Saturday, December 29, 2007

Tis The Season to be Poorly

For some strange reason I just couldn't get warm all afternoon. We'd sat around the kitchen table, on the last Friday before Christmas, eating a selection of party snacks and drinking the damson gin that Lovely Warden had been brewing in his shed for the past few months. Well, I say eating and drinking. Lovely Warden and McColleague were. I, on the other hand, was not. My appetite was oddly absent and I was mostly sipping water, the alcohol not appealing to me as it usually does.

When my guests finally left I collapsed into an armchair, shivering.

Turned out I was coming down with a bout of festive flu and by the time I returned to normality Christmas was all over. I am not sure if this is a good thing or not, to be honest. I feel like I missed out on a proper big Christmas dinner and the whole drinking, merriment thing, but, then again, I didn't have to cook or make small talk, as I was in a feverish sleep and therefore excused. Swings and roundabouts really.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Deck the Hall

"I want lanterns," I said. "On sticks. You know, like the ones carol singers tradtionally carry in old pictures."

I needed to illuminate the path from the ticket office to the house for our evening event, and apart from our solar powered outdoor lights not looking as historically correct as a nice lantern, they also tend to be entirely deficient in the light emitting department.

Lovely Warden was very excited. Not only had I requested something involving bits of wood, I had also introduced the element of fire, which is always a winner.

Once I'd handed over the paraffin and a box of matches he was away.

Meanwhile McColleague and I put our finishing touches to the house, which, come to think of it, also involved bits of wood and the element of fire. We'd decked the hall with as much foliage as we could gather, and arranged it artfully around the many candles needed to light the house in the evening.

"Beautiful," we agreed, once we'd lit all the candles, and stood back to admire the effect. Flickering flames, ancient timbers. "Best keep the fire extinguishers within arms reach," we concurred.
Next came preparing the refreshments for the evening. The mulled wine was rigorously tested for temperature and flavour. "Needs more wine," said Lovely Warden. We couldn't be bothered to rigorously test the mince pies, we were sure they'd be fine. Besides, we were still sick of the bloody things from last year.
Our catering this time was spot on. Every morsel was consumed. It was slim pickings for McColleague and I at the end of the night.
"Do you want a clove-studded orange, or a walnut?"
"Are there any nut crackers?"
"No, I didn't want the public eating the display."
"I think I'll leave it."
I have promised something much more appetising for our staff gathering (me, McColleague and Lovely Warden round my kitchen table) next week.




Sunday, December 09, 2007

Plan B


For when reindeer are not available. You'd never know the difference.


Friday, December 07, 2007

Festive Cheer and Two Reindeer

Everything was organised. The stalls were allocated, the banner was up on the main road, and press releases and adverts had been placed in all the local media.

All was accounted for and in its rightful place.

My Boss arrived and looked around at the preparations approvingly. "Oh, and I've got us some reindeer," he announced.

"Reindeer?"

"Yes, they're pretty tame now."

"Um...are these the reindeer that were entirely wild the last I heard?"

"They'll be in a pen."

I watched the erection of this pen in the courtyard. I had concerns about its efficiency, concerns which were allayed with liberal applications of baling twine.

"How big are they, exactly, these reindeer?"

"Oh, not fully grown yet. Not that big. Quite small. The older one's only just come into rut. Which has made him a bit boisterous, but he's had a hormone jab and he'll be fine on the day."

I duly went off to rewrite my press releases to highlight this exciting new facet to our festive event.

As it turned out, the reindeer were hugely popular. The nice thing about them is that while most children are wise to the fact that Santa is just some bloke in a poorly fitting costume, a reindeer is undeniably a reindeer.

"Is reindeer shit as good for the garden as horse shit?" I idly asked McColleague as we watched the hordes of happy children stroking the furry defecating deer.

"Let's hope so," she replied.

"Ah well. Shall we go back to the brazier to get warm? We might be given more rejected chestnuts."

"What are we waiting for?"

We returned to the fire, eyes watering in the smoke, waiting to be offered those chestnuts which had burnt and/or been on the floor. We are not too proud to eat chestnuts which have had their flames extinguished by being stamped upon.



Thursday, November 29, 2007

Natural Materials

McColleague needed an implement with which to apply the floor polish so that it went on in a smooth, thin layer.

Lovely Warden suggested a paint roller.

