Mike was working in Scotland, meeting with the Duke of York as I started this chapter. This month the weather made news: hottest since ’76 here, and in northern Italy, the river Po is drying up. By the end of August, our parks in London are dull brown. The grass, usually green, lies baked and withered on hard dirt. The Texas Exes softball games at Regents Park (Texas vs. Rest of the World, Republicans vs. Democrats, whatever team name you could dream up) over end of August Bank Holiday weekend saw several grounders rolling for miles over bumpy terrain. The tomatoes on the roof benefit from our lavish concrete oasis, with watering every day, and they’re loving it! Our “harvest” has begun, thanks to the outdoor faucet. Summer draws to a close.
Last summer, I signed up for a drawing course at Canford School, in Dorset near Poole and Bournemouth on the south coast. Because of our extended stay in Russia, I couldn’t go. This year, I’d signed up early at the prospect of painting daily models with other painters. We lived in modern single dorm rooms in buildings that match stately older ones: parents splash out £20,000 a year for children there, adhering to upper class British customs of boarding the 13-18 year old set.
The campus could be a Harry Potter movie set, shaded by enormous trees. On one edge, a weir divides the detoured River Stour pleasantly splashing past pretty countryside. Nearby a picturesque old red brick chapel overlooks a graveyard with leaning stones. The campus unfolds with a vast stone main hall, dorms, academic and sports buildings, a golf course, cricket fields, heated outdoor pool, and 14th century John O’ Gaunts hall, where we ate three large meals daily at a long table. The hall was once a high ceilinged stone kitchen with vast fireplaces, now glassed in to hold students’ art. Students were on holiday, so we had the campus to ourselves, and dinner discussions were enlivened a bit as we took turns buying wine.
The stately main building was a soft gray color mansion house with towers, built for steel barons nearly 200 years ago. Its highpoint is a stunning paneled main hall and foyer, with hammer beam ceiling, dark walls gilded and carved in medieval fashion, and a grand staircase like a maharaja’s. The hall was filled with a wedding reception as I arrived for the week.
Wandering the grounds past rose gardens, wooded paths, vast lawns, and forested areas could take a day. Some trees must be a thousand years old. Stone apartment quarters near the back gate hold junior teaching staff behind entwined clematis and roses, and masters live in larger quarters on campus. (And John O’Gaunts, you historians may recall, was born in Ghent, the fourth son of Edward III, brother of Edward the Black Prince in the Hundred years’ War, and father of the first Lancaster royal. John never became king, married money and more power—several times, and basically ruled England for his nephew Richard II until his son became Henry IV. John was Chaucer’s patron.)
One reason the campus looks so fine is that long ago, several Mesopotamian reproduction tablets were donated to the school; then, about 10 years ago, one turned out to be the real thing! The British Museum lost in heated bidding when a determined Japanese religious sect forked over £7million for the curly bearded muscular Assyrians in procession. Today the school displays new buildings and a reproduction tablet that is a twin to the one it sold.
The drawing course, run by the New English School, provided materials, mostly charcoal. We drew under weeping willows by the grassy riverside and in studios, filled sketch books, made new friends, and one evening tried to draw a vigorous Brazilian dancing session by our costumed models. I brought home lots of work but nothing to frame, other than very large sheets, but it was a happy week. I should sketch daily, like flossing or walking an hour, or losing ten pounds. A disciplined person would surely do these things!
Over the July 4 long weekend en route to that class, we visited friends in Hampshire in their large Victorian stone home, perhaps the perfect personification of young country barons today. The house is surrounded by gardens and fertile fields filled with children, chickens, sheep, horses, cats, and enthusiastic spaniels. We feasted on George’s dinner, ate newly laid eggs, hiked with Janette, “harvested” dinner in the stunning and varied gardens, and waved off the family for the children’s sport day at school. George’s gardens have been featured in a few publications, with sculptures, organic farming, and enormous diversity of foods and flowers. Local townspeople use the grounds sometimes for charity projects, when Janette’s big kitchen is called on to turn out meals for hundreds.
