My 30 by 30 posts are done and dusted. They took up almost all of my November posts, so it’s time for me to reflect on a noteworthy November. It certainly brought a lot of notable events. I already published a look at the Bonfire […]
It’s been a while since I wrote up a simple check-in post. For you wonderful people wondering what we’ve been up to of late, let me recap for you. Some of it you’ve had an insight into already, some will be new. It all begins back in late September…
Saturday 23 September
I’d driven over to Cheshire for the weekend and we had so much to choose from. I had had it in mind to go back to Biddulph Grange to see the renowned dahlia display since my first visit back in April. The direction was set.
Our route took us via Congleton – speaking of which, has the big random ship by the river been taken away? We couldn’t see it, but that could have been down to the leaves on the trees. From Congleton, with National Trust membership in hand, we decided to stop off at Little Moreton Hall. I wasn’t expecting much, I’m now ashamed to admit. Any expectations would have been surpassed by this fascinating structure.
We’d only just exited the entrance building when a fantastic boom shook ground and air alike. Cows rushed over the field alongside us, surely not knowing where to run to. This was quickly followed up by a small girl, hands over her ears, dashing full pelt round the corner, screaming in terror. Is it so very wrong that I found humour in this? Schadenfreude, I believe the term is.
Matt and I pressed on, and discovered the origin of the explosion: a medieval ballistics display involving plenty of gunpowder and more than one shot of the cannon. Each item was being described by reenactors dressed in period costumes. The main shooter quite rightly sported some Tudor ear protection.
The display was part of a medieval mop fair, where workers were hired and prices set, following the labour shortages from the Black Death. You could find tents displaying various crafts and also an armoury tent. Matt gravitated towards this one, particularly enjoying the shield and sword. In fact, he enjoyed the sword a tad too much (cue immature reaction from Matthew…)
There was to be a further demonstration on “fire power” later in the afternoon, with other talks and presentations scheduled between. We missed these, however with good reason: it was time to focus on the house.
We crossed into its courtyard just two or three minutes before a guided tour was planned. Our brief wait was not wasted. You have to marvel at the craftsmanship in the building. What’s more, you have to wonder at how it even still stands with the wonkiness of it all. In the middle ages, before brick became widespread and stone more common, wooden houses were made of green timber. It was not aged, nor was it treated. As it matured in its resting place, it warped. Additional to this is the lack of proper foundations, so the earth has sunk beneath the edifice. Stone slabs pave the ground floors inside, but these were a Victorian alteration.
Just check out the long gallery here, originally created for indoor sports and walking in cold winter months:
Julie was our tour guide, and we relished it. She was a font of knowledge and kept the momentum up the whole way. She took slightly longer than the standard tour time, but it was worth it. We were told about the construction of the place, key features were pointed out, and we learnt the fortunes (and misfortunes) of previous occupants.
We finished the tour with rumbling tummies, so Matt and I skipped the small Tudor gardens and head off to Biddulph Grange where we ate, drank and revelled in the worldwide scope of its 19th Century grounds.
Sunday 24 September
What a non-stop weekend we ended up having. It was like a whirlwind tour of National Trust properties. From Little Moreton Hall and Biddulph Grange one day, to Quarry Bank Mill and Speke Hall the next.
This was my second visit to Quarry Bank Mill this year as well. The idea was to see inside the mill itself. We didn’t have the time, unfortunately. We took in the smaller yet shapely gardens. In spring, the garden had surprised me with just how much colour was packed in its cliffside borders. In autumn, the colours were no less lovely. It has a wilder, damp sense to it by the riverside, which neighbours more Victorian-style annual bedding in the lawns. Scrabbling up the cliff paths, you pass more ferns, geraniums and statuesque trees. How amazing is this beech, clinging to the rocks?
Heading over the partially walled veg garden, you pass abundant beds, dotted with lilac iris, purple nepeta, swishy panicum, popping aster and blistering orange crocosmia. Clumps of towering yellow helianthus conflicted with the whole, and I can’t say I particularly appreciated their inclusion other than for height variation.
I did enjoy the greenhouse though, packed with pelargoniums and succulents.
We left behind the mill and hurried over to Liverpool to pick up our friend Suzanne. Bless her, she was slightly housebound with a wrist injury – how crazily easy it is to break bones sometimes – and we were more than pleased to be able to give her some escape.
