Thursday, October 8, 2015

Day 37 - Highgrove Garden and Chedworth Roman Villa

We’re supposed to be exploring Tetbury this morning. We’re in no hurry to get out again and are taking it slow. Anyone would think this was a holiday. Hubby checks the manifesto to make sure we’ve got it right about the time for our garden tour at Highgrove. Yep it’s not until 2 pm. We’re slowly getting ourselves psyched up to wander about in Tetbury. Better get the tickets out of the blue folder I suggest. We should have them ready so we don’t have to come back here. We don’t want anything to go wrong. Hubby can’t see where the folder is so I retrieve grab it and extract said tickets. A deep yawning pit opens up in my stomach and my heart falls through it to hell. Our garden tour is at 10 am. Please don’t arrive until 9.45. I already know we’ve missed it but what time is it now? 10.20. There aren’t words to encompass what this feels like. I am not sure I can feel anything at all. It’s one of those awful situations where emotion has to be suspended and you just cling on and get through. The whole time since London has been to put us in this place on this day to do this tour. To make sure that if I never manage to get back to the UK I have at least seen Highgrove even if it’s not at the best time of year.
Hubby groans when prompted but phones the number on the tickets. They can’t do anything as they are just a ticket office. They give him another number to ring and he speaks to a lady at Highgrove. Where are we? Tetbury. Oh good. They can put us on the next tour. It’s a shame because they just had a group go out with only 11 people on it. We hightail it out of Tetbury, making sure we’re armed with the instructions for how to find the entrance. It’s only a 5 minute drive but we don’t have long until the tour starts. We miss the turn at first, reread the instructions turn around back along the road and turn in. I’m living on the edge of panic now and it’s threatening my ability to think and interpret the instructions clearly.
Our names are with the policeman on the gate and he tells us everyone’s waiting for us. We park. We hurry over. The rest of the group is watching a video welcome by Prince Charles. I’m sorry to have missed any of that but we get the end and better to miss a little than the whole tour. I’m so grateful and relieved they were able to accommodate us. It’s not the best of weather today. Perhaps that’s helped.
Video over, we file out and meet our guide whose name if I recall correctly is Lisa Nicole. She’s got an upper crust accent and a rather sarcastic sense of humour. We are not allowed to use either our phones or cameras anywhere during our tour. With all the rain recently she hopes that we’re prepared for some wet ground. If your shoes are immaculate now, they won’t be when we’re finished. She is herself wearing a style of Wellington boot that has fasteners on the side of the calf to bring the boot in snug and not leave that gaping cavern that so craves things dropping into it. They look pretty stylish really.
It’s just as well I plan to return to Highgrove some time because I was fairly slack on the note taking. No doubt I’ll have forgotten a lot. On the day I thought perhaps you should just relax and enjoy the tour. Stupid. Lazy. Imbecilic. Sigh. Well, I suppose I was a bit less than 100%. I don’t remember the order that we saw the various garden sections in, so I’ll have to resort to a grab bag of memories. There’s a few things I did note down... Ah yes, the yew hedges are being clipped today so sorry about the noise but the work must go on. The hedges are clipped once a year and there’s a lot involved in it logistically because the clippings are used for the production of the cancer drug Tamoxifen. Obviously the makers of the drug don’t want small quantities and they need it fresh so the whole activity needs to be coordinated and you need a fair bit of room to be able to do it.
There’s a team of 14 gardeners. 14! Oh wouldn’t it be fun to be a royal gardener! There’s plenty of topiary. Of course. Prince Charles makes no secret of his love of topiary and there’s new works in the making. Some, we are told, are Archimedean shapes representing the elements. The topiary seems to principally be done with yew, as are the hedges. Yew does seem like a very useful plant. Some of the hedging was designed by Roy Strong and I can see the similarity to elements of The Laskett (his famous garden).
The wildflower meadow is a cropped green pasture at the moment. Sheep graze contentedly under the trees. At this time of year the sheep grazing helps to impress the fallen seeds of the wildflowers into the ground for germination. At first they had a sort of wild unimproved sheep breed. But they were, well, too wild. They tended to eat the bark on the trees and be a bit destructive so they had to go. Then they tried Welsh sheep but they were wanderers and would bolt for the exit the minute an opportunity arose. Accomplished escapologists, they too had to go and make way for these cut little dumpling Shropshire sheep who are very well behaved.