Their town of Alresford (“Cress Capitol of England”) is pretty, but I hadn’t realized that after most of it burned in the Great Fire of 1689, it was rebuilt as one of the finest Georgian towns in Britain. One evening we ate at the Globe, a 17th century coaching inn, and afterwards, followed our ears to a Dixieland band in a nearby pub. We thought we were in New Orleans and bought the CD of “Tim Eyles and the Gentlemen of Jazz”. But it skips.
We toured nearby Winchester early on a festival morn as colorful tents were quickly erected along the main street of England’s first capitol. Nearby on lawns at the Cathedral, dancers romped on the green, pipers piped, magicians made things disappear, and clowns made children laugh. The cathedral, built in 1079 of Isle of Wight stone and Hampshire timber, is described in past chronicles; I’m sure celebrations in its shadow haven’t changed much since it was erected. Locals and visitors exulted in summer sun, celebrating with jugglers on stilts as in medieval times.
Hampshire is green and rolling, an hour and a half west of London. Another day, we visited Longleat, classical palatial home of the Marquess of Bath, long on a list of our places to see. Rebuilt before 1580 after a fire, it’s filled with treasures and open to the public, many of whom picnicked in this summer’s sunny warm weather. At the end of a long curving drive past vast lawns and ancient gnarled trees, the stone mansion sits, with stables, orangery, and outbuildings now used for tourist shops and restaurants. Capability Brown landscaped 900 acres of grounds, but 8000 more hold woods and farms. (Central Park, celebrating its 150th anniversary, has 840 acres.)
In 1867, the 4th marquis Lord Bath was “ambassador extraordinary” to Venice. In 1860 he’d redecorated prior to his marriage, commissioning Italian renaissance ceilings, frescoes, and paintings worthy of a doge, planned by Crace, a London decorator who worked on parliament buildings with Barry and Pugin. Room after room displays elaborate carved Carrera marble fireplaces and door surrounds, tooled leather wall coverings, painted and carved medallions, sleek inlaid paneling, silk curtains and swags, and rich thick carpets. On the walls hang elaborately framed classical paintings and huge tapestries. Fine desks and bureaus fill rooms, topped with china and bronze figurines, swords and globes. At entry, the Elizabethan Great Hall, never remodeled and relatively untouched, holds giant prehistoric Irish elk antlers that probably span 12 feet in the dim light. The second minstrels’ gallery was added to the paneled high ceilinged room before Charles II and his court stayed the night in 1663. You can book your next reception there…invite me, please. The musicians would be welcome.
The private library, finest in the land, houses books found no place else in the world. It was begun by William Thynne, ‘clerke of thee kechin’ to Henry VIII, and includes Chaucer manuscripts and the 1541 first English Bible, plus books printed in Bruges by Caxton, the first English printer. Thynne’s nephew John was knighted on the battlefield in 1547 while fighting Scots, hence the knotted tail of the Scottish lion in his coat of arms. He built Longleat. The present lord, in his 70’s, is an old hippie and artist who paints in oil. The place has been commercial since 1949, and the family is prominent as one of the first in keeping their ancestral home alive on tourist revenues. English death taxes are enormous, and the government is dedicated to egalitarianism.
We took a “ferry” ride on the lord’s lake past three silverback gorillas on an island, walked through fine manicured gardens, including the Love Labyrinth in knotted box hedges, trimmed and intertwined in medieval style, but skipped the world’s longest hedge maze, the vast Animal Safari Park, the Longleat Railway, and more. Our admission ticket included only house and gardens.
Then it was off to see the New Forest, near Southampton on the south coast at the Beaulieu River.
