Posted in Personal life, Travel

From Bucket to Bottle

My column for the August issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News

Bountiful summer garden makes it easy to get our five-a-day

Seeing the progress my husband has made in the garden during my week away in Scotland, I declare I don’t want to go away again this summer, but to stay put and enjoy our home turf.

I do however plan to heed the advice of creative thinking teacher Orna Ross* to go on a weekly “createdate” with self –  a solo outing to a place that stimulates your imagination. The first of these is to Newark Park, a former Tudor hunting lodge now owned by the National Trust, set on the edge of the escarpment that tumbles down into Wotton-under-Edge.

*Orna Ross will be giving a talk about how to live a more creative life at the 2020 Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival.

Newark Park has been on my bucket list for decades. It has all you’d expect from a National Trust property – a fascinating historic house, rambling gardens to lose yourself in, and a teashop to restore your equilibrium. Added family appeal is provided by an exhibition celebrating Judith Kerr’s much-loved children’s story, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, complete with dressing-up clothes and giant toy tiger..

view from Newark Park across to the River Severn

But the highlight for me is the breathtaking view across to the River Severn. An annotated map of the horizon identifies local landmarks, including Hawkesbury Upton’s Somerset Monument, from this vantage point just a tiny, exotic tower five miles away.

map of landmarks visible on the horizon

Returning home, on a bucket list roll, I set about creating a terrarium, a self-sustaining miniature bottle garden, watering itself from the condensation collecting on the interior of the glass. I follow instructions in a book I bought and first pored over when I was about 14, finally achieving another long-held ambition.

cover image of craft book

I start with a layer of crocks for drainage, add cactus compost mixed with gravel, then arrange a selection of tiny succulents. Standing back to admire the miniature view, I realise there’s something lacking.  Then it dawns on me. I fetch the three-inch-high stone pagoda that my daughter gave me last Christmas: the perfect finishing touch for my new creation, Hawkesbury-in-Bottle.

My bucket runneth over.

photo of terrarium with small pagoda inside

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Posted in Personal life, Travel, Writing

My Dream Office (with a little help from the National Trust)

This post first appeared on the Authors Electric collective blog

shot of Debbie going through a gate into a graveyard
Debbie Young, going places…

“Where do you write?” asked a very pleasant lady at a talk I gave recently to the Cheltenham Writers’ Circle.

I gave my standard answer: how lucky I am to have my own study in my Victorian Cotswold cottage, with a big desk facing a window that looks out over the garden.

But next morning, when I sat down to write there, I shrieked as a sharp pain shot from my spine to my ankle, reminding me that lately I had been spending far too long at my desk-with-a-view – and I felt desirous of change.

Prompted by the arrival of my new National Trust card in the post the day before, and licensed by my friend and mentor Orna Ross to fill the creative well with a weekly “create date” with self, I stowed my purse, my shades, and my notebook and pen into my backpack, donned my walking boots, and set off to nearby Dyrham Park.

photo of Dyrham Park manor in deer park
The long and winding road down through the deer park to the spectacular Dyrham Park
The long and winding road down through the deer park to the spectacular Dyrham Park

Ok, I confess, I drove there (well, it is about eight miles away) – but on arrival, I eschewed the visitor bus service and set off down the path to this beautiful stately home, nestling at the bottom of the deer park, in search of a different place to write my daily words.

A cosy nook beckoned me from inside a hollow tree

This old hollow tree looked tempting. I’ve always had a soft spot for hollow trees since reading Enid Blyton’s The Hollow Tree House (over and over again) when I was a child. Unfortunately this one was roped off from public access.

I proceeded to the main house, skirting round the building – it was too sunny outside to be indoors – admiring beautiful Delft pots of tulips on the way. (This was a few weeks ago now.)

The original owner had served as Dutch ambassador

I thought the chapel would come in handy if my writing wasn’t progressing well and I needed a quick pray, but sadly it was locked.

The chapel now serves as the parish church.

There were plenty of seats to choose from with scenic views of the flowerbeds…

To sit in sunshine or shadow? – depends on which end you choose

…although I might be tempted to take pity on the gardener and lend him a hand with the weeding.

I think he might benefit from a bigger wheelbarrow

Wildflower meadows complemented the formal planting, replete with so many traditional English plants that I found Oberon‘s seductive lines running through my head…

“I know a bank where the wild thyme grows…”
Great swathes of forget-me-nots – a humble plant invested with a special significance in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries – brought me back to the purpose of my visit: to write.
Not forgetting…
I turned my back on the lake to investigate what looked at first glance as a kind of wooden hammock.
Nature’s hammock?

…but closer inspection revealed a forbidding sign.