Speke Hall was on the agenda. It’s been on my radar for a while. I always used to see the signs when my parents drove me to and from Liverpool airport, during my year abroad. Additionally, I have friends who visit the hall regularly, for its antiques and proximity to planes. I seem to always attract “AV geeks”.
How unusual – food and drink was the first thing on the menu upon arrival! I love National Trust eateries. They’re so unfussy but satisfying.
The Tudor hall – yes, another late medieval property! – was kept from me for a while. Matt and Suzanne led me through the woodlands on the edge of the house initially. The path takes you on the trail of a giant, past his shoes, buttons and house, with poems along the way. All good fun for kids, little and big alike.
Rounding a bend, Speke Hall itself emerged from the trees, rising ever more from behind a yew hedge. I was glad to see some rich red planting close to its walls, whether acer or sedum, contrasting nicely with variegated hostas and white blooms. The property also boasted a frothy and flowering rose garden, understated but effective at this time in the year.
Here was a property combining Cheshire timber with brickwork. We found out this weekend that these homes wouldn’t have originally been white and black. They would have been left a combination of green-grey oak and creamy daub between.
We also learnt the origin of the term eavesdropper. A hole was left in the eaves above the main entrance. A servant would hide up here when individuals arrived at the door. The aim was to learn the visitors’ purpose; be they friend or foe?
The interior of the hall, to say it had remained a home for generations, retained its overwhelmingly medieval feel. Clad in dark wood, each room was dark. There were some wonderful features; in particular I took a liking to this octagonal table, fitting perfectly into the bay window. Shame the afternoon tea wasn’t edible!
On our way back to the car we passed a well-stocked little veg garden – the second of the day. However, the absolute highlight of the day had to be having a go at archery before we entered the hall. You paid £1 each (or was it £2? I forget) for the firing of six arrows. A local society expert instructed you and away you went. I did pretty well I think. Very modest of me… I’ve always fancied doing archery, and now I’m even more curious about seeking out a club some day. Robin Hood, eat your heart out ha!
Thursday 05 October
We jump ahead to October, and I had half a day off. Matt was over so we went for a wander up from Damflask to Ughill and back down again. The sun was shining which made it all the more enjoyable. We passed the gates to Ughill Hall, site of an infamous murder in the late 1980s. Here a solicitor shockingly murdered his partner and her infant daughter. On a sunlit afternoon such as this, you’d never believe it.
Sunday 08 October
Sunday just gone Matt and I drove out to Hardwick Hall – “more glass than wall”, as Matthew likes to remind me. In fact, I’d counter that by saying “more fabric than wall”. I’d never been inside before, and I’m so glad we did this time. But, you know what, more about Hardwick in a future post…
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Which other gardens can you visit and find yourself walking leisurely from one country to another? Biddulph Grange is that garden. Of course, all gardens in modern times are a journey across continents. Even our most pedestrian suburban plots probably have several international guests. Rudbeckia […]
Last time I wrote about dropping in on London and a trip over to Matt’s parents’ holiday home in Tuscany. From there we drove over the mountains for a couple of hours to the area around Lucca. It was a nostalgic trip for several reasons.
First of all, we flew out on the same date as my first ever flight 10 years prior. Back then, my brother and sister-in-law had accompanied me over to Rennes for the start of my uni year abroad.
The second nostalgic note was that I’d visited Lucca with my friend Lucy in 2008, so it was good to go back to that region. Lucca is also very similar to Ferrara, where I’d studied for over five months.
Thirdly, Matt and his friends Sam and Sharon were celebrating the 16th anniversary of first meeting and becoming housemates at university. Fantastic that we were all “roomies” for that – what better way to celebrate? Well, besides Sam and Fabio’s wedding of course.
Arriving at Fattoria Colle Verde on Wednesday
We made it to the accommodation just in time for lunch. I may have harped on from arrival to departure about the lack of iron and ironing board in each apartment… Sorry to all present that week! I smartened up as best I could to meet the groom and his parents plus Sam’s family for lunch on the terrace.
What amazing food we were treated to. There’s something simple about Italian dishes that blows you away. Less ingredients are used, but their essences are really brought out. That’s what cooking and eating should be about – even if I do forget this from time to time.
