Monday, April 2, 2012

Day 7 - Clare Cottage, Burghley and a little bit of Stamford

Monday 2nd April
Each day is settling into a bit of a neat routine of morning journal and leisurely breakfast. Breakfast at the Bull and Swan is from 7:30 – 9:00 am. We mosey on down at about 8:15.  There’s a quite different approach to the breakfast spread here and the buffet table includes a stack of chocolate and plain croissants, and cereals that look like variations on weet bix, corn flakes and untoasted muesli. A range of juices, milk, banana smoothie, fruit (whole pieces) and fruit salad. A small bowl of yoghurt, a plate of cheese wedges and a plate of mixed sliced meats (ham and a couple of sorts of salami). There’s also a menu to choose from, so you can see there is no reason to go away hungry.  I’m not really in the market for a cooked brekky thismorning but I can’t resist a chocolate croissant and a small bowl of muesli… or a wedge of that cheese.  On the menu last night they had all sorts of interesting local product listed for the cheeses after dessert, so I dare say this cheese is going to be worth eating.  Hubby orders a full cooked breakfast and it arrives: a bit smaller in quantity than at our previous stops, but that’s not a problem at all. The bacon was beautifully smokey and tender, the Lincolnshire sausage was very tasty and hubby reports having also enjoyed the eggs, black pudding , tomato and mushroom.  I notice that there are some menu options that include muffins so I ask just for a toasted muffin when hubby is ordering his toast.  The muffin was really yummy and not at all like what is marketed as an English muffin at home.. but I had heard that. That’s why I wanted to try one. For the first time I missed vegemite.  It would have been just the thing on the muffin.
Not a lot to do until things open at 10am, but shortly thereafter we wander down the street to check out the antique stores.  Looking for coloured Victorian glassware for D1.  We find one option but aren’t yet willing to commit. Stamford is a lovely looking atmospheric place and it certainly seems worthy of more time that we have available for it.

Time is a tickin’ away so we head back and get the car for a jaunt the short distance to Helpston and Clare Cottage.  I have had the rose John Clare in my garden for a number of years but was new to the poetry of John Clare until I began planning for this trip. I love his work and his life story is both tragic and in at least some measure, inspiring.
It’s only a little more than 10 minutes to Helpston, but what a lovely trip it is.Yet more proof that the minor roads in any place are generally a lot nicer than the main routes.  We drive past the gates to Burghley and fields of sheep with young lambs and round a corner to a beautiful spectacle of a blossom tree in full flight in the midst of a lovely drift of daffodils.  

