Thinking and not thinking

Just sitting here listening to thunder rumble around somewhere not that far away – isn’t May a frustrating month for weather? No sooner have you turned off the central heating for the summer when temperatures plummet and the rain decides to give you a months worth in one afternoon. Oh well.

Anyway, I’m just sneaking another post in before the end of the month.

Last week found me heading north to the Midlands twice in three days. First I popped up to Warwickshire to meet my brother at Baddesley Clinton. I’ve been lots of times, but it had been over twenty years since my brother’s previous visit, so it was a pity I thought that the upstairs wasn’t open to visitors due to a lack of volunteers. As he’d driven for three and a half hours to get there I thought he might be more disappointed, but apparently not, and certainly the lovely peaceful atmosphere in the house and gardens was as rich as always and we enjoyed our stroll around.

On Wednesday of the same week, the OH had a pressing need to be in Stafford with his work, so we took the opportunity to stop off in Lichfield – famous for its three-spired cathedral – which neither of us had ever visited.

The Lichfield Angel – an Anglo-Saxon carving, probably from the original shrine to St Chad. I adore him!
The cathedral’s history depicted in stained glass – I rather liked this.

I stayed in Lichfield while he did what he had to do. An interesting town, I rather liked it, although I think you’d have to say that the cathedral is the main attraction. I’m glad I’ve been – another tick in the book.

The rest of the week has been mainly domestic, with various trips to the Hidey-Hole interspersed. 

In the Hidey-Hole

I’m still very much enjoying using collage in the pieces I’m making, although I can feel myself beginning to push some boundaries. One piece that had been collaged within an inch of its life just failed to come together and eventually, I got out the gesso and went at it. And the result? Oddly enough, the next morning I added a little crayon and splattered some ink, and voila! Suddenly it felt finished and actually quite satisfying. 

This is the piece that I practically painted over!

I know things are on the move artistically because I’ve been on a YouTube deep-dive again and this is nearly always a sign that I’m looking for something, even though I can’t quite tell you what it is I’m looking for. Do you know what I mean? I’m sure I can’t be the only one.

Anyway, as ever, I’m torn between that image in my head of the kind of art I like to see and the actual art that seems to materialise when I get down to work – and I’m not commenting on the skill or otherwise of the execution here, no, it’s more fundamental than that – it’s more to do with mental images of elegant, sophisticated colour palettes and expressive moody landscapes that I appreciate and would like to be able to create and the fact that when I put paint to paper nothing like that ever appears – instead I seem to have to bring out bold, scribbly, colourful abstracts.

Here you get an example of the kind of colourful scribble which flows so freely when I let myself go.

But I was reminded by another artist on YouTube that the only way to find your voice is to make art – thinking about it alone creates nothing, you have to make something. And it’s that something that leads you on. 

I’ve been reading a lot lately about thinking and not thinking. It feels really radical to attempt to think less, to at least let thinking happen without becoming wrapped up in the thoughts, but I’m getting better. Now, I can see that thinking about what you are going to create is fraught with possible dangers – for instance, the fear that you’ll criticise your work in your head before you even begin. When I don’t think, my work looks totally different from what my thinking mind admires, but at least what I create is genuinely mine. 

The current work in progress – nothing subtle here is there….x

There’s no conclusion here, it’s just a process, but I want to share the experience – letting go of expectations – letting go of the desire to work in one particular channel, and instead allowing what wants to come to happen. 

Ah well, that’s me for now. Tomorrow will be June – I do hope the weather picks up and we can get some proper warmth into our bones. Wishing all happy and well.

Until next time,

Anny x

Garden aspirations

Hello again.

It’s that time of year when all sorts of things that have been lying dormant in the garden suddenly start to reappear.

Of course, the main things that reappear in my garden are the bindweed, ground elder, creeping buttercup and green alkanet, but hay-ho, some things are sent to try us.

On the plus side, although I am a very average and intermittently enthusiastic gardener, we do have some extremely talented squirrel gardeners who over the years have managed to plant – in lovely and appropriate locations – an ornamental cherry tree, several horse chestnut trees, a hazel, a most attractive hellebore and a handful of hyacinths.

I like to imagine that it’s their way of thanking me for providing them with so much free food via the birdfeeders – or perhaps they just enjoy the challenge.

Last year, we did manage to make quite a good show with a selection of plants chosen with much care entirely on the basis of having strong slug repellent properties (did I mention that we have slugs here – hoards of them?).

I’ve been poking about in the border, but I’m not sure how many have survived the winter – to be honest, I actually can’t remember where and what I planted. So, it will be exciting to see what comes up.