The sheep aren’t the only inhabitants of the home farm. Another paddock is home to rare breed cattle. We look over the gate in an opening in a pointy topped hedge. Lisa drily observes “…they’re very rare today.” There’s not a single beast in sight. There’s a point to the hedges in more ways than one. They’ve found that clipping to a point helps keep moisture out of the centre of the hedge and thereby helps to prevent disease, which is obviously very important in any context but especially so in an organic garden. We’re standing near a large urn that grows flowers in season the centre piece of which is always a beautiful rich magenta Dahlia. In the colder months the whole enormous thing is moved out of the elements. We also hear about the sewage garden. Unfortunately it’s not part of the tour. I’m disappointed not to see that. I’ve always wanted a sewage garden. They’re useful here but just imagine how precious the water re-use is in a dry Australian garden. Our guide tells us that it is very attractive and it handles all the waste from the visitor facilities as well as the house.
Here and there access is barred by arches of bent willow coppiced in the sewage garden. This is to protect the grass which under the wet conditions and high visitor numbers would turn to a muddy track. Our route takes us past good viewing spots for the Thyme Walk and through what was originally a “mushroom” themed garden. There’s a seat that reflects the theme but lately it’s been decided to change the shape of the topiary so the Prince has invited some student artists to come in and come up with ideas.
Across in what was the Southern Hemisphere garden a heavy winter has cut through the collection of NZ tree ferns that were a gift to the Prince for his birthday. 60 tree ferns for 60 years. Those that remain look far from happy. The climate is simply too harsh and they have had to supplement plantings with hardier items.  One of the group comments. “There’s not many hydrangeas in the garden is there.” Lisa, quite understandably confused says “You’re being sarcastic aren’t you?” or words to that effect. With a straight face he says he’s not. I can understand her bemused reaction. The garden has so many hydrangeas of different varieties, it is hard to fathom how he’s missed them. More are to come, our guide assures the unobservant fellow. You’ll be eating your words very soon!
In the walled garden apple trees are trained over a framework that is arched across the path. A couple of the gardeners are picking the ripe apples. Someone asks what they do with the apples, then follows with a question about the crab apples. The crab apples are Golden Hornet and they are purely ornamental. We have some free time to wander about in the confined area within the walls. It’s a productive vegetable garden mainly but in a creative way mixed with some lovely flowers. The tour group takes off in opposite directions craving some private time to enjoy their visit. We regroup and head on and the little terrier takes his chance to get out and about with us, despite the care that our tail end takes to close the gate behind us. There’s numerous gates along our route as we move from area to area.
The final garden is another where we can wander about briefly. It’s another walled garden that was done for the Chelsea Flower Show. It was inspired by a Persian carpet in the house and the prince thought that it would be good to design a Persian garden with features based on the pattern of the carpet. There’s an olive tree and a lovely fountain which is based around a huge polished marble bowl, scalloped like a flower. It must have cost a bleeping fortune to make the various elements of this space, let alone put it at Chelsea and then dismantle it all and ship it home. I wonder if the mosaic tiles are made especially for it. We wander to the far end and look back toward the gate. This is where a seat is positioned and it is indeed the best aspect.
Our tour concludes and we adjourn to the Orangery restaurant where an area has been set aside for our group. It’s quite a slick affair.  A young girl comes and takes our order.  Oh lord, now what did we eat? There’s a range of things offered, some more substantial and costly than others. In the end I went with a cheese scone. I seem to recall it came with other things: salad, and butter …and that I took great care to eat the salad first and leave myself some scone to finish and savour. Gosh it was a good scone. Lighter than we’ve found typical and the most delicious cheesiness. I’d be a happy woman if I could make a cheese scone as good as that one.  There’s no cameras or mobiles allowed anywhere and we discover this applies to absolutely everywhere on the property when we go to check our messages and are politely reminded. Well, it wasn’t actually clear that it was everywhere and not just on the actual tour. Never mind. Hubby has chosen some breaded chicken croquettes which are also of a particularly superior quality. You wouldn’t want to visit Highgrove and skip the Orangery.
The cheese scone was so good we decide to spend a bit more time admiring the portraits of the royal family that are hung around the room and sample the cream tea. The artwork is quite impressionistic and pretty good. I wonder if they are also by the Prince.  Our cream tea arrives and it is good but not such a stand out as its cheesy relative. I think I prefer whipped cream with scones rather than the clotted cream.
Now all there is left to do is check out the gift shop. They have so many lovely things. I throw caution to the winds and buy a glass bowl by a local artist who has designed a lovely pattern of wildflowers that she has cut into the interior of the bowl. It’s similar to the glass vases I have a little collection of, decorated with Australian plants and flowers and I presume is made the same way with two layers and glass, a stencil and sandblasting. I take a leap of faith as to my packing abilities and it’s coming home with us. The expense of the bowl means that I pull my head in on the dreaming of other items from the Highgrove range. So many beautiful things.