"But it will knacker my back, having to kneel down to use that," she protested.

"I'll make a handle for it," he countered.

McColleague showed me the finished product today.

"Other properties get proper high tech conservation equipment," she said. "I get a big stick affixed to a paint roller."

"What did you expect from Lovely Warden?"

I was reminded of a classic Lovely Warden moment the week before. McColleague and I had been with him in the landrover, as we zipped about the estate making final preparations for our festive events. "I just need to get some more diesel," he announced as we pulled into the forestry yard. The storage tank is equipped with a meter and readings are to be noted before and after fuel is taken. Lovely Warden rummaged fruitlessly in the landrover for a pen and paper. There were bug collecting jars, magnifying glasses, CDs, chainsaws, rope, toolboxes, batteries, torches - everything imaginable, other than pens or paper.

In the end he found a small, flattish piece of wood and scratched the meter readings into it with a nail. "You are such a warden," I told him.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Winter Games

It is the time of year we prepare for our annual Christmas events. Without fail the weather is glorious the week beforehand and then changes as soon as we need to go outside to set up. Last year it was extreme winds which decimated our gazebo, our trees and marquees. This year it was unexpected snowfall.

"I have to say," I announced to McColleague as I looked out of the office window at the slowly melting snow, "that I am not overly keen on the concept of foliage gathering today."

"Lovely Warden is on his way," said McColleague, closing her mobile phone firmly. "Get your waterproof trousers on."

I did indeed put my waterproof trousers on. They are a fetching olive green colour and smell very much like plastic. McColleague has an identical pair, only in a smaller size. We were issued with them last year as part of our emergency salvage kit. They do very well for wearing in wet, muddy and scary conditions, but they do restrict your leg movements. Once we have put on our green jackets, wellies and gloves there was only one thing left to complete the ritual - the Foliage Gathering Hat.

Mine is green and deerstalker style, with handy ear flaps. McColleague had forgotten hers (oh, the shame!) so had to wear the only hat we could find, which was a furry Santa Hat.

"Do I look stupid?" she asked.

"No," I lied. "You look very festive."

Lovely Warden arrived in the Gator. He was admant that before we went foliage gathering we had to go to the bird hide and restock the bird feeders.

McColleague and I waited patiently while he did his rounds.

"Come on! It's cold!"

"And where's your foliage gathering hat?"

"I left it in the Warden's shed."

We detoured back to the shed. Lovely Warden reappeared with an exciting fleecey hat, with very long ear flaps.

"I feel inadequate," I wailed. "His flaps are bigger than mine!"

"I haven't even got any flaps," pointed out McColleague.

"I have also brought a safety modification for the Gator," announced Lovely Warden, brandishing a length of orange webbing.

At this point I must stress that under no circumstances would we make an impromptu passenger seat for the Gator from an office chair and a length of orange safety strap. We certainly wouldn't drive it around the estate with someone claiming to feel like "king for a day" and we would not laugh about "catching some air" as we went over molehills at high speed. We would simply gather our mistletoe and holly, safely and sensibly. And anyone who says otherwise is lying.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Blind Ambition

Earlier this week I went on a training course, where I learned all about the various aspects and issues pertaining to disability.

In our organisation we pride ourselves on making every effort to provide as enjoyable an experience as possible for all our visitors. If people are unable to access rooms upstairs, for example, we provide a virtual tour instead (or, in my smaller, less affluent property, a photograph album depicting the the rest of the house). For the visually impaired visitor, properties are encouraged to compile a sensory list of items which can be touched, or plants that have a particular scent, or sounds to listen out for, like the chiming of certain clocks, and so on.

Our trainer on the course was blind himself, and had a wonderful tale to tell of a visit to one of our properties (thankfully not mine) where he was relentlessly persued by a room steward who could not fathom why he didn't want to touch Winston Churchill's walking stick. He personally does not get a great deal out of handling items, but the fact that properties have items specifically for handling by the visually impaired, or have constructed a "feely box", has led to some volunteers believing these have to be utilised. In our trainer's case, having politely declined the offer of a feel of Winston Churchill's walking stick, he was then followed through three further rooms by a mystified volunteer, urging him to "go on, just touch it!"

I did have to point out that this was not discrimination due to him being disabled, but that our room stewards will cheerfully pursue anyone. "They were taught that on a different course," I said. "They must engage our visitors at every opportunity. If you don't want to be engaged they're at a bit of a loss."