We had only read about it. It’s filled with 5,000 wandering mares, their suckling foals, and huge cows that routinely amble across unfenced roads. Each is branded and owned by a commoner who owns or leases land in the 45,000 acre area. The area was “new” when William the Conquerer decided some time after 1066 he should hunt: only the king could hunt deer and boar—or wear purple, a favorite English color today, it seems, if shirts and ties count. Centuries later, ship builders worked at Buckler’s Hard, building warships for Nelson’s Navy. We spied some tall straight trees that would’ve made excellent masts. The flat area is perfect for cycling and hiking, and we managed a few walks on our one night stay in Brockenhurst. During the day we passed towns like Farleigh Wallop, and road signs advising us of “soft verges” “elderly people” and “badgers”. We ended the day with a wonderful dinner at the Montagu Arms at Beaulieu nearby. (Verges are road shoulders.)
The next day in Exbury Gardens, created by one of the Rothchilds in the ‘20’s, we hiked past acres of rhododendrons and azaleas, which made us recall Charleston SC, and rode the little train through one area, which reminded us of Austin’s Zilker Park. Walking along the wide river coast was delightful, near the sea, but in spring with all the flowers in bloom and the daffodil meadow, now fallow, the garden visit must be eye-popping with colors. We strolled by the stone mansion once a Navy headquarters in the war. We rested at picnic tables as vocal peacocks and hens wandered around the outdoor tearoom, enclosed by box hedge borders.
Beaulieu also holds the Motor Museum, (free on the second day if you don’t see everything), and a castle and gardens. But it was expensive and we had no time. A few days later I read that many hundred year old rhododendrons were being chopped down because it’s feared they contribute to a disease similar to America’s oak wilt. Thousand year oaks of England are under threat in some regions. In Texas, roads pass thousands of spikey gray tree carcasses, bare limbs outstretched like tragic skeleton ghosts. Austin has lost over 10,000 trees to oak wilt and there is no real cure. I wouldn’t want them here.
Just being in London for awhile after so much travel has its pleasures, and we visited the British Museum, open late Fridays, the wild and wooly Columbia Road flower market, open very early Sundays, ate out with friends, and guests for a few days. There are a hundred concerts, plays, films, and events that we will never see on any given night.
Tony Blair was only the fourth non-American to address a joint congressional session. The papers quickly dropped covering Blair’s 19 standing ovations in favor of the suicide of David Kelly, a weapons inspector disheartened by his treatment by MoD, the BBC, and No. 10. There are many more papers here than in a comparable American city, each espousing a political agenda, so their reportage is biased to a far greater extent than any American paper, where truth supposedly is the holy grail. The papers grind axes here, but all applauded the late Bob Hope at his death, an English boy who made good leaving a legacy of laughter. A day later, the Times published a full page article on Hope’s incessant international womanizing. Those babes on the USO tours were never safe!
There’s fishing, perhaps on a quiet bank with a worm and bamboo pole, and then there’s FISHING—in bonnie Scotland! Arndilly, a lodge in Upper Tominachty, near the town of Craigellachie (Craig-ELL-a-kee, and rrroll the rrr!) in Banffshire, is the place to go for salmon coursing in clear streams in Scotland’s wild north. We were lucky enough to be invited for long weekend from Wednesday to Sunday. You’ll need a ticket to Aberdeen, on the east coast, far above Glasgow and Edinburgh, or you could fly to Inverness. Both require over an hour’s drive from the airport. At the river, you’ll be tutored by Tony Green, the head ghillie, in a fish print tie, greenish tweed plus fours, and tweed hat above his chest-high waders. His assistants Big Keith and Little Keith are dressed the same, and rattle around in old Land Rovers that also hold dogs and fishing supplies. Their hats have a bill at front and back, with ear flaps tied up top for summer days, somewhat like Sherlock Holmes illustrations. They look after our host’s two miles of river, and all the surrounding grounds and buildings.
