Monday, 21 November 2011

A Royal Invitation

Like most people, I wait with eager anticipation for the postman to deliver the mail each day and, each day, I find that, if it isn't bills he's put through the letter box, it's circulars that go straight into the recycling bin.  So when a card sized envelope arrived with a nicer quality about it than most - and especially as it wasn't my birthday - I was intrigued.  Why do we always feel envelopes and squint at postmarks to try and work out what is inside when all we have to do is open them and take a look?

My first reaction upon finding I'd received an invitation from the Duke of Edinburgh to attend Windsor Castle was to think that a friend was playing a practical joke.  But the more I read it the more real it looked:

His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh, K.G., K.T
requests the pleasure of your company
at a Reception to be held in the State Apartments, Windsor Castle

How extraordinary!  Why me?  Why should I be drinking and eating one evening soon with Royalty?  The answer was, of course, it wasn't me at all, it was my partner who has spent a lifetime working with and competing horses.

Horses have always been close to the Royal Family and both the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh are knowledgable and skilled horsemen.  Carriage driving at top competition level had, until recently, been a regular part of the Duke's regime and we had often been to watch him race at Windsor Great Park.  We too, have also participated in driving although my competition level is still at the most basic.  My partner is much more skilled and fearless and I always marvel when a neurotic and potentially lethal animal becomes calm and pliable under his control.  The photo below is of us just out for a quiet afternoons drive - although the pony did have his moment a little later when we careered out of control amongst the trees.  Thomas could become quite exciteable at times!


I realised with dismay that the date on the invitation was the day that we would be on Exmoor for a couple of weeks holiday, 150 miles away.  Working on the theory that we'd never likely receive another invitation we postponed the trip by a day.  And so, that early evening we drove up to the closed gates of Windsor Castle, showed our credentials and passed through to be further security checked.  Once this had taken place we were driven by an offical to the Quadrangle and the State Entrance.  Thie entrance, as it's name implies, is used on State occcasions and the Quadrangle is used for military parades, including the regular Changing of the Guard.  From here is a panoramic view of the castle buildings, the oldest of which date from the 11th century (making Windsor the world's oldest inhabited castle), and the Long Walk: a tree lined vista that cuts across the Great Park for a distance of over two and a half miles.

 
 

We entered the building by the Grand Staircase, with it's fine displays of armour and firearms.  Here we were able to see the musket ball that killed Lord Nelson which had been presented to Queen Victoria.  Queen Charlotte's sedan chairs were also here, remarkably small, I thought.

The reception was held in St George's Hall, which was at the centre of the fire in the 1990's and completely destroyed.  As a consequence, the restoration work has made the green oak, hammer beam roof the largest to be constructed in that century.  The craftsmanship and colours are extraordinary: set into the roof are the shields of every Knight of the Garter with some shields being blank.  These, I discovered, were not reserved for future knights but were of those that had fallen from Royal favour. 

Nothing prepares you for the sheer magnificence and size of this room as you enter - it measures 185 x 30 feet.  Here we met other guests - there were only about two hundred  - and, finally, the Duke who arrived with little pomp or ceremony.  The Duke made a short speech before joining us informally to champagne and canapes.  I was impressed not just by his energy (he is now over 90) but also by his wit.  He really is very funny, indeed.  I wondered how many other people of his age could carry out all these duties day in, day out and still make you feel as if you were of interest to them.  Both he and the Queen - who works equally hard - may live in splendour with aides and courtiers but I wouldn't exchange places with them: I will be more than content just to still be able to hear, see, think and garden!


Access was also granted to The Grand Reception Room and The Waterloo Chamber, where the immense and seamless, two ton carpet took fifty soldiers to lift to a place of safety during the fire.  What I found surprising was that we were given free access to wander around these rooms at will, although I'm certain that if we had attempted to go elsewhere we would have found our way blocked!  Sadly, because we were attending a royal event, we were not allowed to take photgraphs, so I am unable to show you the splendours of these rooms.  You will find them, however, if you look in a search engine.

The evening came to a close after two and a half hours and, as we stepped back out into the autumn air in the Quadrangle, I was struck by the realisation why it is traditional to say, upon the death of a monarch, "The King is dead, long live the King":  for all the affection that the current Queen has in the hearts of many of her subjects, the Office is greater than the individual.  The institution of monarchy has worked well for this country, long may it remain so.




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Saturday, 12 November 2011

A Walk in the Doone Valley

Exmoor is one of England's smaller National Parks and it is also has one of the most varied landscapes: heather moorland, grass moorland, wooded combes, rushing streams and waterfalls, the lush farmland of the Porlock Vale, high cliffs and sea views.