Mind you, I wouldn't stick my hand in an anoymously presented "feely box" either, if I couldn't see. Actually, I wouldn't even though I can see.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Hide

"Have you seen Lovely Warden's bird hide yet?" asked McColleague.

"No. What's it like?"

"Well, it's big.....and made of wood."

This came as no surprise. Lovely Warden is very good at making anything you need, as long as you need it to be big and made of wood. The Wizard's Staff we commissioned him to make as one of our Halloween props must have been 8 feet tall. He did cut a bit off the bottom at our request, but you'd still need to be a 7 foot tall wizard to wield it properly. The bicycle racks he created could stop a tank. "Sturdy" and "robust" and "that's somewhat bigger than I imagined it would be" are the words that spring to mind when you witness one of Lovely Warden's creations.

The bird hide in question is part of the new nature walk that is being created over the closed winter months. "Do you want to come and look at it?" asked McColleague.

So I donned my welly boots and set off with McColleague into the woods.

"There," she pointed, as we reached a clearing. "Behold, the Bird Hide!"

"It's a bit bigger than I expected," I said.


"Yes," agreed McColleague. "When I'm inside it I can only just see out of the window so he'll need to build some kind of step for kids to stand on."

It is a good height for me, though. We went inside and waited for the birds to appear. Lovely Warden has nailed many of his handmade bird boxes to the surrounding trees and crafted mighty, monolithic bird feeders and tables to install in the clearing. If you wait, patiently, quietly, in his bird hide you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the man himself, putting out food for the birds, to lure them to his avian Eden.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Halloween Happenings

Here you see McColleague hard at work, making final adjustments to our Grim Reaper mannequin. We had decided he was a tad over-stuffed for someone skeletal, so she is removing some bubble wrap. It was a pose that begged to be recorded for posterity.

Our hanging creations are complete, and now in place in the trees. They have proved hugely popular with visiting children, and I have spotted many having their picture taken with our various creatures. We call this one Spike.
This is Swampy.
This is Grunt.
This is Yvonne.
And this is the Bad Bishop.


I have since received a comment card. It reads:

"My husband and I enjoyed the tea room and the house but we felt that as practising Christians the witches and corpses depicting Halloween weren't quite what we were expecting!"

I have many thoughts on this point of view, but the one I shall leave you with is that it's still a lot less scary than the Nursery Rhyme Walk.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Bonus Features!

Yes, much like those fascinating bonus features on DVDs, giving you insights into the special effects and creative processes involved in a major film production, I am delighted to give you a peek behind the scenes in our Halloween Creature Workshop!

It's hard to credit, I know, but our extensive props are not bought in at great expense from professional events companies.

No, believe it or not, we make our creatures ourselves!

Behold, a monster in the making! It looks, at first glance, to be a couple of rubber eyeballs nailed to a piece of wood. OK, while it is a couple of rubber eyeballs nailed to a piece of wood, once we add a mask and a bit of a body it will be transformed into an amazing creature of the night, to delight and terrify!
See? Here's one I prepared earlier. Isn't that incredible? Personally, I find there is no better way of assessing how effective your finished creature will be than to dress it up in a bit of muslin and put it on a sit and ride lawnmower in the courtyard.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Thriller

It's that time of year again. The time when I become very excited about Halloween and spend a lot of time making or buying new props. I find it hard to resist showing off my new acquisitions in the scariest ways I can imagine. This means I spend a lot of time waiting in shadowy corners so I can leap out for encounters like this:

"WooOOOOOoooooooOOOOOOOOooooo!"

"Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!"

"Bwahahahahahahahahahahaaaaa!"

"You utter, utter cow. I almost had a heart attack."

"Sorry, Mildred. Ooh, is that Derek coming up the path? Don't tell him I'm behind the door!

WooOOOOOoooooooOOOOOOOOooooo!"

And so on.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Glove Affair

I went over to the Ticket Office to offer my Visitor Reception Assistant a tea break. He gladly accepted and headed off to get a drink while I stood at the desk, poised to welcome our visitors and issue tickets as necessary.

In a quiet moment I looked on the shelf under the desk. This is where newspapers and magazines tend to accumulate. A book or a crossword puzzle are useful tools to help keep boredom at bay on those long wet Wednesdays when nobody visits.

What could be better than something to read to keep you company on a lonely afternoon?

