal and faithful to his wife, Eleanor of Castile for over thirty years, and when she died, had monumental crosses erected at all the places where her coffin rested on the journey to London. His second marriage was also a success, despite an enormous age difference – so whatever his other characteristics, he seems to have been a good husband.

Well, anyway, this complicated and fascinating king, stayed at Lanercost Priory for five months in 1306-7, during the Anglo-Scottish wars. His stay was prolonged due to his ill-health – he was getting on a bit by this time – and in fact he died not long after at Burgh Sands.

But I have always been enthralled by the idea of standing in the same place as historic characters. I just love to look out at the view and imagine what was going through the mind of the man or woman who stood in the same spot, hundreds of years earlier. I’ve visited most of his Welsh castles and was keen to see the place he’d spent so much time in at the end of his life.

So we headed off to Lanercost Priory, so I could have my little Edward pilgrimage.

It was a desperately wet day, but the lovely lady at the ticket office made us very welcome. She gave us a very interesting briefing from the safety and warmth of the ticket office, and told us all the things that we should look out for – even the daughters were interested and managed to find the things she’d told us about, including Roman stonework and medieval board games.

She also talked to us about the Border Reivers  – not something I knew much about, but how fascinating. She stirred my historical juices, so I’m currently reading a book all about them, The Steel Bonnets, by George MacDonald Fraser. It made our visit to the area richer and I’m very grateful to her for opening up another aspect of history for me to get my teeth into – what a horrible collection of similes and metaphors – sorry.

We had a really good look around, even though it was tipping down the whole time and felt more like November than August, but eventually we retreated to the cafe next door, peeled off our waterproofs and indulged in excellent cake and coffee.

I’d like to go again sometime, but preferably when the sun is out.

A Visit To Canon’s Ashby & A Picnic.

Canon’s Ashby House in very rural Northamptonshire, is one of those half forgotten manor houses that pepper England, and when you find them, you feel as if you’ve been let into a precious secret. I probably shouldn’t even write about Canon’s Ashby in case it gets big headed and loses it’s charm; but I will, because I’m sure if it’s the sort of place that appeals to you, then you should be let into the secret too.

On Sunday, we took ourselves off there for a visit. It had been a couple of years since the last time we went, but in that time it has only got better.  Plus, it was a gorgeously hot summers day, perfect for strolling around a quintessential English garden and sitting under the shade of some trees, eating a picnic.

It's much better than my poor pictures suggest.

The house was built in the 1550’s by the Dryden family (yes, that Dryden family). It’s on land which had previously belonged to the Augustinian Priory, a small portion of which survives today as the Parish Church of St Mary. The Black Canons (from the colour of their habit) at Canon’s Ashby, were amongst the earliest to lose their land when Henry VIII began the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 – one wonders what they’d been up to, to receive that treatment…

Anyway, you can still see what’s left of the Priory. It’s worth popping inside to see the collection of funeral hatchments (what an odd tradition this now seems).

The remains of Canon's Ashby Priory, now the parish church.

We started our visit by going into the church, because we got there just a little too early for the house opening (1.00pm). It was also so hot by that time, that we decided we’d better have our picnic first, because since the cold box blew it’s fuse, we can’t keep our butties cold for very long. As it was, the box of chocolate mini-rolls I’d packed for daughter two to eat, decided to morph into a sticky chocolate heap.

At last we were on the visit proper.

Do you ever go to one of these historic houses and fall in love with the smell? I know I do. There’s something about beeswax polish and a faint lavender scent, that has me drooling. That’s what I always think about at Canon’s Ashby. It’s one of those very old houses that smells lovely. I could just stand in the Hall and inhale.

The house wears it’s history very lightly. You can quite easily work out the stages in which it was built – the last of which was in 1710, since when it has remained largely unchanged. I like this, it’s so easy to step back in time.

isn't he gorgeous.

