Gardens of Light

It was cold the other night. Very cold. And for three hours, I stood outside in the dark. I was happy.

I was volunteering at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal as part of an event that spanned two continents: in Poland; in Denmark; in Germany; in Russia; in France and in China. Do follow the links: you’ll immediately have a clutch of places to add to your ‘must visit’ list.

In all these places, for one dark chilly night in February, there was a Garden of Light. Normally, we can only enjoy the Water Gardens of Studley Royal by daylight. But thanks to this international festival, there was a new opportunity.

Looking across the Moon Ponds towards the Temple of Piety as night falls.

As night fell, lighting designed to spotlight the special features of the gardens pierced the darkness, revealing a garden in harmony with the philosophy of the time in which it was conceived: where Nature and Art work hand in hand. 18th century music played in the background.

Visitors were able to stroll round, lanterns or torches in hand, focusing on the Temple of Piety and the classical statuary of the Moon Ponds; or glancing upwards at the Octagon Tower and Temple of Fame, all bathed in golden light. The Moon Ponds themselves were lit by glowing orbs – sometimes silver white, sometimes red or blue, fading in intensity as the evening wore on.

The Abbey too was lit up, though I barely saw this as it wasn’t my role to be available there.

A deliberately out-of-focus shot of the Abbey.

The moon was perfect – exactly half way between waxing and waning, it lit the visitors’ paths and illuminated the night sky. Whenever I looked up there was Orion’s Belt – and so many other stars usually invisible to town-dwellers.

Those of us there relished the chance to enjoy this peaceful yet joyous occasion. And as the event drew to a close, owls reclaimed the night, and their plaintive hooting accompanied us as we walked away, chilly but content.

The evening draws to a close and visitors take their lanterns home.

Snapshot Saturday: Structured elegance – unstructured lodgings


I was at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal.  And it was raining.  I stood beneath the shelter of the Temple of Piety, and enjoyed the gracious structured elegance of the Water Gardens.  Centre stage was Neptune, Roman god of the waters, and of the Moon Ponds over which he presides.

And then I noticed that amid this ordered beauty, a coot family had built a ramshackle and highly unstructured nest.  I think the gardens’ creators, John and William Aislabie would have enjoyed the water birds’ cheeky appropriation of this most peaceful of scenes.

Coot family on the Moon Pond.

My contribution to this week’s WordPress photo challenge: Structure.

In which I am attacked by a tern, charmed by some puffins, and visit a nursery.

Tuesday.  A trip round the Farne Islands.

Following the fish, birds feeding off the Farne Islands.

Here’s our journey, courtesy of Billy Shiel’s boat.  We pass one of the most densely populated housing estates in Europe – but despite having to jostle for a tiny space to call home, this community is not socially well-integrated .  Kittiwakes don’t live with puffins.  Cormorants won’t talk to guillemots.  Grey seals loll indolently beneath the cliffs, doing as little as possible till hunger forces them into the sea to hunt.  The stench is intolerable.


We land on Inner Farne, taking our hats as per instructions.  This is why.  Arctic terns nest all over the island and they have young to protect.  We are the enemy, as they make clear, as they hurtle towards us, piercing our hats and hands with their dagger-like beaks.  I nurse a war-wound on my finger.

A wary arctic tern .
Ready to attack.
Preparing to strike.
Warning me off.

We decide puffins are less bellicose.  They waddle about among the undergrowth, occasionally pottering down into their burrows.


Then it’s time to explore further.  The cliffs are cordoned off, but there, immediately  beyond the fencing are birds in their hundreds, caring for their young.  They’re close enough to touch.  We don’t though.  Being so close we can see every detail of their (usually ramshackle) nests, their plumage, the young unfledged birds, and this is privilege enough.


With thanks to Maureen and Andrew for organising this trip for volunteers at NT Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, and to the volunteer rangers at NT Farne Islands for managing this special place, despite irreparable damage to their hats.

An arctic tern above Inner Farne.

Snapshot Saturday: From World Heritage to heritage at home.

Fountain’s Abbey seen from a hillside walk last Autumn.

In 1132, thirteen Benedictine monks from York fetched up in a wild and isolated place we now know as the manicured and lovely parkland setting of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal.  The Archbishop of York had offered them the land so they could establish a pious community based on silence, prayer and simplicity.

Over the years – over the next four centuries – they built a community with all the trappings of a large village: sleeping, living and working quarters, an infirmary, guest accommodation, a mill, a tannery, quarrying, as well as the daily focus of their lives, the Abbey church itself, where they worshipped eight times a day.

Huby’s Tower at Fountain’s Abbey, built not many years before the Dissolution of the Monasteries

Their principal source of income was from sheep, whose wool came to be valued at home and abroad.  Merchants from all over Europe to buy and trade.

The Abbey site could not sustain enough sheep for this thriving business. Lay brothers (the manual workers of the monastic world) were sent further and further afield to establish small working sheep farms – granges.  During the 15th century they came here, and built the house in which we now live.

The first floor was once the lay brothers’ dormitory. Now it’s our flat. I bet those monks didn’t look out over this lovely walled garden.

It’s changed a bit of course.  Who knows how much of the house is truly original, though the stone-built walls are a traditional, sturdy and strong build?  We no longer live in an upstairs dormitory, as the lay brothers did.

The Victorians divided the place into rooms for the servants of the country house which was built and attached to the grange in the 18th century.  The animals and working quarters are no longer downstairs, though the old, spacious and business like kitchen hearth still exists.