Tony’s bustling wife Rosalind Green and her cheery Scottish ladies tend housekeeping needs in the lodge. Meals are created by Antonia, 22, a blonde cute enough for Vogue, from Chile, who had a London boyfriend and wanted to stay in the UK. She came from an agency and cooked for over 20 people, 3 meals a day. Everyone tipped Rosalind, Antonia, and Tony for their efforts.
One needs proper equipment—or kit—and so it’s off to shop. In the town of Aberlou, wee stone houses, mostly gray, hug the street, and bright flower baskets celebrate the brief summer and break the starkness. Lace curtains soften most windows, and the pretty town’s long green park enfolds the river. Pass the newsagent’s and butcher’s shops to find Munro’s to rent waders by shoe size.
We shoved our stocking feet into several pairs: they were quite comfy and the rubber suspenders were adjusted to protect us from waist down in the cool waters. We examined rows of different flies, made with colorful feathers, plastic, string, and beads from Hamish. He knows what’s biting and where. The little store is crammed with poles, reels, creels, and every kind of fashionable and utilitarian water and sport wear, plus mugs, pots, and trays with fish symbols. Hamish will go to the back and appear with whatever isn’t in sight. English gentlemen fish and shoot birds, and their dogs are trained to help in the latter. There were several wonderful dogs on the trip, labs and spaniels. There were cages and dog beds in the back of Land Rovers and Jeeps. The cars smelled like dogs—sometimes wet dogs. Big Keith’s rambunctious older spaniel, was a gift from his late partner: “dinna ha’a brrrrain in ‘er head, I should’a shot ‘er long agoo.”
We were fortunate to be able to borrow rods and tackle from George, since I was astonished to discover that a rod or a reel could run many hundreds of pounds--like good skis or tennis racquets. Flies are pricey as well, and I lost or hurt a couple while learning to cast. (Never ever hook the grasses behind you! Bad form!) The secret of casting is to pull the rod back, but NOT VERY FAR! It’s not much more than vertical. Then wait, while the long line unfurls behind you, before you flick it out across the running stream before you. Tony made it look automatic. I worked on casting every day, and admired how effortless it seems. It’s never boring; each cast takes all your attention, as the river cascades past your legs and the sun tosses a thousand sparkling diamonds your way on the ripples. The rocks or mud slide beneath your toes as you slowly move along the waters, surrounded only by green grasses and trees and the blue sky above. Gentle ripples of the water and and an occasional bird call sings to the spirit.
The spey cast, a double-up-back-up-back flick, is useful under low hanging trees or in headwinds, and sends a line soaring out in graceful yellow esses. I didn’t get to try that one this trip, and will hope for a second chance someday. We had glorious weather most days, but in a windy storm I’d guess I’d crave earflaps and oilcloth! I only slipped once, and since it was a warm day, it didn’t matter as only a bit of cold water sloshed into my waders. (The gents in the party suggested that if I were ever looking for another man, I’d surely lure him by wearing that sexy rubber garb and hat!)
The water is clear and clean, and you press your feet into the rounded stones beneath your toes, sidling along the river after each cast or two, jiggling your army-green wellies into watery crevices to make a solid resting place for the next cast. I was happy I’d bought thick cushioned socks from Hamish. The fish were jumping, but not biting. In days past, perhaps 50 or 60 large fish would be a day’s catch. Now stocks are depleted, and the number of rods in the water is watched closely. Most hen fish are released if they’re caught.
Breakfasts and dinners were taken in the large dining room high over the river valley, buffet style, but Antonia brought lunches down to the fishing hut, painted dark green at riverside. A small addition holds a tiny kitchen. It adjoins a room with a long dining table on a cement floor. Ten happy children, between fishing, riding lessons, crafts, and play picnicked on the lawn between the hut and the Spey, one of the best salmon beats in Scotland. But this year the drought, not enough to cause foliage greens to burn, left the river several feet low. It flooded in other years, so I guess everything evens out over the centuries.