The next village is Barnack and it is barely less lovely. No blossom trees but the cottages are well up to standard. It seems a bit of a challenge has been set for Helpston but it is up to the job. We find the suggested parking at the Exeter Arms without any difficulty and park behind the pub where there is a large parking area and a grassy outdoor beer garden backing onto the gardens of nearby cottages. All quite open.  Here we are greeted by a friendly tom cat, crying for a pat. I offer him a tummy scratch but this is apparently something a bit too forward of me and he’d rather stick with the routine back pat.
We set off to find Clare Cottage and in the process wander through lovely little lanes with thatched roofed stone dwellings. It is all very charming.
 Back on the main drag people are gathering at the bus stops in small numbers. We wander past and find the memorial to John Clare, with several quotes from his poems carved on the various panels.
Looking about we can find no sign to indicate where we should be heading, so I nip over to the local store and am provided with some directions. It’s just around the corner.  We head towards the Blue Bell pub as instructed past a lovely old farmyard.
John Clare cottage is just near the Blue Bell. It’s so lovely and well presented I have to wonder how it’s current state compares to how it was when John Clare and his parents and family lived here in abject poverty two hundred years ago. As we enter there is a map of the village pointing out the various sites of significance in the poet's life. 
 We wander in to a friendly greeting, pay the entrance fee and are provided with a map and audio guide. There are different versions for adults and for children. I am struck as we explore the cottage by how accessible and child friendly the place is.  They clearly get children as a major part of their business.  In one room there is a cabinet with drawers that you open to see the sorts of things that inspired John Clare in different seasons or in the garden. 
As you progress through the various rooms each is focussed on a different stage of John Clare's life and provide quotations from some representative poems.  One which we both really like is from Clare's later period when his life was rather difficult and he was suffering bouts of mental illness and hospitalisation. It is called I Am. The panels in the cottage are interesting and achieve a good balance of information. Not to much or too little. We clamber up narrow stairways to the upper floors and down another narrow staircase, before emerging back into the reception area and out into the garden, and dovecot where people's responses to their experience of  John Clare and the cottage are displayed. Most seem to be by children. The dovecot is huge. Not at all the sort of thing we would expect at home.
Having completed our audio tour we head in to browse the books. The friendly man on the desk comes over to offer advise about which of the many John Clare books might best suit our needs. In the end I opt for one with some illustrations. It's a bit more accessible. I have the full works on my kindle so I'm looking for something a bit more attractive for the bookshelf. 
The visitor centre is full of delicious aromas. It's baking day.  mmmm. It's well after 12 oclock. A cream tea with scones freshly out of the oven would be just the thing to tide us over.  Delicious.
It's after one by the time we emerge onto the street and head back towards the church to find John Clare's grave. It's an unusual looking church and a pretty atmospheric church yard. Perhaps all church yards are. We were given instructions on where the grave is, but it's not a huge yard in any case. 
The inscription on the grave is even more than usually appropriate.  If ever a poet was born not made it would be John Clare. To have achieved what he did in terms of skill and also success under the circumstances in which he lived is evidence of nothing short of monumental dedication that can come only when one’s spirit is born seeped in poetry.

We bid John Clare adieu and head back through the church yard gate and our vehicle. We have really enjoyed our visit to Helpston. Back in the yard at the pub, Tom the cat is busy in the midst of an argument with another tom. Disturbed they race off and jump up onto a dry stone wall and face off. Hackles raised.  Even the cats here are traditional. No sign of neutering for these two fellows. 
It's a short and lovely drive back to Burghley. There are a lot of cars in the car park and we slip into a space newly vacated and wander up towards the house. Even the stable yard and yes, the kennel yard are impressive spaces.

As in days of yore Burghley continues to aim for a big impression on arrival.  The entry space is fairly new and as you go in there is a beautiful modern sculpture.  

We pay the obligatory fee and are advised that we are in luck today because the South Garden has opened just today. As we’ve requested a place on the guided tour of the house we are advised that we should do the South Garden first so as to be sure not to miss it as the spring bulbs are out.  Enter through the Orangery Restaurant.
We do as instructed and find our way to the restaurant, via the facilities which, like the shop or house entrance are centred on an impressive courtyard.  I simply must say that they have the most delicious smelly hand wash.. lemon verbena scented.. 

