Thursday, September 17, 2015

Day 26 - Alloway Robert Burns Trail, Queen Elizabeth Walled Garden and Woodlands Restaurant

Having had a slow day yesterday we’re keen to get about and see things today. It was a near run thing whether to do the Robert Burns trail while we’re in this area but we’ve decided to have a look at Alloway thismorning and come back for the Walled Garden here this afternoon.
We’re fairly business-like about breakfast. Today as yesterday, it’s menu only and this includes all the items you would normally find on the breakfast buffet. It’s not worthwhile to put the buffet out for just a few guests and it’s much quieter today than our first morning. Today Hubby decides he’ll join me in having the porridge again. We have the option to have it made with milk so we do so. Today I’m trying it with maple syrup. Not exactly traditional but we’re here to experience new things aren’t we so I’ll give it a go.  The maple syrup is quite runny and even more sweet than I’m used to. I’m wondering if it’s genuine or imitation. Either way it’s nice. Supplemented with some of Hubby’s cream it’s perfectly satisfying, even indulgent.
We’re away by 9.24. We’re parked and waiting for the entrance to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum to open up at 10 am, still marvelling at what a pretty place Alloway is with its beautiful tall trees, shady avenues and stone houses. It’s handy that our membership means they don’t have to get their cash handling arrangements set up so that saves us a little time. We’re given a map and our friendly attendant explains all that there is along the nearby trail for us to see. Tam O Shanter is in the field adjoining the cottage. 
Now, I have to confess that I know virtually nothing about Robert Burns’s life or works. I once had a brief look at a poem or two but found it hard to understand, not being familiar with the Scots language he often used. However I’ve become intrigued by him, that’s why we’re here. The cottage and surrounds are very well presented. We linger in an enclosed rose garden, I’m drawn close by the sign telling me that the roses therein are Just Joey. I lean in to enjoy the rich fragrance.
We pass the chicken coop and note that there are four “girls” in the little flock, each named and treasured as they would no doubt have been in the past. I very gently touch the darkened thatch as I enter the cottage noting the individual hollow reeds and the cottage garden growing cool climate vegetables such as leeks and brassicas.
In the first room, which is fairly Spartan we pass a bank of screens that give a bird’s eye view of activity in the cottage, presumably during the time Burns was growing up. We move on, drawn through to the next room by the sounds of activity. There’s livestock mooing and people talking and I am struck by the authentic atmosphere. It’s amazing what a difference the sounds or smells can make to one’s experience of historic presentations. The whole cottage seems as though the family is nearby and I wonder when it was preserved as a museum and how much of what is here has been restored from research on what was typical rather than what the family had when William Burnes (Robert’s father) originally built the house.
The walls here and there have brief lines of text. Sometimes a line from a Burns poem, other times quotes from others or statements that are designed to prompt your contemplation in a particular way, without being enough to take you away from simply being in the house and imagining the lives of the ghosts that are speaking and shuffling around you. I am struck by the similar background to the poet John Clare whose childhood home we visited in Helpston on our last trip, though Burn’s work is more political both then and now. Or is it? John Clare covered issues of the enclosure of common ground, so at the heart of it I suppose both their themes are political if not always aggressively so.
Being only small and there not being all that much to read here, it’s not long before we’re outside again and heading into the street to photograph the iconic exterior. It’s a beautiful street but very hard to capture due to the intrusion of the modern world and obstruction from the parked cars and workmen’s vans.
Our next priority is the Auld Kirk and Brig o’ Doon which we’ve been told we should do together. They’re a few hundred metres along the Poet’s Pathway. It’s good we were warned it’s just a modern pathway, nothing historic about it. Burn’s didn’t sit and contemplate along it or anything like that, just an easy way to get between the locations, so we’re not disappointed to find a wide pavement bordered on one side by lawn with occasional sculptures and on the other by a velvet cricket field.
I go to wander up to peer over a little brown picket gate approached by a short compacted dirt path and Hubby tells me to beware, he’s just been stung by that plant there that’s leaning out to do it’s worst. Might this be stinging nettle?
If we had more time we could just relax on the little bench seats provided at the start of the walk and read one of the books stored in the Burns Birthplace Bus stop Book Bank Bench and wait for the volunteer buggy driver. There’s nothing to say when the services starts though. The bench was made by volunteers from reused pallets.
Auld Kirk is along a pretty, leafy road. It is a ruin now and was already a ruin when Burns lived so close as well. We stop to read a monument of polished stone embossed with some poet lines of advice highlighted in yellow by a bed of begonias.