Fabio and his parents had prepared fresh salad with meats and cheeses, breads, and a delicious pasta (with a veggie version for Matt and Victoria, the bride’s sister).
It was a brilliant means of meeting people for the first time too. Sam and Fabio’s relatives were all lovely people, and full of character! Even better for relaxing and making new acquaintances was the olive- and wine-tasting tour at the accommodation. The guide was friendly, funny and had excellent English. We visited the wine cellars too – the smell was exquisite. The perfect mélange of rich wines and aged oak.
La Luminara di Santa Croce
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that the bride and groom in Italy organise several days of festivities around a wedding. Fabio and Sam certainly did. Wednesday evening saw all us Brits heading into Lucca old town with Fabio as guide to see the lighting of candles and medieval procession. This was for the most important local festival: la Luminara di Santa Croce.
Fabio gave us some background. The Volto Santo is a carving of the face (and body) of Christ on a wooden crucifix. It landed in Italy and was contested between Pisa and Lucca. Lucca took possession and every year the local villages came to the city to show their allegiance by accompanying the crucified Christ through the streets by candlelight. It seems the carving is no longer part of the procession, but at its end the throng enters the cathedral to see the effigy up close and display their reverence.
Afterwards we bought wine and headed back to the accommodation. Just to note – don’t buy wine in bars in a town centre at night. We were well and truly ripped off! €16 for a bottle of prosecco (two for €5 roughly in the Esselunga supermarkets that week).
The day before the wedding
Thursday was meant to be beach daytrip time. Unfortunately, the weather had other ideas. Grey, foggy, wet… Nonetheless, it was lovely to relax around the accommodation after going to bed in the small hours. Matt, Sharon and Tony and I woke to a brilliant breakfast box, prepared by a local bar. Matt sorted it all out for us. Pastries and breads and bucks fizz to begin the day – gnam gnam.
We then had a bruschetta lunch just before Fabio arranged for us to have a salad lunch down at the bar which prepared our breakfast boxes. We were expecting a basic affair, as the bar’s kitchen had closed just before arrival. Instead we had the best salad I’ve ever eaten, chased down by prosecco, thick Italian hot chocolate and sweet tarts.
None of us had long to digest this before the next gustatory event: an evening meal of several courses at a restaurant down the hill, where we met more of Fabio’s family (his sister, brother-in-law, brother, and an old friend).
I persuaded Matt, Sharon and Tony to visit la Villa Reale di Marlia with me as it was just five minutes from the accommodation – what a stroke of luck! Its estate featured on Monty Don’s Italian Gardens and I knew I wanted to stop by while over in Italy. But more about that experience in a future blog post…
We learnt at the evening meal not to over-indulge on one particular course, as more will surely follow. This is a word to the wise, take heed! It was difficult to do however, as the food was excellent. Such a good job the walk around the gardens burnt off a little of the earlier stomach-filler. I could barely stay awake post-meal, but we had a job to do: helping Sam and Victoria scroll up and bind the wedding reception menus with ribbon. Oh, and there was the slight happening of Fabio turning up with a guitarist to serenade Sam from our apartment window. Unique and beautiful.
Let me just add, the bouquet of roses he threw up to her three times before successfully caught were indestructible! Not a single petal fell off, not a single bloom damaged!
Friday arrived and everyone seemed remarkably calm, Sam more than anyone. The sun was out and we headed down to the poolside to relax. We were even joined by Bianca, one of the two on-site pooches and a friendly soul who liked holding hands/paws.
Lunch was again organised while the ladies had their hair and make-up done. We men ended up cracking open some more booze in the meantime…
Suited and booted, and the donne looking superb in their floral dresses and circlets, we headed off to the little chapel nearby. The skies darkened, but the happiness around lit the place up. It was a shorter ceremony than I expected, being Catholic, but the couple had opted out of a Mass. Much of the service was performed in Italian and English to assist both family parties.
It is only right that I point out how stunning Sam looked with her hair and wedding dress. It all seemed very 1920s to me, like English gentry taking on the Italian lifestyle.
This was reinforced after the ceremony by a jazzy swing trio and some swing tunes at the reception, held at Ristorante Enoteca la Torre. There was the issue of the sudden torrential downpour that swept in and didn’t leave for hours. The staff busily set up an indoor room and dinner was served. We had several more hours of eating fine Italian food, and then some dancing to swing music.