We have had a couple of early trips to the garden centre to indulge in our fantasies of herbaceous borders and cottage gardens. It’s wonderfully inspiring, but I’m conscious that there’s quite a gulf between my expectations and the reality in our small north-facing plot.

I suspect that my gardening aspirations are deeply coloured by the numerous visits over the years to proper gardens, especially the ones attached to stately homes. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I imagine myself another Miss Jekyll, commanding drifts of white flowers to magically appear and last all through the summer. Ah well.

Since discovering the joys of collage, I’ve been trying out a variety of ideas for pictures. Am I alone in finding that the art techniques and indeed subjects covered, that are most appealing to me as a viewer are rarely those that I seem able to actually create?

For instance, I love to see work in subtle, earthy tones. Moody, ethereal landscapes are often what I enjoy by other artists. But when I try to do something similar, it just doesn’t work. Or perhaps I should say it hasn’t worked yet, who knows what might happen at some time or other.

But for now, when I make art in whatever medium, it seems that I have to use colour. Almost all my stitched art features strong colour, bold yellows, purples, reds and greens. It seems so far at least to be the same with collage – bright colour rules.

I wonder to myself about this. Somewhere inside, I seem to feel that neutral shades, earth tones and textures are – how can I express – more sophisticated?

If pressed, I’d say this is a throw-back to school days when we were told that serious artists use neutral palettes, bright colour is what children play with.

Well, just lately, I’ve realised albeit with a slow dawning, that there’s nothing wrong with bright colours, in fact using colour is a really good way to bring joy into art. I know it’s not for everyone, that’s the way of art, nothing will appeal to everyone and nor should it. But there is a place for bright, colourful artwork in the world and if it so happens that it’s the kind of art I seem to produce, then that’s fine.

And then I thought, well, maybe, as I enjoy looking at gardens probably more than actually making my own, why not try to paint/collage some pictures of gardens. I spent a happy hour or so trawling through old photos that I’ve taken at various stately homes and gardens. Here are just a small selection. They’re my starting point. I’ll see where they take me.

Ascott House
Cawdor Castle
Baddesley Clinton
Chastleton House
Packwood House

I’d like to thank all the people who work in the gardens at these places. I hope they know that the gardens are just as important as the historic houses for many visitors.

Until next time – all best wishes

Anny x

In and out in December…

the Grand Union canal.

It’s no secret that I tend to find the low-light days of winter something of a challenge, which is why I’m delighted to say that so far this year, I’m managing to stay pretty buoyant. Maybe it’s the generally mild weather we’ve been having or just a determined effort to stay relaxed. Whichever, all I can say is that we’re now really close to the solstice and so far, so good.

Part of my strategy for staying well is to get outdoors as much as I reasonably can. It used to be easier when the Delinquent Dog insisted on a decent daily walk, but the old chap isn’t up to all that these days and we have to content ourselves with short strolls near to the house. I miss getting out into the woods and countryside so much and try hard to get out when I can.

We’re lucky to live a short hop away from the Grand Union canal, which would have been the perfect place to walk the Delinquent Dog, had he not come hardwired with the urge to attack any other furry creature he might meet. Narrow canal paths do not lend themselves to quick avoidance detours – not without getting very wet at any rate.

I’ve taken to having a quick walk along the tow-path every few days without the boy (you can see how glorious the weather was from the picture at the top of this post on a recent stroll). And there have been occasional walks around the Park at Woburn – always a delight.

There have also been proper days out.

First, a trip to Worcester with both daughters. We were there a few days after Storm Arwen which had brought down one of the stone pinacles from the tower of the cathedral, which crashed through the roof below. If you look carefully you might be able to see where the tarpaulin is now covering the hole. The pincacle came from high up on the tower, so all-in-all I’d say it was lucky not to have been a worse outcome.

the damaged roof at Worcester Cathedral

We happened to be in Worcester on the final day of the Christmas Market, so it was fairly busy, but also rather lovely. Twinkly and smelling of mulled wine – quite put me in the festive spirit.

the Guildhall, Worcester at dusk.
excellent message I thought…x

Later that week, I met up with my brother in Worcestershire and we headed off to Hanbury Hall for tea and cakes and a wander around the house. This year they’ve decorated the house in the style of Christmasses of the 1970s and 1980s and oh my goodness! What a good job they’ve made. I haven’t laughed so much for an age.

We spent our afternoon remembering toys, films, tv, pop music and food from our youth. It was magical! Tacky, but totally magical.

It wasn’t just indoors that had been decorated. Every one of these little trees had a glitter ball on top – over 200 of them, how fabulous!