William Burnes’ grave is in a small enclosure marked and protected by low black chain swags. Paving stones with lines of text carved in them lead us on a trail around the ruined church but I’m slow to notice them and wander to the left.  Coming to my senses I head back to the beginning and follow the trail to the right as is intended. It’s just a small atmospheric place. Hubby peers in ruined doorframes and listens to indistinguishable whispers before we move along to the next Burns icon, the Brig o’ Doon, but not before pausing to admire the lovely Brig O Doon Hotel and its pretty garden. Weddings are popular here apparently. We can see why!
We wander up a pretty pathway to a gateway into a lovely garden at the top of which sits an impressive memorial structure. As I’m composing the obligatory photograph, a man starts to walk through and is taken aback. We compete on pleasantries and deference and we are persuaded that we should come on through. I’m wearing my Wallace Monument T-shirt with blazing blue saltire on the front and this prompts a pleased response from our new acquaintance. We’ve certainly gotten off on the right foot, he is a passionate Scottish republican and it’s no time at all until we are having a lovely broad ranging chat. Australia, the recent Scottish independence referendum, the many iniquities inflicted on the Scottish people, past and present, arrangements for supply of power to the national grid, boundaries redrawn in secret to carve off resources, use and wastage of Scottish troops in various conflicts. I'm struck by the similarity in some of the tensions noted to us and those historically of concern to Australians in our relationship with Britain. We are of course asked about Australia and why the heck we aren't a republic, what's going on there? It's extremely interesting considering the situations of the two countries from the different perspectives we each hold.
We take a turn in the garden and our friend leads us up into the tower of the memorial. Our own personal guide. There’s a current fundraising project underway to make it possible to restore and implement state of the art visitor experiences. We consider the places all over the world where statues of Robert Burns have been erected. Several in each of Australia and New Zealand and others I take to be locations where the Scottish diaspora have congregated to celebrate the poet and, I expect, issues of concern to him, including rights for the common man. Our chat continues with our trip and the reason we’re in the area. It turns out I’ve got all the right names in my family tree. Morton, Peden, Aird and so forth. We’re getting on like a house on fire. Our new friend’s father rescued a Morton from drowning in the river one time.  Alexander Peden back in the day was, of course, a leader of the covenanters and I am today informed he was originally buried in Auchinleck Cemetery but the opposing powers dug him up to disrespect his corpse before he was reburied later in his current grave in Cumnock. Instructions for finding it helpfully provided.  I ask about the birthplace cottage and apparently it was preserved rather early in the story so has been a site of pilgrimage since not long after Burn’s death, leased by a man who erected an extension to house an inn or tavern. Later, a couple of hundred years ago mind you, the extension was demolished and a proper museum was made of the cottage which the publican had preserved to attract customers. Such is the iconic status of Robert Burns. A legend that has never dimmed.
We look out over the immaculate gardens and across the Brig o Doon, that is the old arched and cobbled bridge over the River Doon. Apparently when they built the new bridge the contract allowed the company to take the stone from the old bridge and reuse it in the new. The local community however had other views on the subject and would not allow the Brig O Doon, iconic in Burn’s work, to be destroyed so here it stands today all these many decades, nearly two centuries later. I have to learn more about the man who has inspired such passionate loyalty and support for such a very long time. It seems that he was the voice of the oppressed and the caller of a spade a spade with regard to the shifty and exploitative dealings of the wealthier classes and their agents to the cost of ordinary people.
Time is moving on and we head down from the memorial for a closer look at the gardens, complementing the gardener and his small team on their work. This really is a well cared for garden, we're really glad we've come here. Hubby takes a seat while I wander down onto the Brid O Doon. Thoughtfully considering all that we’ve discussed.