Kicking back on Saturday
After an even later (or rather, earlier) night post-reception, I don’t think any of us could manage a trip to Pisa for the day. More relaxing by the pool was called for. There was napping indoors and the celebrations were topped off by an evening meal at Fabio’s parents’ house. They cooked up great cuisine, but Matt and I as well as Sharon and Tony had an early start on Sunday to fly home from Pisa airport.
What an unforgettable week. I feel so honoured to have been a part of it thanks to Sam and Fabio’s generosity of spirit, and to have made great new friends through having Matt in my life. I also need to thank Matt’s parents for allowing us to stay at their beautiful place in the mountains. We were so in love with our Italian adventure that we have another week booked already for next year.
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Italy in September:
Picture the scene: rolling hills in various shades of green, embracing a soft valley as its river gently meanders through. Trees stand here and there as sentinels at their various posts. Their charge? A magnificent golden edifice hundreds of years old.
The location? Chatsworth House, Derbyshire. It’s a place I always slightly took for granted when younger, not growing up all that far from it. I could never quite understand the reverence shown around the rest of the nation.
Strolling into its grounds on June 7th 2017, I now comprehended. At the building’s feet lay the bubbling spring of attendees to the inaugural RHS Chatsworth Flower Show, and boy was I overjoyed to finally have another RHS show happening “up north”. I took Matt along with me to experience the spectacle.
The idea behind the show was pioneers in design, reflected in the modern day interpretation of Joseph Paxton’s long-gone Great Conservatory (the centrepiece of the show, if Chatsworth House didn’t completely steal the limelight) and embedded in the naturalistic landscape crafted by Capability Brown. Along from the show’s entrance gates were the extraordinary and somewhat extravagant free form gardens. I have to confess myself not au fait with these; I like my designs more traditional and down to earth, like my architecture. I rarely like to analyse a garden, preferring simply to soak in its beauty. The studded dinosaur skull I really did not get. More a failing on my part, I suppose.
The show gardens, though few in number and for the most part smaller in dimension than Chelsea, were much more up my street. The IQ Quarry Garden, designed by Paul Harvey-Brooke’s, won Best Show Garden and a Gold medal, although it was not my favourite. I loved the more planted up end of the space, but am no great fan of metal objets d’art or walls. Sorry.
I liked the whimsy and wildness of the Belmont Enchanted Gardens, but did not echo the judges’ sentiment of it warranting a Gold medal, and the wooden spiral staircase in its centre was a design piece too far for me. Pointless and rather distracting, and I overheard quite a few others say the same.
I didn’t much love the Moveable Feast garden either, yet have to admit that I felt the concept was inspiring and important. It was the grey plastic planters that just didn’t float my boat. Sadly, I found the inflatable Great Conservatory a letdown as well. It all appeared a bit giant-kids’-party-setup to me… Maybe the central “paddling pool” didn’t help…
My top three gardens on display were right next to one another. The Cruse Bereavement Care ‘A Time for Everything garden’ had an eye catching range of foliage colours and forms, flowing around the central stone wall and water seating area. Next up was ‘Just Add Water’ by Jackie Sutton (or is it Knight? I’m a little confused). Rockeries aren’t my cup of tea, but the addition of water to enliven the sandstone and naturalistic perennials to soften the construction really won me over. Thirdly was the ‘Experience Peak District & Derbyshire’ garden designed by Lee Bestall: a brilliant amalgam of the region surrounding Chatsworth, comprising its cattle, trees and wildflowers, haa-haas and neoclassical elements of Derbyshire stately homes’ cultivated corners. It also played with perspective subtly yet cleverly – you had to see from both ends to really appreciate the design.
We passed Adam Frost and Joe Swift on a couple of occasions outside, and we then headed on over the blossom-bedecked temporary bridge to seek out the floral marquees and perhaps Carol Klein.
Well we found the marquees – and they did not disappoint – although sadly Carol was nowhere to be seen. No time to dwell on this anyway, as there was simply so much to take in undercover and time was swiftly slipping away. I was determined to leave with something, and my plant of choice was the Dahlia ‘Karma Irene’, whose magnificent, flamboyant colour on the display stand just drew me in immediately. No flowers as yet in my specimens, however!