The kitchen is one of the few very old kitchens that I think I could be happy using today. It has a very high ceiling, but excellent light. The range might guzzle too much fuel, and you’d have to be catering to the five thousand to make it worthwhile firing it up, but with a little adaption, I could see myself knocking up a pretty decent sponge cake in that kitchen.

I suppose in grand historic house terms, Canon’s Ashby might not have many breath-taking features, although it can boast Elizabethan wall-paintings and some amazing Jacobean plasterwork, but in a way, that’s the point. This house is simply charming, it doesn’t need architectural bling, it has atmosphere instead.


My favourite room is a bedroom decorated in tapestries and with superb needlepoint covered chairs dating to 1716. I could probably be happy looking at the work in those chairs for days on end. I mentioned to the lovely lady who was stewarding in that room how gorgeous it was, I think she felt it too – perhaps a kindred spirit.

Wouldn't you just love those gate piers?
Wouldn't you just love those gate piers?

Outside, the National Trust who now run Canon’s Ashby, are doing a splendid job of reinstating the garden. Again, it’s being done in a sympathetic way. I read one commentator who lamented that the Trust should spend more to give the garden more plants, but as someone who still believes that a garden needs time to develop and grow it’s character, I’m not offended by a few bare patches. It won’t be long before it’s lush. It’s already lovely.

The pears are coming along nicely

Don’t miss the Green Court garden. It’s got impressive yews, and a fabulous collection of old pear varieties growing against the walls, and a lead statue by Van Nost – OK, I admit it, I am a touch jealous of that garden.

It’s also reassuring to see that this is another National Trust property, where they are encouraging games to be played on the lawns. Brush up on the rules of croquet before you go and you can have a lovely hour smashing your opponents balls out of the way!

So now you know. Canon’s Ashby – one of England’s little gems, just don’t tell everyone.







A day trip to Oxford

Considering we only live an hour away from Oxford, it’s surprising to me how infrequently we go there, which is a shame, because it’s a fascinating and inspiring place – well it is, if you’re in to architecture over the ages, expensive shops, quirky pubs, massive bookshops, rivers, bells towers, oh and probably lots of other stuff too.

So this weekend, we went over for a day out, sight-seeing (oh and a bit of bell-ringing for himself). For the first time in about sixteen years, we took the Park and Ride from Thornhill – fabulous – I may not bother taking the car any further again.

I was really happy to wonder around, catching up with the ringing husband from time to time, but I decided that this visit, I really would go to the Ashmolean and see for myself a painting that has long been a fascination, but which I’d never seen ‘in the flesh’ before – it’s Uccello’s The Hunt In The Forest. A big THANK YOU, to Stephanie Redfern for alerting me to the painting’s location – proof that blogging really does open horizons.

A postcard of The Hunt In The Forest

I wax lyrical about the painting on my ‘creative’ blog, so if that’s your cup of tea, pop over and have a look.

Well, of course the main thing about day trips is to get the balance between doing the sights and drinking tea/coffee and eating cake, just right. So you won’t be surprised that I started off in Oxford at Patisserie Valerie. The cakes in the window were simply gorgeous, and so it turned out was the coffee, the chocolate cake and the service!

After that great start, and fortified with plenty of chocolate, I went next to The Ashmolean. This was a total revelation. I felt like it was an enormous treat for the senses – probably helped by the rather muscular sculptures in the ground floor halls – but so much to see. I learned my lesson years ago with museums and galleries – don’t overdo it. So these days, I try and have just one or two things to see properly, and usually find a couple more that really excite me.

Of course it was the Uccello that I went to see – it’s up on the second floor. But there were several other gems to discover. I particularly like the display of rings. Amazing to think that we’ve been wearing them, giving them and using them for many centuries – there’s something about a ring that gives you an immediate connection to the person or people who have worn it before.

Not having had anything to eat for at least an hour and a half, I headed to The Red Lion in Gloucester Street. I don’t think this is a pub Inspector Morse would have approved of, far too modern, but it did us proud. Lovely food (and a wicked glass of Prosecco at lunch-time – what decadence). We sat outside as it was warm, and were amazed at how quiet it was, despite being really quite central.