It’s after 2.30 by the time we’re back in the real world and deciding how to spend the rest of the day. Thinking of browsing the antique stores in Tetbury makes my wallet flinch. What if we find something irresistible? Better stay away!  Let’s go take a bit of a reccie at the Westonbirt Arboretum. This isn’t difficult or far, we’ve passed it on the way to Highgrove. We go in briefly but figure it’s a place that requires you to be on your feet, talking a walk among the trees. I want keep us off our feet if I can. 
Let’s just go wandering about in the Cotswolds. Hubby’s generally just happy to do what I suggest. We head for Cirencester, favour bestowed by the appearance of a rainbow resplendent over the road, then I think, why don’t we check out Stow on the Wold or Bourton on the water. Tommie is instructed accordingly. However we get waylaid by brown tourist signs suggesting that we turn ahead if we’d like to see Chedworth Roman Villa. Turn!  …and he does! 
We’re doing the motoring version of ambling along delightful quiet and narrow roads alongside pastures and cropping land, a burst of autumn woodsmoke in the air . There are some fairly decent slopes along the road and views out across the beautiful patchwork landscape. A field of stubble is absolutely crawling with pheasants. There must be hundreds of them. They congregate at the edge of the field and wander across the road at their leisure. We slow, no-one behind us and stop to watch and photograph for a minute or two, Hubby keeping his eyes on the road ahead and behind us. Chedworth Roman Villa is at the head of a beautiful small valley, nestled among a stand of woodland. We park at the first obvious spot and I start walking in getting a bit ahead of Hubby. There’s heaps of parking spaces much closer to the visitor centre so I let Hubby know before he gets too far and he brings the car up.
We arrive just before 4pm which is just enough time to follow the trail using the audio guide. We’re too late for the guided tours. My long standing antipathy to ancient cultures, well, let’s be more accurate, any culture that smacks of association with a biblical period, is well known but I’m determined to conquer it. This site is small. Distracted by the Tits feeding on the seed heads growing among the stone ruins I eventually snap out of it and press the next audio guide number.  
There’s different options you can choose. A narrative by a character from the Roman period who would have visited this site or a more factual curator lead exploration, or indeed if you’ve got kids along, there’s an option specifically designed for families. I sample the first two options and settle on the curator led trail. The mosaics are beautiful and make me think that it might be rather fun to do something similar at home some time. We’ve learned about the underfloor heating technology at Bath but a refresher doesn’t hurt and they have examples of a number of different luxury levels for room heating. The ruins are complemented by an exhibition of art works and of course, there’s the birds. And picnic tables, and views down the valley. This would be a completely brilliant spot for a picnic. Wealthy Romans weren’t stupid, they chose a lovely situation for the villa and a convenient one. Apparently this is more or less on an important hub for routes between important places back in the day.
Well there’s no surprises is there. There’s a bird feeder hanging from a tree over on the lawn and a bench seat close by. Maybe too close by. I take a seat and withstand some light rain. Pulling my hood up on my rain jacket. There’s a Nuthatch hanging about and at least one Great Tit alongside the Blue Tits. I’m armed with a camera. I’m sure when I’m dead and the children are going through the photos they will laugh. Oh God no, not more terrible photos of British bird feeders!
Hubby’s prowling around the outside of the Victorian era museum. It’s not long to closing time. I give up my pointless bird feeder obsession and head over to talk to Hubby. He fills me in on what he saw inside the museum. I can live without it. There’s signs around talking about the local wildlife. They have a good variety of bats that come out in the evening and activities aimed at enjoying them… or was that studying them. No substantial difference in my book!
We hang back to the last minute and then head back through the doors, not the last of the visitors to come out. We were the only ones here when we arrived some people came in a little while after us and they’re hanging on to the end and are still exploring.
I browse the gift shop and chat to the friendly lady on the desk while Hubby ducks off to use the facilities. It’s the usual sort of conversation. Are we visiting the area? Where are we staying? Have you been here long? That sort of thing. We fly out tomorrow I say. Have you visited Newark Park? She asks when I say we’re staying in Tetbury. It’s only recently opened after having been leased to caretakers for a long while. It’s a delightful spot with beautiful views and there’s a café there. You can sit in the house. She hands me a leaflet as Hubby walks over and we say goodbye.