When our hosts bought their river place, an imposing dark stone mansion stood at the end of the road, three massive stories high behind a sturdy port cochere. They sold that Victorian pile and instead built a more modern comfortable lodge. It sits atop a high hill with fantastic views: there are separate children’s and adult’s wings, with a small courtyard in between the buildings. Our room, with twin beds, a sink, dressers and chairs, was one of many along the hall, and every two rooms shared a full bath. The kids ate in the other wing and were forbidden our dining room by their parents. We met in a large comfy sitting room before and after dinner. Upholstered sofas and chairs were set around the fireplace. A round table filled the bay window with views below, and pictures of fish and game filled the walls. We drank, read, played games, and ooh! the jokes kept us chuckling. (“Mickey Duck??” ”Do you think I’m a pervert?”) After-dinner walks monitored the sunsets, around 11. I wrote a funny song before we left. My daytime sightings included a brilliant redheaded pheasant and a red deer.
One yellow tee shirt was to be avoided at all costs: the “Dick of the Day,” with a suitable x-rated drawing on the front. It was awarded to a TV presenter who hooked his own ear and required a trip to hospital, an ex submarine captain who lost a fish (not mentioning any names) and that person’s wife, who had an unfortunate encounter with a mud bank in her Hertz rental car. Our crowd included an architect who advises the government on Africa and India, a businessman whose family employs hordes and who serves in conservation posts, one who redoes houses, and one who was referred to merely as wealthy (I have no idea). One of the children had been a page in Sophie and Edward’s royal wedding. It reminded me of past ski trips when we met at the lodge. People reserve far ahead for thousands of pounds. Fishing starts in February, and birding in the fall. We were lucky to have had such a unique experience.
I flew alone, since Mike worked. On debarking the plane, one is immediately aware of how incredibly clear the air is—so different from London’s grime! Colors are so clean and crisp they seem to hit you in the eye! I felt I now understood the Scottish Colorists. Happy to be alone, I continually stopped the car to drink them in, or to take photos of the incredible scenery: nearly pitch black, light chartreuse, and forest greens of every shade, waving wildflowers, stark hills near wooded hills, with golden fields of grain separating them. Tall spikes of raspberry pink flowers waving by thousands were willow herb. Violet Scottish thistle grew along fence lines, with some gone to seed in gossamer white pods, ready to float off in the next wisp. I am insanely wild over the Italian scenery, but this is its equal in every way, at least in the sunshine! Even when the skies darken, they are ever-changing drama, with violets, grays, golds, pinks, and blacks flying into one another in vast cosmic pile-ups, sometimes with fluffy or fuzzed edges, sometimes pouring rain onto a hill in the distance, sometimes brilliantly emblazoned with a shining beam of sunshine, like glowing molten metal shapes amid dark furnaces.
Highland games are held every summer in many Scottish towns. We attended one afternoon in tiny Dufftown (DUFF-t’n) and saw he-man Goliaths in plaid skirts tossing the caber—or trying to. They basically carry an upright telephone pole, and after a run, try to flip it. None did, and happily we saw no fatalities as the flying pole careened about. We watched kilted youngsters earnestly piping in turn for a crusty white-haired seated judge. We watched dancers onstage in sailor costumes, peasant dresses or kilts leap weightlessly about for points and prizes, and watched tug o’wars between large sturdy men, pitted against vying villages. Their row of shoulders nearly touched the ground as they heaved backward, almost horizontal, one foot planted sideways. Neck muscles bulged. Team coaches shouted when it was time to pull harder and the rope moved a bit. This could go on for quite some time, with several grunts and strains as the foot firmly replanted each time. The last man’s back was padded with a thick carpet as the rope encircled him.
There were foot races, carnival rides, cotton candy booths, painted faces, raffle wheels (we didn’t win any scotch!) and lots of umbrellas in the bits of drizzle emblazoned with local brands: Walker Shortbread, Glenfiddich, Glen Farclas, John Smith, and the like. Alas, we left before the massed bands, but enjoyed the tall hats, tartan plaids, shiny instruments, and talk of the groups. ‘Twas grrrand.