The afternoon took us over to St Thomas the Martyr‘s church, a little way out of the centre, past the Castle. It’s an interesting spot. It looks as if it should be in the middle of the countryside, but in fact is one of the noisiest churchyards I’ve ever sat in, thanks to traffic noise from all around and car alarms in the car park behind the church.

A sad reflection on the fragility of life.

Nevertheless, this is a hidden gem of a church. I was particularly moved by a commemorative stone, detailing the deaths of three daughters in the seventeenth century. Perhaps connection was the order of the day, but as a mother of daughters, it’s hard to see something like that and not to feel a strong empathy for the parents. Sometimes when you visit places like this, it’s those little touches, often quite hidden, that you remember most.

The height of the afternoon was very hot, and I had a lovely refreshing cup of tea in the Castle grounds. There was an exhibition of photographs taken from the air of famous British landmarks. Do go and have a look at their website, the pictures are wonderful.

I caught up again with the husband at Lincoln College. This building is one of the ones you walk past, when you ‘do’ the centre of Oxford – it’s very close to The Market – do go to the market, it’s one of the city’s unusual attractions. I’ve bought most of my Kipling handbags from there over the years.

Vantage point from the ice cream parlour

From Lincoln College, we went to St Aldates. Well, in fact I only got as far as the ice-cream parlour opposite the entrance to Christchurch. I sat outside and watched the world go by – which mainly consisted of buses, ambulances and ladies on bikes.

I was getting pretty tired by then, so we wended our way back to the Park and Ride stop outside Blacks, and were swiftly returned to our car.

All in all a very enjoyable day. I’m plotting my next visit to the Ashmolean already…

New to me music finds

One of the things that I love about the blogging community, is the way in which the discoveries of one person can inspire another. In one such vein, this week I am enormously indebted to Moonlight and Hares. If you go and visit Karen’s website, in addition to her lovely posts, you’ll also notice some very subtle, gentle and lulling music, drifting along while you read.

Intrigued by this, today I spent a little time investigating more about the artists Karen has featured on her site. Well, it was just like opening a huge box of Christmas goodies. The thing is, I’d never come across Trevor Morris, Zbigniew Preisner or Loreena McKennit until today, nor would I ever likely have done, had it not been for Karen’s blog.

The music they create is very appealing to me, and exactly right for me when I’m at home, trying to concentrate on my work or latest project.

I’ve already spent an hour or so this morning, listening on iTunes to some of these artists work and I’m sure I’ll be back again to try out some more. But the most delightful thing, is knowing that without the blogosphere, I’d never have found this. Perhaps I should even remember that before the internet, even if I had heard about a particular artist, it could have taken weeks to track down LPs or CDs, now I simply look them up on iTunes and within minutes I can have the pleasure of listening to them.

As someone born before all this became second nature, I’m still entranced by the amazing possibilities that the internet opens for us, and I’m especially grateful for the blogging community who introduce me to a vast array of experiences that I’d otherwise never know about. And today, a special thanks to Karen.

Hardwick Hall Gets Our Thumbs Up.

If you’re in the Peak District, don’t miss the opportunity to visit Hardwick Hall. We’ve just returned from a few days camping and cycling between Buxton and Bakewell and decided to take in the Hall on our way back to the M1 (it’s just off Junction 29).

Glorious Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire.

We had been once before. That was years ago, when the girls were really small and if I remember rightly it was rather a dull day. But I very much wanted to go again and have a better look at the famous tapestries and other needlework pieces.

Well, what can I say – to date, this has to have been the friendliest National Trust property we’ve visited (and that’s quite a lot).

Right from our arrival, all the people we met were incredibly affable, knowledgable, and thank the Lord, child-friendly. I just want to say an enormous thank-you to all the volunteers and other staff who’ve proved that it really is possible to run an historic property in a way that welcomes all kinds of visitors.