....anyway… the Orangery restaurant smells lovely and must surely be one of the most fabulous places you could find to eat. Especially later in the season when the roses are in bloom it would be spectacular.  Menu looked good too and not ridiculous prices. 
We find our way to the entrance to the south garden.  It appears to be like an open garden scheme with a voluntary donation raising funds for charity. We make the suggested donation and wander up the path.  Looking to the right are lovely vistas over the Capability Brown landscape. Quite a priority was put on this landscape as we learned on our tour. The house was originally built in the shape of the letter E. A tribute to Elizabeth 1.  As one of the wings was obstructing the view of the landscape for the family, who were by that time resident on the ground floor, Capability Brown simply had that wing of the house demolished!
As we top the rise we are met with a spectacular display of yellow and white daffodils.  We have been seeing daffodils everywhere but here at Burghley they have clearly gone to some lengths to make the display truly impressive. It is a breathtaking scene, especially for a daffodil lover like myself. The fragrance of the daffodils drifts on the breeze. I am in raptures. I try to capture the scene in photographs, but the images simply cannot do justice to the loveliness of the scene. 
We wander down the hill past the blankets of daffodils to what I guess must be classified as a folly looking over the lake. It's a beautiful walk and brings us in a loop back up towards our entry point.  From here we can wander down through the formal garden, which is another space dominated by roses. South Garden access gives us the ability to explore right around the house to the most symmetrical facade and large golden gates.
Time is pressing on and we need to be back in time to watch the audio display in the top floor of the brewhouse before our tour of the house. The audio visual display takes the form of various Lord Burghley's speaking to the viewer and eachother about their own impact on the house and Estate and indeed finances over the centuries. It's a good introduction and provides context for the tour. It seems to focus most on those members of the family who have been responsible for the artwork and gardens that we are about to see and this is understandable. However I can't help but feel, especially as I reflect later that in between these individuals a hundred or several hundred years ago, there must have been some others who steadily worked at paying for the extravagance of those now hogging the historical limelight!
We are met near the ticket desk by an elderly lady who seems to have been a worker at the Estate for an extended period. Our first stop on the tour is the kitchen, which she describes as, and we agree, is the most interesting room on the tour.  It is also the room most intact from the Elizabethan time. Our guide can of course describe the room and what is in it in great detail. It's fabulous. No photos of course.  On one space on the wall, there is a collection of little skulls.  These are turtle skulls and immediately below them the copper turtle soup tureen which is shaped very realistically like a turtle. The skulls were displayed like a sort of bragging rights by the cook. Real turtles in the turtle soup and here's the skulls to prove it. Nothing fake at Burghley. 
We head next up an elaborate stairway that is as it was originally. Quite dark and atmospheric.. I can only regret that the whole house was not left intact as it was built. We enter the chapel which is nothing short of incredible. Everything about the room is spectacular. The chairs. The statues, the carving. The chapel is still used and will host a service on Good Friday, but in the most part the family now worships in Stamford where most of the family is also buried, including William Cecil. This church, virtually opposite the George, is recommended as containing a lovely memorial to William Cecil (and others also).
Virtually every wall and every space is smothered with major works of art either in frames or directly on the walls. Our guide picks out various to speak about. Usually the ones that illustrate the history of the property or that are by particular artists. If it's not paintings, then it's huge tailor made tapestries, or amazing furniture or in the end the largest ice bucket in the western world. Solid silver and it takes four strong men to lift it.
Most of the decor is not particularly to my taste I have to say. The Lords responsible for such profligate expenditure in the over decoration of their house didn't do the house or their family any favours. They died in huge debt and the burden is ongoing in the massive maintenance such "treasures" require.  Or such are the thoughts of this self confessed philistine!
The tour has lasted well over an hour and it's very nearly 4:30 by the time we emerge to daylight once more. We high tail it across to the entry for the garden of surprises. Were a brief "discussion" with the lady on the gate results in a begrudging permission to go on in. We only have half an hour until the garden closes, but this is enough to give us a taste of it and see some excellent art work scattered and hidden around the area. One of the highlights of the garden of surprises for us is the old Burghley ice house. Ice was cut from the lake and stored in the ice house, much of which is subterranean, where it could last up to two years. Another favourite was a very large metal acorn and another which was a bunch of fine fibres that started in one of the trees and were anchored in a circle in the earth nearby... I'm sure my daughter would like the person in foetal position imprisoned in one of the dry stone walls.  The garden of surprises is a lovely space and worth a look. My love of bark is well satisfied by some bare branched trees.

We finish at Burghley just by 5pm and are among the last of the cars to exit the carpark. We've had three and a half hours here. Probably enough in normal circumstances, but with the South Garden open could easily have used much more or even the whole day. 
We're tired to say the least, so it's just dinner at the Bull and Swan again tonight. It's great to be able to just walk downstairs for dinner.
Tonight hubby decided to sample the Salmon and crayfish tail risotto to start followed by faggots. He enjoyed both. I struggled with the choices on offer but landed on the Grasmere park pork and fennel sausages and mash with caramelised red cabbage.  The sausages were delicious.  We were determined to try the desserts tonight and I believe hubby won with the sticky toffee pudding with clotted cream. My bramley apple and blackberry crumble with english custard was very nice too.. just pipped at the post unfortunately.. With that we are off to bed. Big day tomorrow requires an early start. 

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