If we want a look at the Museum or lunch we really need to get going. We hobble across and our first order of business is to check out the café. There’s a range of traditional Scottish items on the menu and we decide we’ll try some of those.  Hubby loves trying the different soups around the place. Makes me think of FawltyTowersWatch’s comment about the obsession in Australia with Pumpkin soup. You’ll rarely find any other variety at cafes across the nation. It’s not like that in the UK, though I have to say, there are a few that seem to be universally popular. Leek and Potato high on the list and of course Cullen Skink in Scotland. I digress. So Hubby has the corn chowder and a cappuccino, I’m greedy and have the local version of macaroni cheese which uses larger “elbow” shaped paster and looks less drowned than usual along with a slice of rubarb tart and belatedly insist we also share a serve of cloutie dumpling with custard. We haven’t seen that around much.  The staff are lovely and friendly and the lass serving me when I say to stop that’s enough on the portion size, suggests we have some vegetables or something to get our money’s worth. The garden veg looks nicely cooked. We go with that the green and orange looks so nice doesn’t it. . The young lass observes that she thinks so too, she likes the beans because they are so summery. Mmm. I’ve never thought of that. We don’t have the seasonality on the summer veges in Australia. In the garden yes, but in the shops they just bring them down from Queensland or wherever. In the far north, they are a dry season crop, their version of winter rather than summer.  Accompaniment by the veges improves macaroni cheese a lot I have to say. So not much to say about the Rhubarb tart other than it was good. Fairly standard home made sort of thing. The Cloutie Dumpling is new to us. It’s like a light textured plum pudding, but heavily spiced and very dark in colour. My guess is there is quite a lot of cloves in this example and mainly raisins, maybe some sultanas. Interesting, warming and very filling. Well, hard not to be filling when we’re already pretty full before we start.
Given than it hasn’t taken us as long as we expected to get to Alloway from Dumfries House Lodge we decide to stay a bit longer and have a quick look at the museum. It’s designed to be dipped in and out of. It’s not a chronological layout at all. We pretty much go our separate ways as we find things that spark our particular interest. I choose a song on the Burns jukebox. Hubby reads about lewd verse that Burns is believed to have written to amuse his male friends. I read some panels these are the most amusing or surprising elements but there is a lot to see. I’m drawn to a display about Tam O Shanter also but we haven’t a lot of time and having got the general gist of the set up. We don’t want to find ourselves without time to see the walled garden so we make a move and start trying to find our way back to the car, which with our or rather my usual level of directional competence involves some puzzled backtracking and stops at dead ends before Hubby takes the map and leads us out. You’d think he’d learn not to give me the lead! Haha.
Despite the time we are diverted when we again reach the AA signs promising us a big tractor at Gemmel’s Garden World. This I’ve got to see. We thought Australia had the front running on stupid “big things” let’s see how this one stacks up. We find the garden centre and can see no sign of a giant anything. We’re about to leave in disgust when I decide I’d better go inside and check, though if it is inside it’s not that big. I find a department store that has the garden side of the operations uppermost. I can’t see any sign of this alleged big tractor. I stalk back out to the car to report my findings. As we’re driving away down the hill, Hubby sees it in the mirror and cries out There it is!! I swivel in my seat. Bugger. OK. At least they’ve got one. Not sure how really big it is in global standards of “big” things, especially from a distance, but it is certainly large and no doubt would be fun if kids can climb in or around it. Satisfied we move on, enjoying the short drive across the countryside.
Back at Dumfries estate we park in the visitor parking and head straight in to pay our garden entry. We’re a bit footsore after our walking about in Alloway but we’re determined to last the distance. It’s not far to the restored Adam bridge, originally designed to lift the travellers up for a view of the house. Nowadays the house is obscured by the trees having grown up to block it. Just across to our right is a fenced construction area where they are in the closing stages of building a maze. Like everything else here it will have a high quality finish. Around this area there are a number of swinging seats. Across the bridge we can see the young Maguire Arboretum. There’s seats all over the place there too. You will never be far from a place to sit at Dumfries House Estate. I can’t help but wonder if this is another of the Prince’s instructions. I’ve never been anywhere else like this where such an effort has been made to provide this level of amenity. We’re making fairly directly for the Queen Elizabeth Walled Garden and plan to do the openly accessible parts along the way on our return.  The Queen Elizabeth Garden has good bones, one might say. The plantings are young and seem to me to be high maintenance.
We wander through admiring the scale of it all and I’m imagining how it might look when the wires on the walls are more covered and the trellises round about more drenched in the honeysuckle or roses that are beginning their journey upwards. The farthest extent of our wanderings is the wall beyond which is a centre where school children come to learn and where the various local schools have a plot for the children to grow things. We can see this is a really light hearted, fun space. We spend quite a while employing the zoom on my camera to photograph the flower pot men. 
Bill and Ben I suppose! Haha. Hang on! There’s another one over there! Where? Hubby’s eyes light up. Oh yeah. And another one near that building! Once we start to really look there’s more Haha. They’re brilliant. What’s that one doing? I can’t see from this angle. We tear ourselves away and head up the slope. Check out the folly which is abundantly ornamented by wyverns and thistles as is the entrance of the house. It smells new though so it’s either newly constructed or heavily renovated. There’s some leaching of salts from the bricks so I’m backing it as a new build.