Hardwick, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a huge Elizabethan prodigy house, built by the redoubtable Bess of Hardwick, four times married and ending her life as the Countess of Shrewsbury (having seen off her poor fourth husband). This woman was probably the second most powerful and richest lady in England after the Queen herself. Her life was pretty amazing – and very long too. I’m not sure you’d particularly have liked her, but you have to admire the spirit. There are lots of books about her if you’re interested. (I haven’t actually read any, so I’m not going to recommend which one to read – but Google Bess of Hardwick, or look on Amazon and you’ll see quite a lot of choice).

Bess was quite a needlewoman and Hardwick has a wonderful collection of textiles (OK, I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I can’t help being a bit of a needlework freak – bear with me). But even if a pile of musty old tapestries only makes you want to sneeze, it’s still worth going to Hardwick, because it’s the most amazing building. The windows alone mark it out as an architectural triumph, but it also has an interior that simply takes your breath away.

After going around the Hall, we strolled out into the gardens. A herb garden has been developed, and frankly I think I could go and spend an entire afternoon there (OK, herbs are another passion, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of…)

The girls stayed and played games on the lawns in front of the Hall – like I said, the Trust have got it right here.

If you’re a complete historic house geek (like me!), you’ll be delighted to know that the ruins of Hardwick Old Hall are quite literally on the doorstep of the new Hall, so you can have a double helping.

Do go and have a look, it’s lovely.

Hardwick’s official website has details of opening times etc.



Coffee and Cake at Powis Castle

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Have you ever walked around a ruined castle and wondered what it would have been like if it hadn’t been ruined? Well, for me, Powis Castle, just outside Welshpool in the English/Welsh Marches feels like an ancient castle that survived intact. We stopped off there at the weekend on our way home from Snowdon.

Powis Castle sits on top of a hill, which must once have been heavily in its favour as a defensible site. From the outside it looks very much like a medieval castle (which is what it started life as). Inside, it’s more of a mini stately home or country house. It boasts extraordinary terraced gardens, which are wonderful if you’re fit enough to attempt the steps – more of a challenge for the less fit. As ever, I saw a mother lifting a baby’s buggy up the steep flight of garden steps, while her partner stood at the top watching her!

With spring being so forward this year, I was fascinated to see so many irises in flower – mine are either backward, or just not playing the game, as there’s no sign of a bloom – but at Powis, they’re lovely.

Probably the wisteria is the garden’s current big star – simply beautiful swathes of pale bluey/lilac cascades, draping the orangery.

We weren’t alone on our visit – it was heaving. Who can blame us all for heading out there to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the holiday. But I think the National Trust were struggling a bit to cope with the numbers. There were anxious faces and quite a lot of overt reminders of all the things visitors are not allowed to do.

I do think the National Trust is on thin ice regarding it’s conservation policy at the moment. Have you seen any of the programmes from Petworth, with Andrew Graham Dixon? Of course we have to applaud efforts to maintain the treasures that the Trust is responsible for – but how do they reconcile the very obvious need for our money to fund their efforts, with the fact that we pay to experience the treasures, not to be treated as a nuisance? Visitors might bring in damaging dust and leave behind particles of dead skin, but without these ‘paying guests’ the treasures would be left looking for another benefactor to fund their conservation.

I think my personal jury is currently out on this one, although it really concerns me. The National Trust has had a chequered past where visitor relations are concerned, and it’s worrying to think that just as many of their properties are getting more right, their conservationists are in danger of setting them back again. Extremely prominent signs at the entrance explained the various ways in which visitors can harm the interiors – is this really the way to welcome the people who actually care enough to pay to enter? Surely the way to get visitors ‘on-side’ is not to lecture us, and certainly not to make us feel that it would be better if we didn’t go at all.