Behold Gert and Colin! It appears there is an entertainment alternative to books or newspapers after all.

OK, so he actually keeps these on standby to entertain families with young children as they come through the Ticket Office, but I prefer to imagine the scenarios he enacts with them when he is unobserved.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Skirmish


"What's going on today then?"

I smiled through the screaming in my head and answered without a trace of irritation.

"It's our 17th Century Weekend."

Every single bleeding event this happens. I have banged on about it before I know, here and here. It's just so hard for me to fathom how they can sign their name beneath the event listing on the rota and then walk through a sizeable civil war encampment on their way to the house, and still have to ask what's happening. I mean, I was even in full 17th century costume myself. Was it really likely it was going to turn out to be the Autumn Walk or something?

Once the volunteers had established exactly what was going on the rest of the event went entertainingly well. The highlight was, as is often the case, entirely unplanned. Part of the scenario was the skirmish that took part outside the house, by the moat. I, and the rest of the household, would watch from the house as Parliamentarian and Royalist soldiers clashed. Cannons roared, muskets fired, swords clashed. It was all very colourful and noisy. The first skirmish had gone without incident earlier on in the afternoon, and now it was time for the second one.

I was sat at the table in the Great Hall, the rest of the household in character with me, playing cards, while the servant children swept and tidied in the background. Then the sound of gun fire is heard from outside and the men of the house grab their weapons and rush outside while the women and children look anxiously out of the windows.

By the moat soldiers were fighting in hand to hand combat. The public were safely cordoned off on the opposite side of the moat, facing the house. The fight progressed, a sword was thrust, the losing soldier fell to the ground and should, at this point, have just played dead for the rest of the battle. However, he fell with some momentum and rolled....and continued rolling, straight into the moat. There was an almighty splash and an "ooooh" from the audience. He later told me that his thought, as he fell, in full armour, was "just how deep is this moat, anyway?" Fortunately the water is pretty shallow and he immediately re-emerged, spluttering and covered in mud and pond weed. The public were unaware of this, as there is a five foot drop into the moat, so from there vantage point he had simply vanished from view.

In the house we were doubled over laughing. What made it funnier still was that the children were laughing in that infectious, purely joyous way they have, pointing and telling me "That's my dad! He's got to stay there now for the rest of the battle!"

And he did, crouching there, back to the wall of the moat, while the skirmish continued around him.

One of his daughters gleefully informed me how she'd been messing about by the moat the evening before and had slipped and put her foot in the water. "He sent me back to the tent to get changed and said I had to stay there until he said I could come back out again." No prizes for guessing what she said to her dad once the event had finished.

At last the scene ended, the audience dispersed, and two strong men helped to haul the unfortunate moat diver back out again. "I'll have to go back in again," he gasped. "My sword's still in there."

So, back he went, to fish around in the murky depths. He did find his sword eventually, raising it aloft triumphantly while we stood on the bank, laughing and shouting "Behold Excalibur!"

I do feel for him though. Getting the smell of disturbed moat sediment back out of woollen and leather garments is no easy matter. Authentic though.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Locum Notion

"Come back," texted McColleague. "I'm bored".

"Aw," I replied. "I'll be back soon and will entertain you with all my holiday snaps!"

It is most gratifying to know I have been missed during my absence. I'd left a locum in my stead, in the hope most of the staff and volunteers wouldn't notice I'd gone, but McColleague, of course, can not be fooled.

"Been ok but not the same without you," her latest missive reads, "lots to tell."

Lordy. As soon as I'm back up to speed I'll copy you all in!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Local News

"And it's not just the house..."

I had to pause at this point, pick a damson from the tree and then turn to face the camera.

"It's also our Orchard Weekend. So why not join us and enjoy some of this historic fruit?"

I smiled fixedly and tried not to squint too much, given the sun was directly in my eyes. Yes, appearing in a 30 second television feature for the local BBC news was a definite step up from my usual forced poses for the local press photographer. Not a huge step, but a step nonetheless. I only looked moderately deranged.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Outing

Organising the annual coach outing is one of the hardest tasks involved in my role.

Choosing a venue is not simple. It has to be within a reasonable driving distance, not have been visited in previous outings, be open on one of our closed days, and belong to our same organisation so we don't have to pay an entrance fee.