Where to now? I’m done. My feet are sore. God knows what Hubby’s must be like. He’s walking back towards the children’s gardens again. There’s a lower fence there where we can see in better. Ah look we can see even more flower pot men from here. What a fun place for kids. What a wonderfully inclusive community initiative. There’s a big artwork face made of sticks on the far wall. Strikes me as very “Prince Charles” using scraps of wood in that sort of way.
Another item that sparks Hubby’s interest are the little mini greenhouse frames here and there in the garden. He’s never seen something like that before. I explain that they are for protecting young plants from frost and aiding early germination or development of plants to give a bit of a head start on the growing season.
Finally done we wander back through the arboretum via the pond and the little folly there. We take a seat briefly out of the cold wind that’s sprung up. There’s seats in a little sun trap under the eaves of the folly. You’d find somewhere protected to sit no matter where the prevailing weather is coming from here. As the planting matures this estate is going to be simply wonderful. As we walk around the ponds, we pass some wild terrain where the Rosebay Willowherb has finished and has evolved into a fluffy mass of spent seed pods.
We move on again and walk, slowly and tiredly back to the Lodge, grateful of a chance to ease our weary bones. Sad that this is our last day here. Dumfries House Lodge is a wonderful place to stay.
Our Dinner tonight is at the Woodlands Restaurant and our reservation is at 7pm. We drive down there, do our usual stalking about stupidly looking for an entrance that is totally obvious and are welcomed warmly. We have an option of sitting comfortably with our drinks in the arm chairs until our food is ready or go straight to our table. We choose the comfy option. We love this trend.
The room is decorated with art works left as a gift to Prince Charles by young artists in residence. I get up to look at them and in the course of my wanderings get chatting about the art to our hostess and then an elderly lady having dinner on her own who joins in as we look at the large picture near her table. I return to my table as it becomes apparent, no rush, that our first course is ready to be served.
To start Hubby chose Wild Mushroom Risotto £6.50 followed by Venison loin served with roast garlic pomme puree, pickled red cabbage, baby carrots and venison jus £18.95.
I’m backing Smoked salmon pillow and trout mousse served with a lemon saffron dressing £6.50 followed by Leek and Parmesan Tart with fries and petit herb salad £11.95.
We know that of course I’m going on Hubby’s assessment for winner of round one. I don’t have any inclination to try his mushroom affair. We’re even. Both are delicious. Both are extremely well executed. Mains: my leek and parmesan tart is perfect and the accompanying chips are beautifully soft and tender and consistent but even so his venison takes the crown this round. It is cooked exactly as requested, every element on the plate complements the others and is perfect. It’s a superb meal and everything on the plate is off the estate. Brilliant. A very very memorable meal, and that’s saying something given all the flash dining we’ve been doing over weeks now.
Dessert. There’s no way we’re skipping it after the perfection of the first two courses and there’s no problem for me in deciding what I’m having. I’m trying the Vanilla Panacotta (safe) with damson berry compote and shortbread biscuits £6.50. Hubby’s less certain. He’s tempted by the Bread and Butter Pudding with crème anglais and marscapone cream but in the end he’s persuaded to try the Sticky Toffee Pudding with Tablet Icecream and caramel sauce also £6.50. My verdict this time. I win. The damson compote was thick with damson fruit, the whole balance of flavour and texture, creamy, tart and sweet was perfect. Nothing to fault with the Sticky Toffee Pudding. It was also a very superior example of its kind but not up to toppling my choice this evening.
We’re so pleased that our dinner tonight has lived up to our greatest expectations. Along the way throughout the evening our young waitress has been very attentive and friendly. Our hostess has come over to chat with us for a while here and there, as she has the few other tables here tonight. As our meals draw to a close the elderly lady comes over to say goodbye and we chat some more. She too is a big fan of the prince and all his many worthy projects. She tells us she was last here a couple of years ago and simply cannot believe what’s been achieved in that time. We agree. It’s completely fabulous and a credit to everyone involved.
We linger at the door as we say our goodbyes, talking about Australia and our hostess’s recent visit there. She’s very local and asks about my family in the area. Morton is a big name around Sorn, have we visited Sorn? Yes, it’s beautiful isn’t it. So lovely there by the water. Goodnights and best wishes all around we head home. We’ve had a completely fabulous day. Really really great. 

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