Ultimately they will have to do better if they want to encourage more paying members, because what we don’t want, is to feel that they’re only interested in us for the money we give them (pay attention here The Historic Houses Association – you have a VERY LONG WAY TO GO) – the more people the Trust sign up, the more visitors they will have to expect and prepare to welcome.

But griping aside, there was one place at Powis that was coping beautifully, and where the service was excellent, and that was at the little coffee shop in the garden – Lady Voilet’s. Here we enjoyed an excellent cream tea and the girls raided the ice cream cabinet. I wonder if it’s success may have been due to the long walk to get there, or the very subtle signage, which I suppose might just have reduced the numbers of people who managed to find it – anyway, well done to the caterers for getting it right.

We decided to have a look around the interior of the castle later in the afternoon, although it was not our first visit and I’m glad that we did. It’s a charming building, especially if you’re a fan of the heavy oak, Jacobean textiles and family portrait brigade (which I am). I think there should be a special mention for the people who provide the flower arrangements. So often in National Trust properties, I find that these temporary works of art are more alluring than some of the items the conservationists get all het-up about.

We ended up in the ‘old kitchen’, which certainly had a kind of atmosphere. Suffice to say, I’m glad it was busy and that I wasn’t the room guide attached to it. Perhaps it was just the cold permeating from store rooms below, but it definitely sent a shiver down my spine.

Oh, and one more gripe – sorry – I do wish the National Trust wouldn’t position gentile matrons at the exits, requesting us to buy raffle tickets ‘to support the restoration’. It’s tantamount to asking us to pay to get out, and that really isn’t the way to leave us with happy fluffy feelings, or to encourage us to return.

So our visit to Powis – a bit of a curates egg. Gorgeous house, amazing gardens, good refreshments. Needs to do better on the customer services front.

Claydon House, Buckinghamshire

Number Two daughter and I paid a visit to Claydon House, near Aylesbury, this afternoon. It’s one of those places that makes a good afternoon trip. I’m not sure you’d want to spend all day there though, unless you decided to walk around the fields – very lovely, especially at this time of the year when the lambs are about.

So why visit Claydon? Well, it was once the home of Florence Nightingale’s sister Parthenope, so there’s a lot of Florence Nightingale memorabilia in the house, including the room she used when visiting the house. It was also the home to the Verney family, (I understand that part of the house is still occupied by the family), one of whom was King Charles I’s standard-bearer at the Battle of Edgehill – where he was ‘slayed’ as his tomb in the adjacent churchwill tell you.

The house contains some excellent portraits. These are the kind of portraits that I love – pictures of people where their character seems to shine through – there’s all sorts, from the haughty to the coquettish – with pretty much everything in between.

The house also has some remarkably decorated rooms, which The National Trust has done a good job of making more accessible. Don’t miss the Chinese Room, where well to do visitors would be given tea. It’s so over the top, you’ll want one in your house too.

This afternoon there was a lady showing examples of items from everyday life from years back – it was fascinating – I recognised some of the pieces, but was intrigued to see others. Daughter loved it too. Sometimes it’s the simplest things that give you the most pleasure.

Claydon was meant to be a much bigger edifice than it now stands, and it’s a strangely unbalanced house, probably because of that, but it’s quirkiness is one of its attractions.

There is a second-hand bookshop in the courtyard, where I managed to get a copy of the biography of Richard III, by Michael Hicks. I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to the Wars of The Roses and the people involved, so I was pleased to get my hands on this book.

The tea-room was welcome. We really needed a cup of coffee and a slice of coffee and walnut cake – yum. There’s also a little restaurant if your tastes run to that – or you’re making more of an occasion of it.

There are other attractions too, including a gallery, but that’s not really our thing, so I can’t tell you what that was like.

What could Claydon do to improve the visitor experience? Well I have to say, they’ve improved a lot since we first went years ago. Today it felt very friendly. The room guides were chatty and pleasant and definitely child-friendly. There’s lots to do and you can actually SIT DOWN in most rooms.