Meanwhile, back indoors, there has been more needlepoint. I’ve given up trying to think about what I’m doing and instead I’ve fully embraced the stitch to relax vibe that I used to have. For now, that feels absolutely the right thing to do. I’ve always thought that stitching was primarily a meditative practice and so it feels again for me.

this is the current piece – rocking orange…x

There’s something snuggly about sitting on the sofa in the evening, listening to the TV and quietly sewing. Well, it works for me.

It’s a funny old time of year and I hope you’re doing alright. Stitching keeps me relaxed and calm, but do whatever works for you. We’re all different.

Anny x

Quirky Grey’s Court

In which we make an impromptu visit to a 16th-century manor house and wish we’d taken our gloves.

Greys Court, Oxon (National Trust)

Just before the heat wave that we’re still enjoying started, we found ourselves rather unexpectedly over near Henley -on-Thames one Sunday afternoon, and as we don’t go out in that direction very often, decided to visit the National Trust property called Greys Court.

I have to say that we didn’t know the first thing about it, so a quick read in the Trust Handbook was all we had to go on.

The back of the house has more character than the front for me.

Entry into the house was by timed ticket, and as so often happens when you do something without prior planning, we arrived with the perfect amount of time to have tea and cake before going round the house. This was a jolly good thing, as it was extremely cold considering it was mid May, and we were all glad to have a hot drink to fortify ourselves.

The house itself is one of the Trust’s quirkier properties.

Generally when I go inside these buildings, it feels like walking into a very classy antique shop. The furniture and paintings usually conjure up wealth,  age and a certain grandeur. There’s usually a scent of long ingrained beeswax and lavender.

But Greys Court was a bit of a surprise, because I quickly realised that it was actually more like stepping into a larger version of our own home.

The first room we went into, had very similar sofa covers and was the same style suite, the hand-made cushions were mostly tapestries – as are ours, and there was a piano, quite like our own.

This feeling stayed with me as I walked around.

I can’t in all honesty say that I liked it terribly much. I’m still struggling to put my finger on the reason why, but perhaps it was verging on the too normal. The one room that I did like though, was the kitchen. There, I could happily cook dinner, read the paper or entertain friends.

Feeling bemused, we went to seek out the Tudor Donkey Wheel.

The Donkey Wheel – I tried to snap this from every angle and failed miserably.

This is something you don’t see everyday, and we definitely don’t have one tucked away in our garage – I’m sure I’d have noticed.

Then it was off up the Great Tower to look down on everything – much more fun and with excellent views all around.

The views from the Great Tower are excellent.

And as it was so cold and we were barely dressed appropriately, we ended our visit by strolling, slightly faster than we’d have done had it been warmer, around the walled gardens, which we’d seen from the Tower.

The gardens are gorgeous and I’m deeply green with envy.

The wisteria, although not as good as in some years, according to the sign, was still impressive. I adore the patterns in the intertwined stems.

Wisteria – what can you see in these shapes?

The girls finished off the afternoon by cheating miserably in the maze.

Greys Courtinteresting, gorgeous gardens, excellent views and a lovely place to amble around, but somehow just not hitting the mark for me – well, you can’t please all of the people all of the time… mind you, I probably wouldn’t refuse, if somebody gave it to me.

PSI forgot to mention, the tea-room is very good indeed and worth a visit, even if you don’t go in the house.

Hanbury Hall – Resurgam

A rather sad old house, comes back to life.

Hanbury Hall, Worcestershire.

I made a flying visit to Worcestershire on Monday and not having huge amounts of time to spare, but wanting a few minutes calm and culture, I drove over to Hanbury Hall, which isn’t far from Droitwich.

The little leaflet/map you’re given with your ticket says on the front, ‘Hanbury Hall, Welcome,

Do money and beauty bring happiness?’

Which to be honest, surprised me a touch. You don’t generally get presented with a philosophical question like that, when you go to these places.

Now I presume it’s actually a reference to the various unhappy people who have lived at Hanbury over the last three hundred years. And it has certainly had a few, culminating I suppose, with George Vernon, the last of the Vernon family who originally built the house, who committed suicide in the Hall in 1940.

The Hall had used to be one of the Trust’s less appealing properties. Not many rooms open to the public, uninspiring grounds. It felt dusty and neglected. Not somewhere you’d rush to spend an afternoon with the family. So I suppose, when I first went there, back in the 1980s, it was a rather sad old place.

But over the last few years, something rather wonderful has been happening at Hanbury, and I’ll tell you what I think it is.

I think someone has fallen in love with the house.

Because now when you visit, there’s a lot more to see. Many more rooms are open and they have been dressed sympathetically, so you get a really good impression of life inside the Hall.

