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.
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.
We decide puffins are less bellicose. They waddle about among the undergrowth, occasionally pottering down into their burrows.
Puffin at rest.
Watching from a burrow
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.
A cormorant and young.
An adult cormorant spreads its glossy wings
You can’t spot the kittiwake young in this shot, but they’re tucked underneath, honest.
A razorbill protects her young.
A cormorant nest – with lots of other nests nearby.
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.
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.
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?
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After lunch, a muddy farm, where we attracted the interest of the locals.
And an uplifting final couple of miles, with grazing red deer, light-reflecting ponds and surrounded by a final burst of Autumn colour.
If you’d found yourself in the Studley Royal estate in the early 1700s, just along from the ruined Fountains Abbey, you’d have had a rather wild and rugged country walk along the valley of the River Skell, surrounded by woodlands. You might have been able to glimpse the abbey in the distance.
This was John Aislabie‘s estate. He’d inherited it in 1693, but was at that point in his life busy realising his political ambitions – in 1718 he became Chancellor of the Exchequer. Only two years later he was mired in the financial scandal of the South Sea Bubble, which ruined so many and shook the national economy. He was disgraced and expelled from parliament.
He returned to Yorkshire, and devoted his considerable energy and wealth to creating the first water garden of its kind seen in England. It owed a lot to formal French gardens of the time, and balances formal design with wonderful vistas set in an apparently natural landscape.
If you visit these days you’ll see a proper 18th century garden: the formal lakes, the temples and other follies, the carefully orchestrated views. Work continues year by year to rein the garden back to the detail of what those eighteenth century visitors would have seen. After all, trees grow taller and spawn saplings which grow in their turn. The river silts up. Land slips. Shrubs spread in an ungainly fashion. Unwanted invading plants make the place their home
On Saturday, we went on a little tour to look at some recent work. The classical statues – wrestling gladiators and the like which have ornamented the gardens since the 18th century – are lead. Marble would have been nice, but lead’s cheaper, so when they were new, those statues would have been painted in marble-look-alike white.
Now they’re white again. It wasn’t a question of slapping on the Dulux though. No, conservators hunted for evidence of the actual paints used by grubbing about in hidden groins and armpits for contemporary paint fragments, and experimented on discarded lead till they got the right shade, the right paint.
The formal ponds were once surrounded by planters and benches as well as statuary – contemporary paintings tell us that. These will be replaced, as well as a couple of statues sold in the 19th century when the estate fell on hard times.
Ungainly shrubberies will be knocked into shape and brought down to size. An informal garden will be planted with sweetly scented plants – roses, lavender and so on. Just the place to sit and view the Temple of Piety and the Moon ponds.
Tent Hill will live up to its name once more. The dense copse which covers it will be thinned out to make room for a tent something like an 18th century military campaign tent. Not for military campaigns of course, but to house entertainments of various kinds, just as it would have done back in the eighteenth century.
So much to do. But every piece of work brings Studley Royal even nearer to the intentions of John Aislabie, who first created this special place more than two ands a half centuries ago.