The deer of Studley Royal

Once upon a time, if you had a country house, you had to have deer too.  At Studley Royal, part of the Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal World Heritage Site, there are deer and a deer park….. but no country house.

There was a medieval manor house once.  That burnt down in 1716.  John Aislabie, who inherited the site, and was responsible for the magnificent water gardens here,  rebuilt the site as a Palladian mansion.  That burnt down too,  in 1946.  There is no house any more.  But there are some 350 deer.

And on Saturday afternoon, we went to see them, and to find out more.  We’d been promised a grey but tolerable day.  In fact, it was grey and intolerable, with drizzle turning to driving rain.  But if the deer – some 350 of them – could manage, so could we.

Some of them are red deer, the native species of the British Isles, and the largest.

Red deer stag.  Wikimedia Commons
Red deer stag. Wikimedia Commons

Some are fallow deer.  These were introduced to Britain by the Normans, and became prized as ornamental animals, and for hunting.  They’re smaller than red deer, and perhaps seen as prettier.  They can come in two shades of tan with spotted coats, or in some cases black, or even white. Look at their antlers: quite different from those of the red deer.

Fallow deer stag, Wikimedia Commons.
Fallow deer stag, Wikimedia Commons.

And some are sika.  They look a little like darker versions of fallow deer (not the antlers though), and were introduced from China and Japan in the 19th century.

Sika doe, Wikimedia Commons.
Sika doe, Wikimedia Commons.

We learnt to distinguish one from the other by looking at their size, their antlers, their coats, their markings, their tails.  We learnt that deer are responsible for the very neat way in which the trees in the park are finished off.  Deer graze the leaves they can reach, thus leaving all the lowest branches and twigs at exactly the same height.  They’ll all happily munch bramble, gorse and nettles too: stinging leaves and prickly thorns don’t worry them at all.

At this time of year the males are losing their antlers.  They lose and re-grow them every year, which is a terrific drain on their energy, so they tend to take things fairly easy while this is happening in the early summer.  Each year until they’re aged 10 or so, they’ll grow larger antlers than the year before, and  with more points.  New antlers are velvety, so stags will spend time rubbing this soft coating off by scraping their new accessories against the dead wood that’s deliberately left lying in the deer park.  They’ll want them to be good and ready for the rutting season when they’ll wrestle other males in the quest to be the females’ Top Stag.

They’ll also enjoy a wallow.  We saw muddy depressions here and there where deer have lain down to have a good old scratch and bathe in thick oozy mud.  At this time of year it’s to help free themselves of their winter coat as they moult.  But it’s a different story in the breeding season.  Males urinate into the earth to make it even muddier.  Then they’ll roll round in the resulting muddy soup.  Their splendid appearance and smell as they rise up, magnificently coated in sticky earth and bits of vegetation makes them thoroughly alluring to the females they hope to attract.

On Saturday, the deer were edgy, a little spooked.  Nobody knew why.  The large groups we saw were always at a distance, always ready to bolt away.  The three varieties of deer don’t really mix, but neither do they feel the need to place real distance between themselves.  We didn’t get to see them at close quarters.  But we saw them well enough to distinguish one species from another with increasing confidence.  A good day then, despite the increasingly dirty weather.  We’ll be back when the sun shines, to visit the deer again.

Thanks to members of the volunteer Wildlife Team at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal for our afternoon with the deer. 

A man, a plan, a canal

Pierre-Paul Riquet.  Pierre-Paul Riquet?  Who’s he?  He’s not much known in the UK, and I’m not sure how much of a household name he is in France either.

Pierre-Paul Riquet.  Here he is, in the village of Bonrepos-Riquet.
Pierre-Paul Riquet. Here he is, in the village of Bonrepos-Riquet.

But he should be.  He’s the brains behind the wonderful UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Canal du Midi.  This lovely and elegant canal, opened in 1681, is 240 km. long, and runs from Toulouse to the Mediterranean.  It was built as a short cut from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, avoiding a long sea voyage round Spain.  The idea had been discussed on and off since Roman times, but the problem was always the same.  How to deal with such hilly terrain and how to supply those hilly sections with enough water.

The Canal du Midi: a typical view, courtesy of Wikipedia
The Canal du Midi: a typical view, courtesy of Wikipedia

Riquet thought he had the answer.  Born in 1604 or 1609, he was a salt-tax collector.  Tax collecting was a rich man’s job: at that time, it involved paying all the monies due to the king up-front, and worrying about collecting from the relevant subjects later. A rich man can have a fine home, so Riquet set out to buy the ideal spot, and in 1652, he found it: the ancient but run-down Château de Bonrepos, near Toulouse.  It was a medieval building originally, fortified in the 16th century.  It interested him because it was a fine site, with splendid views of the Pyrenees (Not today: the weather was awful. Never saw the mountains at all through the gloom).  More importantly for him, the surrounding terrain, resembling parts of the nearby Montagne Noire, enabled him to conduct hydraulic experiments round an ancient fishpond on site from which he developed reservoirs and water-filled trenches replicating sections of the future Canal du Midi.  Bonrepos, then, was where he worked up his case for showing that the canal could after centuries of simply talking about it, become a reality.