As I make the eight mile journey from here to Fountains Abbey I like to think of the heritage our home shares with this wonderful UNESCO World Heritage site.  Aren’t we lucky?

The Old Grange is attached to the fine 18th century house next door. We seem to have access to their wisteria.

This post is in response to the WordPress weekly photo challenge: ‘Heritage’

‘Please don’t feed the deer’.

Knole seen from across the deer park

We went to Knole on Sunday: I was with Tom, Sarah and William.  Here is a house with 500 years of history set into a mediaeval deer park of 1000 acres.

The house turned out to be off-limits.  Only when we got home did we find out that with an over-booked Children’s Book Festival in full swing, other visitors were being urged to stay away.

It didn’t matter.  A 1000 acre deer park simply never gets crowded, and the weather was sunny and bright. William rushed about the unending open space and we all helped him spot distant deer.

What we didn’t expect was that the deer were rather more interested in spotting us, and not staying at a distance at all.  They’d developed a formula which goes something like this: ‘people = rucksacks = picnics = free food’.

Deer on a food recce.

We knew it wasn’t a good idea.  We know that deer are wild creatures, sometimes unpredictable and that they can host ticks and other unwelcome creepy-crawlies.  It was a treat to be able to see them grazing nearby.

A spot of grooming.

The deer had other ideas.  They found a neighbouring toddler’s empty push chair and nuzzled around it for treats.  Then they spotted William.  He had an apple.  The young sika deer thought that William’s apple might make a nice change from grazing for young grass.

Apple core thief.

It was treat for William of course, to get so close to these wild creatures. And it was a treat for us too. But we were wary, and did what we could to discourage our marauder.  Once he ‘d snaffled the apple core, we made our excuses and left.

We’ll go back to Knole of course, to explore the house.  But we may leave our picnic at home.

Singing for Christmas in Fountains Abbey


A coldish afternoon.  Evening’s drawing in at Fountains Abbey, and our little choir is due to sing there.  Not in the roofless ruined abbey, but in their former storage area, their cellarium, as vaulted as any church, and as atmospheric, with its wide colonnaded chamber and its vibrant acoustics. Local choirs vie for the privilege of a singing spot there around Christmas, knowing that audiences will be generously appreciative, and that the cellarium will give the very best account of the choir’s music making.  Generally performers choose favourite Christmas carols that the audiences know and love.

Not us.  Our director, Nicky, makes interesting choices.  We sing early carols that the monks themselves might have known, such as the Coventry Carol and Ave Maris Stella.  We sing music known to a secular mediaeval audience – the rousing songs of taverns, feasting and wassailing, such as Gaudete, The Boar’s Head Carol and the Gloucestershire Wassail.

Choir in winter woollies.  It's cold in the cellarium.
Choir in winter woollies. It’s cold in the cellarium.

We sing winter songs from Lapland – a yoik to call the reindeer in, and a seal woman’s lament.  A spiritual, a modern Hungarian take on Alleluia – the variety continues….. but we finish off with a traditional favourite – Ding dong merrily on high.

We’re delighted.  We get through with no disasters, and we’re exhilarated at the way the acoustics of the cellarium enhance our music-making.  The audience pays us pretty compliments.  We want to come back again next year.


Happy New Year to you all.  Let’s hope for a better 2017.



Snapshot Sunday: It’s not this time of year without ….. a bit of weather.

Photo challenge: ‘It’s not this time of year without…..’.  It’s holidays and celebrations that WordPress seems to have in mind in setting this challenge, but this is November, and we don’t do Thanksgiving in England.  We do dark nights that begin at four o’clock.  We do gusting rain that snatches the remaining leaves from the trees.  We do fog that rises from the river.  Nothing much to celebrate at all.  Except …. except that it can turn out differently.

Read on.

Sunshine after rain at Studley Royal
Sunshine after rain at Studley Royal

I was in a bad mood when I got up.  My shoulder hurt – a lot.  The sky was steel-grey, the temperature steel-cold, and I was supposed to be leading a walk.  This was going to be No Fun At All, because although no rain was forecast, we’d had two days of full-on deluge.  I just knew that virtually the entire circuit would be a mud-bath.

I trudged off to our rendez-vous with ill grace.  Once there though, I started to cheer up. The prospect of good company for the day is always a positive start.  We set off.  The ground was unexpectedly firm, the clouds started to lift and the sun to shine.  Soon we were making a coffee-stop outside 14th century Markenfield Hall.

Coffee stop in front of Markenfield Hall.
Coffee stop in front of Markenfield Hall.

Then it was through woods and across open fields (still no mud) to find a lunch spot overlooking Fountains Abbey, still framed with russet Autumn leaves.

Sandwiches, sunshine and Fountains Abbey.
Sandwiches, sunshine and Fountains Abbey.

After lunch, a muddy farm, where we attracted the interest of the locals.

Calves closely inspected us as we squelched past. Yes, this farmyard was muddy.
Calves closely inspected us as we squelched past. Yes, this farmyard was very muddy indeed.

And an uplifting final couple of miles, with grazing red deer, light-reflecting ponds and surrounded by a final burst of Autumn colour.

Here is the parkland of Studley Royal. Can you see the red deer in the distance?
Here is the parkland of Studley Royal. Can you see the red deer in the distance?

Am I glad I went?  You bet.

Home straits. Crossing the weir at Studley Royal.
Home straits. Crossing the weir at Studley Royal.