Next, I have to invite all the volunteers. I put up a poster near the kettle where they are most likely to notice it. I send each volunteer a letter with precise details - where we are going, when the coach departs and where from, and a date by which I need to know whether they are coming or not.

I will then spend the next few weeks having interchanges like the following:

"Are we having a coach trip this year?"
"Yes. Yes we are. I sent you a letter."

"So, it's half past nine at the car park then?"
"Nine. It's nine o'clock from the car park."

"Oh, why'd you have it on that day? I can't go!"
"Nor me."
"Or me."
"Right, I'll order a smaller coach."

"Can I bring a friend/partner/relative?"
"And me."
"Me too!"
"Right, I'll phone the coach company and order the bigger coach again."

"Can I get picked up from a special place, convenient to me?"
"And me!"
"And me!"
"Sorry, we're leaving from the car park at nine and no other pick up points."

"I'm not coming now."
"Nor me."
"Or me."
"Damn it, I could have stuck with the smaller coach."

All in all, it is a stressful experience. On the morning of this year's trip I carefully checked I had everything I needed before I left the house to drive the one and a half miles up to the estate car park, from where the coach would depart. I had my big box of sweeties to pass around the coach on the journey, my spare volunteer cards for those who might have forgotten their own, my payment for the coach and my clipboard and pen, for ensuring all those who were coming were ticked off as they got on board so no one was unwittingly left behind.

My daughter and her boyfriend were coming on the trip too, since she works as a seasonal staff member on the estate and he volunteers. I set the alarms, locked the door, bundled them into the car and set off. As we arrived in the car park I felt a glow of satisfaction. I was here, in good time, and well organised. I was cool and unflustered.

"I can't remember if I switched off my hair straighteners," my daughter suddenly announced.

"Oh, God, really?"

"I'm not sure. I think I did. I usually do. But I can't remember if I actually did."

We stared at each other with mirrored expressions of angst.

"Try!"

"I can't!"

"Right. Get back in the car."

There was a swift, atmosphere laden drive back down to the house.

I pulled up outside the door with a crunch of gravel. My daughter ran into the house, thudded up the stairs and into her room. She returned, equally as swiftly.

"They were switched off."

There was a swift, atmosphere laden drive back up the coach.

I arrived for the second time a good ten minutes late and with a definite air of fluster about me.

The day itself went entirely smoothly from the point onwards, I am pleased to say, and we all had a most enjoyable day out. I have only now begun to relax though, now it's all over. And already they are asking me, "where are we going next year?"

Friday, August 31, 2007

Moat Dipping

"How's it going?" I asked McColleague, as she approached.

"All right, " she replied. "I've had to come back once already. One of the kids was taken poorly in the woods."

We didn't have time to exchange much more information than that. It was the changeover section of our children's event, our Bug Hunt and Pond Dipping activity. This outdoor event is very popular and always fully booked. As the numbers are so large we split it into two sections, with one group heading off into the woods - on this instance with McColleague and Lovely Warden - to hunt for insects and wildlife, while the other group stayed with me and New Warden for a go at fishing in the moat for water creatures. After an hour the groups swap over, so everyone gets to have a go at both activities.

"Right," I announced to the assembled crowd of adults with children in wellies, clutching brightly coloured fishing nets. "Those of you who have done the moat dipping will now be heading off with McColleague and Lovely Warden here. Those of you who have just been on a bug hunt will now be coming with me to see what we can find in the moat!"

I did the usual health and safety chat about taking great care by the water's edge, washing their hands after they'd finished, and then handed out the plastic trays into which the children would be landing their catch of the day. It's always water boatmen. We get the occasional stickleback, a water scorpion, perhaps a leech. But by far the most common sight, zipping about in their trays, is the water boatman.

"Now, what have you caught?" I will ask, squatting down to peer into their inch of muddy water with leaves. "Ah yes," I'll continue, "It's a water boatman."

It was as I was crouched over just such a tray full of little black aquatic beetles that I heard the splash. Then I heard the crying. A small boy came running up to me. He was laughing. "My brother's just fallen in!" He pointed at the source of the noise - an even smaller boy, crying, soaked through from head to toe. As I strode over his mother appeared beside him. She soothed him. "It's all right," she said, "you're just a bit wet. I've got dry clothes here." And to my pleased amazement she produced a towel and a full change of clothes. I was impressed. Once the child was dry and happily sucking a sweetie I expressed my admiration to this paragon of motherhood.