We walk back to the car chatting. I ease his curiosity about what we talked about, then we get on our way home. It’s been a lovely drive and I’m not quite ready to end it yet. As we’re passing the pheasant field a little flock wanders across the road. Hubby comments on their behaviour noting that they couldn’t be bothered flying out of the way. I glance at what he’s talking about. They don’t fly because they are not pheasants. They’re quail I venture. Then a better look. No. They’re not quail. What are they? I think they might be Partridges! The birds reach the other side of the road and most of them hop over into the stubble field. One bird sits on the stone wall staring us down.  I exclaim as I desperately snap away. Yes, I think they are Partridges. A flock of Partridges! Fantastic! We move along when a car starts approaching on the road behind us.
Ha! Hide your legs! You can't fool me Red-legged Partridge!
It’s another lovely drive through quiet roads most of the way back. I sit revelling in the beautiful scenery. A wide gate hangs open against a fallow field. The brown earth laid bare in welcome to teasing clouds overhead, awaiting the life giving kiss of rain.
I am generally not a huge fan of covering the same road twice so I direct Hubby to take the turn to Chedworth. Let’s have a look and go back a different way. We travel slowly down a steep and narrow hill and where Chedworth (I assume this is Chedworth) is nestled in the crook of a valley. Utterly charming. I’ll be looking up B&Bs here… just interested to know what’s around.
I’m tempted to keep wandering but Hubby is tired and the sensible part of me asserts itself and we just program Tommie for home, arriving at pretty much bang on 6pm. Hubby’s keen to eat. I’m keen to just chill out for a bit before going downstairs. We’re not being adventurous tonight, just heading back to eat in-house.
We creak open the door to the pub and wander in. Well, the door doesn’t actually creak, that’s just its emotional repertoire. It’s an old fashioned thumb operated latch on the door into the bar from the airlock after you come in through the front door proper. There’s no obvious places available to sit. Hubby enquires of the staff. All full, sorry there’s no tables available. We’ve been reading the compendium in our room. 1. No reservations are allowed for tables in the bar. Really? Looking around numerous tables are empty with reserved signs on them. 2. Reservations can only be made for the dining room upstairs. Really? What dining room upstairs would that be? 3. The start for breakfast time is also different. Someone needs to update that compendium methinks.  Our expression probably says it all for us. An executive decision is taken and instructions are given to open the dining room upstairs. Could we just hang on a tick while they get it ready for us. This seems to take a surprisingly long time and I’m feeling pretty p’d off and probably look it. I’m getting to a point where I’m tempted to just go eat somewhere else. There’s other options. We’d rather not though really. In any case, as I’ve mentioned before Hubby is nicer than me, he’s prepared to be more patient and in reality it probably wasn’t long at all. I’m in danger of reaching fully fledged grumpy old womanhood. We are directed upstairs all apologies for the wait. Naturally we have our pick of tables which is nice. It’s a beautiful space. This is without question a lovely property and let’s face it, after a long trip of endless self-indulgence the poor old Royal Oak is competing against a pretty high bench mark. 
We’re talking among ourselves for a while, drinks on the way. Hubby’s going for that Camden Stout again. He really enjoyed that last night. I don’t remember the last time he was so effusive in describing his beer. That is clearly a memorable drop.  In a short time, when I’ve had time to settle down, the owner of the establishment comes up and introduces herself.  Sorry about my dog last night. I recognise her. She’s the owner of the big mostly well behaved dog. Oh, yours was OK. The others were a bit of a pain though. She’s done the right thing. She’s engaging with us and showing us some excellent hospitality. We chat about how they came to buy the property and do it up as a pub. They’ve done a brilliant job of it. I’ve seen A frame oak roofs like this on grand designs with Kevin McCleod gushing about their rarity and beauty. They are beautiful. It’s been a steep learning curve running the pub. My mood is lifting. Their heart’s in the right place. I let her know about the compendiums in the rooms.  The communication is so important and the non-conformance to what it told us is well, it is just not good is it. Apparently this southern end of the Cotswolds is a bit more industrial than the tourist magnet northern Cotswolds. Really? Industrial? Nothing whatever lacking in charm in Tetbury. Nothing at all.

Tonight I decide I’m trying that burger but not after I confirm that there’s more on it than is described on the menu.  Hubby goes for steak and chips. We’re too full for dessert again. We’ve had a nice meal. This is a nice place to stay run by nice people in a lovely Cotswolds town. I’m prepared to cut them some slack. A few minor wrinkles that’s all and our room is very comfortable. The ratings are high online and I won’t challenge them. I’m pleased we chose to stay at the Royal Oak and I would do so again. Good on them for having a go and having the decency to come talk to us when we were clearly unhappy. Ah, isn’t the interpersonal connection just so important.

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