Sunday was a day with no fishing: we cleared out and the next batch made ready to come in. (There were going to be 16 children!) We drove to some of the nearby towns, tried for a distillery tour but it was closed, had lunch in a nice pub, and toured a castle at Ballindolloch, home of the Macpherson-Grants since 1546, where we met the owners on their way out. (“While you’re up, get me a Grant’s!”)
The laird, Mrs. Clare Macpherson, tall, slender, and friendly, urged me to visit the rose gardens, a short walk from the castle across perfectly flat, short clipped greensward, with a fountain in the center and countless trellises overflowing with blooms of every color. The flowers are about a month behind London’s and were at their peak. A pail at one of the gates had a plaid ribbon attached, with clippers, and after taking a few photos, I availed myself of the invitation to deadhead blooms. The walled garden was laid out to mark the 450th anniversary of Ballindalloch.
There were also rock gardens, and flower gardens around the huge house; nearby, black angus cattle grazed placidly behind a haha, unaware they were the oldest herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle, established in 1860. Nearby the rivers Avon and Spey passed peacefully to the sea. Not far is queen Mum’s palace, Balmoral, which after renovation goes to Charles. The dowager Queen often visited Ballindolloch, since some of her charity work emanates from there. A Macpherson-Grant child was a page in Charles and Diana’s wedding. There are photos of the royals and the family’s three children—now married-- throughout the house, and a large modern oil family portrait in pride of place in the 16th century dining room. The family dines there nightly, so I suppose the red ropes and wooden posts are removed! I spied two worn plaid dog beds pushed under the buffet.
The library houses cabinets lined with thousands of leather bound gold tooled books. The drawing room holds collections of china and portraits of ancestors, and bedrooms had modern books and pillows alongside antique bits. One guessed that the bedwarming pan was a conversation piece, superseded by electric blankets, but the top floor, up narrow and winding steep stairs, held a children’s nursery filled with toys through the centuries. A stark white servant’s room with one unpainted bed once held several staff. There must be a team of gardeners and farmers employed today. In the center of a grassy square is a tall square white doocot from 1696, holding 844 stone nesting boxes for doves—the doos. A kids’ play area is nearby for visitors. Are there any dovecotes in the US?
Amid the tens of thousands of acres, there is a golf course, a shooting area, and lodging for paying guests in several houses tucked along the river. The fee to enter the house and gardens was £4 for concessions—the over 60’s. My only regret was missing the tea room and gift shop!
July is the month of fabulous London sales, in most every tiny shop and big department store. I haven’t used my charge card even once for them, and don’t even care. I’d rather stay home: I think I’m tired of running. We have loved summer biking in Hyde and Kensington Park in the evenings after dinner, and have never spent so many pleasant days in our roof garden as this year. The unusual warmth is a delight!
August means all Europe goes on holiday, and nothing gets done. We left too, flying separately, for the US and a family reunion, a wedding, and I drove from DC to Rochester to see my mother, and solved her toe pain: it was broken! The US was beautiful after all the British rain, and the long drive was punctuated by wildflowers. As I drove back a blackout, which I didn’t hear about, left my mother, 90, with power, but not my sister. Our grandchildren are growing up well and our kids are musical: Mike had opened a July Milwaukee Brewers game with the National Anthem and last year it was the Reds in Cincinnati. He does a mean Elvis impersonation.
In London, more visitors In a week there was a farewell pub crawl and dinner, then a farewell lunch, a ladies lunch, an art meeting, a museum tour, dinner, anniversary dinner, and finally, by Friday, nothing. I slept late and continued to winnow through waiting mail and emails. One from Texas, concerning the funeral of a boy serving in Iraq.
Ghillies assist fishermen in casting and netting fish. The term originated as Gaelic for boy.
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