The room guide volunteers deserve medals for being the chattiest, gossipiest (I know that word doesn’t exist, but it should), friendliest, I’ve met.

Hanbury Hall, Worcestershire, England. Mural o...
Hanbury Hall, Worcestershire, England. Mural of finding of Achilles by Odysseus. James Thornhill, c.1710. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There has obviously been a lot of effort spent in restoration around the Hall and information is always on hand to point out the odd and the eccentric highlights – so much more fun than just telling you about the artists and owners.

And the amazing things they’re doing to recreate George London’s formal garden, just have to be seen. (Both from the ground and from the Hercules bedroom windows).

Formal Gardens Hanbury Hall

The tea room is worthy of a visit all for itself, and if you can come away without buying a plant, gift or second-hand book, you’re made of stronger stuff than me.

What this house has now, is money, abundant care, and the love of many people. And it’s always been beautiful, it just hadn’t found the right partners before. I think you can tell, because the atmosphere inside Hanbury Hall is very relaxing. It feels as if the building itself has breathed a sigh of relief.

I think it’s happy.

Do go.

Bess of Hardwick

On our recent trip to Hay-on-Wye, I picked up a copy of Mary S. Lovell’s book, Bess of Hardwick, First Lady of Chatsworth. Although I’ve known bits and pieces about Bess for a long time, this is the first time I’ve read a whole biography of this remarkable woman.

Bess was no beautiful princess like her contemporary Queen Elizabeth I, no tragic heroine like Mary Queen of Scots, but she knew both of these women very well indeed and lived a life every bit as moving.

But what I find most endearing, is that this Tudor lady was in many respects a working mother, on a scale that today’s high power executives would have trouble matching.

I won’t attempt to detail everything about her life here. If you’re interested, then there are plenty of sources. Suffice to say that Bess came from fairly humble beginnings (at least by Tudor standards) but through a series of advantageous marriages, and by extremely good management of her resources, climbed to the top of Elizabethan society, being regarded as the second most wealthy woman in England after the queen.

Bess of Hardwick (later Elizabeth Countess of ...
Image via Wikipedia

The reason why I so admire Bess, is that she really was responsible for making the very best of her lot in life, things could have turned out very differently for her on numerous occasions, but she learned how to play the system and make it work for her – and she did all this, whilst placing her commitment to the advancement of her family, firmly centre stage.

Throughout her life, she suffered periods of stress and acute worry. Deaths of loved ones, malicious gossip, spiteful lawsuits, court intrigue and plotting and more, but she survived it all, and through what must have been indredible strength of character, she triumphed.

In an age when patronage was essential to advancement, and when many ambitious nobles bankrupted themselves in their pursuit of favour with the monarch, Bess managed to build magnificent new houses, (the original building at Chatsworth and the existing Hardwick Hall are both her creations) without becoming insolvent – what could she teach us today about financial management! Apparently she was meticulous with her accounts – a true hands-on manager.

She was a adept business manager, and a fantastic networker. Over the long years of her life, she was sure to make friends with the right people at the right time – not a question of luck – she set out to do it. But she also seems to have made true and lasting friendships, which implies that she was an authentic person, appreciated for her own worth and recognised for her personal integrity.

Hardwick Hall, the house Bess built in her later years.

What I particularly love about Bess is her energy and enthusiasm for life. Fifty was pretty old in Elizabethan times, but at this age, when others were slowing down and succumbing to illness and death, Bess was as driven and sprightly as ever. She was in her sixties when she started the building at Hardwick – moving into her new house on or around her seventieth birthday. No slowing down for her.

Throughout her life, she seems to have valued and enjoyed the company of children and young people, perhaps this partly explains her joie de vivre. And at her death, Bess had left strict instructions as to the manner of her funeral – not to be too lavish – in fact she had prepared her estate better than most of us would attempt today, to provide the basis for her children’s inheritance.

She ended her life it seems, having achieved so much and still having maintained her sense of humility and integrity – what an inheritance.

I believe that Bess still has a lot to teach us, especially our daughters, about what can be achieved and what are the essential values to hold on to throughout life.

  • Chatsworth is still owned by Bess’s descendants, the Dukes of Devonshire, and is a wonderful place to visit, although vastly altered since Bess’s time.

  • Hardwick Hall remains very much as Bess left it and is one of the most stunning great houses of England – it is managed today by the National Trust. If you visit, make sure to see Bess’s needlework – what a woman. Hardwick Old Hall, just a step away from the new Hall is also open to the public and although ruined, is still a poignant link to Bess.

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.







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.