Then – who’d have thought it? – I found myself on the threshold of the National Trust gift shop. I do like a National Trust gift shop. Thoughts of writing were quickly forgotten as I snapped up a lovely new linen sunhat, a book about drawing (a hobby I’ve wanted to take up for a long time), and some souvenir postcards.
Running out of time to get home for my daughter’s return from school, I got the bus back up the hill to the car park, and returned home feeling like Wordsworth inspired by his visit to Tintern Abbey, rested, revitalised and refreshed by my impromptu outing, back at my normal place of work.
“Home again, home again, jiggety jig”
And where did I write this post? In Dyrham Park’s excellent tea room, of course. At last – I’d discovered the perfect office!
  • To find the nearest National Trust property to you, click here
  • To find out more about my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, click here
  • To order any of the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, click here.
  • To read other posts by the Authors Electric, click here
Posted in Travel

Health and Safety, Belgian Style (National Trust, It Ain’t)

English: Dinant, Belgium.
We climbed 411 steps to the Dinant Citadel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we potter south through Belgium in our camper van, en route to Luxembourg, I am astonished at this otherwise civilised nation’s apparent disregard for basic health and safety rules.

They’re not quite as lax as those in Greece, where I’ve seen a lump of jagged concrete serve as a landing pad at the bottom of a children’s slide,  but they still come as a surprise, considering we’re all meant to be part of the same European community, with high standards for such things. We see many perilous features that an English tourist attraction would never get away with.

A Dangerous Climb

Perilous staircase in Bouillon Castle
I hope they’ve got good accident insurance

To reach the Citadel that overlooks the riverside town of Dinant, many of the 411 steps that we climb are badly worn and slippery with water or ice. On the way back down, I try not to look below me, because we are protected from a precipitous drop only by a single, slim railing.

The next day, we besiege the castle at the tranquil riverside town of Bouillon, an intriguing maze of a place with a warren of different-shaped chambers, cellars and halls linked by numerous, ancient, spiral stone staircases. As in Dinant, many of the treads are worn and wet. Yet mostly there is no handrail to save the less than sure-footed visitor (e.g. me) from a tumble. The few handrails that do exist are mostly pitted with rust. Duct tape has been used half-heartedly to repair places in which the rust has worn right through.

Most of the rooms are damp underfoot, many are scattered with puddles. Often, we look up to find icicles or stalactites hanging perilously above us. Raised paths atop the castle walls lure the visitor to enjoy the view, but only feeble, low-slung barriers stop them taking an accidental  step to certain death. Only eagle-eyed visitors will notice a single faded, low-profile sign reminding them that it’s not a good idea to sit on the walls, but that’s as far as the official warnings go.

A Cellar Full of Danger

Bouillon (122)
This passage would need a whole page to itself in a risk assessment form  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Walking through the cellars, we have at most five feet clearance of headroom. There is nothing to alert taller people to watch their heads. While my four-feet-seven daughter skips carefree ahead of me, I stumble forward, hunchbacked, wondering how many cases of concussion the castle has to treat each year.

Along the way, my daughter gleefully collects icicles. We break them off from low arches, and she brandishes them as weapons against  cut-out figures of crusaders dotted about the main hall.

I need no reminding that this castle is not managed by the  National Trust,  I think to myself, as I cling to a flimsy  wooden handrail while descending shaky wooden steps. The National Trust would never be guilty of such lassitude. It wouldn’t dare.

A Safe Perspective

But then we reach a room that casts a whole new light on our tour. It is the torture chamber. Displayed above a rack are helpful, thorough directions on its use. It’s the most detailed sign we have seen so far.  Evenly spaced along its bed are five spiked spools, designed to pierce the victim’s flesh many times over, just in case it’s not tortuous enough to be stretched by his hands and feet, with the tension maintained by a granite weight the size of a millstone.

There’s no photo here because I couldn’t bear to look at it for long enough to take a picture. Besides, my daughter had already danced off into the distance with her icicle, refusing to look, just as she’d shielded her eyes from the guillotine cheerfully displayed at Dinant, alongside a mini guillotine designed to chop off hands, rather than heads (torture-lite, I suppose you’d call it).

Suddenly, my 21st century attitude to health and safety seems ridiculously cautious. Taking this torture chamber as Belgium’s baseline for danger, losing my foothold on a stone staircase would be very small beer indeed. I continue my tour without complaint.

If you’d like to read more about our trip through Belgium, these are the other posts I’ve put up so far (more to follow shortly):

Just when we thought it was safe to go back into la piscine

When in Belgium, drink as the Belgians do (Oxo)

Why Belgium is being rebuilt

Close Encounters of the Belgian Kind

(More to follow shortly – click the “Follow” button on the right  to make sure you don’t miss an episode!)