My only gripe is the signage to the newly sited ticket office – it’s in the wrong place. I got the impression from the ladies there, that this had been noticed, so hopefully, by the time you go, they’ll have added a couple or repositioned one or two. But that’s a tiny gripe – really being horribly picky.

Ascott House Afternoon

Well, true to my word, yesterday afternoon (after the snail racing…) number two daughter, her friend and I went off to have a stroll around Ascott House and the gardens.

(Sorry the pictures are very dark – it was a bit hazy/misty – don’t let that put you off seeing Ascott for yourself)

It’s the nearest National Trust property to our home, and every year it opens at the time when the daffodils are in flower, and every year, without fail, I manage to miss that, and instead end up going just as the daffs have really gone over. No different this year – drift after drift of sad looking brownish flower heads. Maybe next year?

Anyway, there’s so much more than just the bulbs to enjoy at Ascott. It had been quite a few years since I’d been inside the house there – it really isn’t somewhere to take small children – unless you have nerves of steel, or a very short rein.

But yesterday, we all decided to have a look around inside before we took to the gardens.

I suspect that this is not a house where children are particularly encouraged. It’s main claims to fame are its pictures and its china – neither will hold the attention for very long of young children. We quickly decided to create our own entertainment, in the form of counting the number of horses we could find in pictures or sculptures. This was made especially challenging by the race painting over the mantlepiece in the Library.

Our count was 165, but that really could do with independent verification.

For me, the highlights of the house were the cut flowers and flowering shrubs decorating the rooms, and the ‘secret’ door in the Library, which ‘holds’ amongst other titles ‘Log Book of The Ark’. Go and see it for yourself .

I’ll go back another day when I don’t have the children in tow to have a good look at the pictures. There was a lovely Gainsborough of a lady with ginger hair, wearing a blue dress – also in the Library, which was beautiful – must go again for a longer look.

The gardens at Ascott are its real attraction. The house itself might not be what you’d call child friendly, but the gardens are another matter. I’m not suggesting that they have been designed with children in mind – quite the opposite, but they are equipped with all the essentials that children need for a good time outdoors – plenty of places to run around, and even better, hundreds of places to hide.

Just the water feature I've been looking for.
The yew sundial

Take my advice though – agree a meet-up spot before they go off exploring – it’s too big a garden to be wandering about trying to find them at the end of your visit.

For us grown-ups, there’s lots to enjoy. The garden contains little mini-gardens, so you have grand water fountains close to an intimate herbaceous border, a tranquil sunken garden near a yew sundial – and loads more. This is a truly gorgeous place to stroll around.

The established South gardens are wonderful, with their extensive views out across the Buckinghamshire/Bedfordshire border – one chap yesterday was telling his party that he could see the roof top of Mentmore Towers – perhaps he could.

But don’t miss the newer gardens laid out to the north of the house. These are a modern extravaganza – light-hearted and quirky. Yesterday I was particularly enchanted by the circular pool with the blossom trees all in flower. If you painted it, people would think it was allegorical, maybe it is. I loved it.

The girls enjoyed their trip. Much hide and seek was had, and we all went home content.

Visits Intentions

Now the one thing that is certain is that I’m a girl who likes to get out. I love home, but I was born with a healthy dose of wanderlust genes too, so I tend to get out and about quite a lot, it keeps me sane.

Although I have a special interest in historical places, this category isn’t necessarily going to be about them exclusively. Instead I’m going to use this section to record my thoughts on the wider range of visits out that I get up to.

I might get a bit boring here, because one of the places I walk along almost everyday, is the Grand Union Canal. It’s where I get my exercise, but also and perhaps most importantly, it’s also where I get my head together – so if I start to drone on, feel free to pass over those posts.

The Grand Union Canal

Having said that, it’s nearly Easter and the time of year when lots of historic houses open up for the first time after the winter closures – I can feel trips coming on.

Posts here might be spasmodic, but that’s just the way it is.