The remnants of the mediaeval building interested him not at all.  He had a fine classical building built – 100 rooms.  Stone isn’t available locally, so it was built of Toulouse brick, and faced with stucco to hide this embarrassing fact: bricks were elsewhere the material of the poor.  He had formal gardens built, orchards, an orangery.  Every winter, an iceberg’s worth of ice was wrapped in hessian and floated from the Pyrenees to be stored in an excavated ice-house deep in the woodlands for use throughout the summer.

These days, the château is in a bad way.  The stucco’s falling off, the windows are rotted, and the internal decorations are absent or shabby.  The inhabitants of the small village where the château stands, Bonrepos-Riquet, bought the property some years ago, and while appealing for and attracting public and private funds, it also relies on monthly working parties of volunteers, who work enthusiastically in the house and grounds to stem the damage caused by wind and weather and to bring about improvements.

We visited today on one of Elyse Rivin’s informative Toulouse Guided Walks , which always focus on those corners of Toulouse and the surrounding area which you never knew about: you leave after her tour feeling an enthusiastic expert.  With input from the château’s own volunteer guides, steeped in the story of the place, we formed a picture of Paul Riquet himself.  He persuaded Louis XIV of his ability to master-mind the canal, and in 1661, work began, though he didn’t live to see the waterway opened as he died in 1680, leaving enormous debt and financial problems for his children who nevertheless continued the project.  The labourers – men and women, up to 12,000 of them – who built the canal were among the best paid workers in Europe, to the disapproval of other less philanthropic employers.  He insisted on provision being made for all aspects of their lives, from shops and refreshment to education and worship.

Those plane trees that line the canal.  They offered shade, then as now, to those who travel along it.  Their root systems bind the soil and offer stability to the canal, and the leaves don’t rot, so as they fall into the canal, they help make a waterproof base.  Sadly, these days those trees are afflicted by a virus.  One theory is that the wooden boxes which packaged American munitions in the war and were discarded along the canal, carried the infected spores and lay dormant for many years.

And there’s so much else.  Follow the links to get a fuller picture of the story, or better still, visit the Canal du Midi and Château Bonrepos, where this wonderful waterway was conceived and planned.

Tourist information: Bath and beyond

We’re back in France, to rather strange mid-January scenes.  Our local skiers’ playground at Mont d’Olmes appears to have only a dusting of snow, though it claims to have 5 pistes open.  Our garden’s full of marigolds flowering alongside the snowdrops, and on a walk yesterday afternoon, dressed in light pullovers, we heard birds singing ceaselessly, apparently to welcome the spring as they busily seemed to be putting winter behind them.

And so it was in England too.  We rarely wrapped up warmly, and enjoyed being out and about in the balmy conditions.

Best of all was our trip to the part of the country that includes parts of South Gloucestershire and Witshire and Somerset, to stay with my daughter-in-law’s family.  They took a dim view of our lack of knowledge of their end of the country, and set about putting things right.

Everyone knows Bath as a Roman stronghold and as a wonderfully intact 18th century city much visited by Jane Austen.  No wonder it’s an UNESCO World Heritage site.  We had to be content with a taster session. And we began with a stroll across Pulteney Bridge, which has shops on it, like Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, and along the Avon to enjoy the views of the Abbey and Parade Gardens.

Bath Abbey’s an ancient church, but what we see today- a light graceful building soaring upwards to spectacular stone fan vaulting – is largely the work of the Victorian Gilbert Scott.  Every wall is covered with memorials: so many people came to Bath to ‘take the waters’ and then upped and died.  Plumbers, admirals, sugar plantation owners, soldiers – they’re all here.

Time for a coffee break.  Where else but the 18th century Pump Room, where we decided a Bath Bun was a good idea, a sulphurous glass of spa water a very bad one?

We can’t recommend the Roman Baths Museum highly enough.  After spending several hours there, we feel as if we’ve had a real taste of the life of a Roman citizen living, working, playing and praying in Bath during that period.  The baths themselves have been very sensitively and imaginatively interpreted.  If near Bath, just go!

After that, a quick stroll round the 18th century.  The graceful symmetry of streets like the Royal Crescent is so impressive: just don’t look round the back, you’re not meant to.

Next day, we were tourists too. England at its most picturesque.  Cotswold villages with solid stone-walled, stone tiled cottages.

Back in the medieval period and beyond, Castle Combe used to be a centre for the local woollen industry.  Now, more often than not, it’s a film set, the scene of many a period drama on TV or at the cinema.  And Lacock is so picture-postcard perfect that almost the whole village is owned by the National Trust. Great for a relaxing visit.  I wonder what it’s like to live there.

We’d mooched happily round these two villages for some while.  But after all that we needed to step out and stretch our legs.  Kennet and Avon Canal anybody?  Brian and Sue chose for our walk the Caen Hill Locks, a flight of 16 locks packed tight together, one after the other, with ponds at the side to store the water needed to operate the locks.  We thought our walk up the canal banks used quite enough calories.  What if we’d been taking a canal boat up the entire flight and beyond, through lock-gate after lock-gate? This 100 mile canal has more than 100 of them in total…..

A wonderful couple of days then, steeped in history and splendid views and countryside.  We’ll be back – if Brian and Sue’ll have us.

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