The moor is especially beautiful at this time of year now the heather flowers, which in midsummer had turned hundreds of acres purple, have changed to a golden bronze. The bracken, also yellowing as the autumn progresses, helps to make the landscape a combination of coppers, oranges, golds, browns and greens.










I had returned to my spiritual home to refresh my soul, as well as my body - for I was pretty knackered after a hard summer of gardening - hence the lack of posts recently. I always stay at the Blue Ball Inn, a traditional pub with rooms, where you can be certain of a warm welcome from the blazing log fire in the 13th century inglenook and an even warmer welcome from the owners, Phil, Jackie and Nick. An added bonus of being on Exmoor is that my mobile phone does not pick up a signal for miles so I am isolated from the world.





For an English holiday at this time of year, I couldn't have been luckier with the weather either: day after day pleasantly mild and with only a couple of days rain. Perfect conditions for walking and, because it is now 'out of season' with the summer visitors long departed, the moor was even more empty of people than usual.




There must be many people that have read R D Blackmore's great Victorian novel, set in the 1600's, or seen the film 'Lorna Doone', yet never visited the area where the action took place or, perhaps, realise that it is an actual place. It is a tale of the Doone's of Badgworthy (pronounced Badgery), wicked outlaws terrorising a remote rural community, of kidnap, love and, best of all, it has a happy ending. It is questionable how much is fact and how much is fiction but the places exist and, even now, there are Ridd's (the hero's family name) living on the moor. The Doone's, if they existed at all, are all long gone.










One day, the Doone Valley, their remote moorland stronghold beckoned, a walk of some 15 miles. There are two ways into the valley, the easiest is at Malmsmead, a pretty little place with a couple of houses, farms and coffee shop. I chose the more difficult - and to my mind, more exciting, way across some of the wildest moor, Exmoor can offer. Parking the car at Brendon Two Gates (there isn't a gate in sight - I'll explain how it got it's name another time!), my choice proved wise for I was met by the sound of the wild red deer stags calling, for this was the start of their breeding or 'rutting' season. Standing on the skyline a stag roared, keeping his herd of hinds close and to fend off rivals. As I took a photograph, a flock of curlew flew past, a lucky coincidence and a great start to the walk. The photo is rather small but I doubt if I will have the chance to take a second, larger one!







The moorland here, is a vast, open and empty space, full of bogs to catch the unwary. Although not dangerous in themselves, it is unpleasant, to say the least, to be up to your knees in cold, black, peaty water. A minor injury such as a twisted ankle in bad weather, or as dusk falls, could become potentially life threatening. Squelching my way along, my strong, waterproof boots made light work of this first stage and after an hour or so the first fold of the combe appeared - I had reached the head of the Doone Valley.





The path from here is well marked, yet even in midsummer, few but the intrepid walk as far. The only sounds are of water rushing over rocks and the occasional calls of sheep, ravens and buzzards. The walk is now downhill all the way as the path follows the river back to Malmsmead although it is still far from an easy stroll. As the walk continues, more and more side streams meet the main river and Badgworthy Water becomes faster flowing and wider, although two or three bounds and you would be across it. This time it was gentle and the sound relaxing: after heavy rains it will become thunderous and capable of sweeping you away.


A third of the way down the Doone Valley, Hoccombe Combe is reached, said to be the site of the Doone's village although the 'waterslide' that John Ridd climbed to reach Lorna is not here. Some say that it is based on the river that runs through Lank Combe a little further to the north.



The photograph below is of the waterslide at Watersmeet some miles further west and not part of the Doone country.




Soon the valley becomes more gentle and lush although the hills of the moor still tower above. There are trees too: larch, beech and rhododendron. Soon the river will run through farmland and to Malmsead itself, a good place for a rest and a coffee. It is also a place where the walk could stop if another car was available to take you back to your starting point. However, I was only halfway and so turned up the steep lane making my way back to the open moorland.










It was a long and tiring walk back across the heather. In the distance a small group of the wild Exmoor ponies, the oldest native breed in the UK and virtually unchanged from pre-history. Athough free to roam the moors they tend to keep to their own territories and are quite tolerant of strangers approaching. Only those that live in the tourist 'hotspots' will allow themselves to be touched and these ones soon galloped off once I got too close.



By the time I reached Brendon Two Gates, a pint of ale at the Blue Ball and a hot bath beckoned. It was almost dark when I returned to be greeted by a spectacular sunset, the perfect end to a very satisying day.







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