"Oh," she said, "I always come prepared. I know what he's like. Honestly, he was sick in the woods earlier."

I couldn't wait for McColleague to return with her group. "Hey," I pounced, as soon as she returned. "You know that kid who was sick in the woods?"

"Yes."

"He fell in the moat!"

Oh, how we laughed. He's not going to forget his big day out at our property in a hurry. I would love to read his "what I did in the school holidays" essay, complete with pictures.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bat Scat

Look at the state of my bat covers!

This is the time of most activity in the house for the bats. Each morning the pile of poo seems to be bigger and wider.

The problem I currently have is that the bats seem to be present during the day as well. Usually they fly about the Great Hall at night and then return to their attic roost for the daylight hours. However, over the weekend I noticed bat poo and even tiny splashes of bat wee on the tables after I taken the covers off and dusted them. I suspect the little buggers have moved in full time. If so, that presents a whole new challenge for protecting the contents.

Suggestions?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Memento

At the top of the estate is our little kiosk, a small hexagonal wooden building where our kiosk attendant spends the day meeting and greeting everyone who comes past.

The chap in question - let's call him Ken - is lovely and I drive past him many times a day.

My daughter and her boyfriend walk past him often, on their way to the post box, or taking the dog for a stroll. Sometimes my daughter goes past on her bike, on her way out somewhere.

Invariably Ken will emerge from his hut to stop us and ask if we are here for the walks, if we want to visit the tea room or go to the house.

The first few times it happened we would respond: "No, no, it's ok, we live here, we're just out for a walk," or "Hello, Ken, it's me, Doris, I'm just off to the estate office."

However, despite these repeated clarifications, Ken never recognises any of us next time we go past. Which can literally be 10 minutes later on the way back from the post box or office.

"It's like being in Memento," sighed my daughter.

Maybe I should buy Ken a polaroid camera.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Maize Maze

Some of you may recall my scepticism regarding the maze ever being open before the end of the season. And the Rabid Badger theme.

However, the recent bout of sunshine after the rains has given the maize a much needed growth spurt and earlier this week my Boss decided the time had come to make the maze.

This, as predicted, involved he and Lovely Warden disappearing into the field of maize armed only with some string and a strimmer. After a couple of hours they re-emerged, caked in mud.
"Does it look like a badger?" I asked.
"Well, we simplified the design a bit."
"Right."
McColleague and I had some concerns, so decided to test the maze ourselves before sending unwitting members of the public into it.
Note the badger motif (no longer rabid, thankfully).
There is a quiz sheet to go with the maze, with badger related things to spot en route. McColleague was in charge of that and duly ticked things off as we trudged along.
"I'm bored now," she said, some time later.
"What time did we come into the maze?" I asked.
We worked out we'd been at it for about 10 minutes.
Twenty minutes later we had reached the "Finish" sign.
"Well, that wasn't worth £2," opined McColleague.
I think I'll just put out a donation tin.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Apple Tree

While out walking today, assessing the flood damage to the Nursery Rhyme Trail, and regretfully discovering that apart from a bit of silt on the footbridges the rest of the exhibits were completely unharmed, I spotted this apple tree. It has just the one, red apple upon it.

It looks slightly unreal, like a set dressing. It really fits with what a Nursery Rhyme tree should look like. It is my favourite thing on the walk at the moment. Still, once the apple drops, it will be just a tree again. There must be a metaphor for something in there....

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Washer Woman

The washing machine died. It didn't just stop working. Oh no. First it let me strip all the beds, load it up with lots of towels and jeans, filled itself with water and then it stopped working.

When I finally managed to get the laundry back out of it again it had started to smell a bit funny. Being a bit of a clean freak I couldn't bear it, so finished the load of washing by hand, in the bath tub.

Wet towels and jeans are amazingly heavy when you can't spin dry them. I actually sprained my wrist, and not in a fun way. As I pegged out my exceptionally soggy washing in the hope it would drip dry (and in a state of anxiety in case the line snapped and all my back breaking labour ended up in the duck shit) I had a flash of inspiration. There are numerous holiday cottages on the estate, surely there'd be one with a washing machine. If I was lucky, there may be an unoccupied one with a washing machine!

I was lucky! The cottage was a mile and a half up the road, but that was still better than having to wash all my kit by hand, in the bath.

So that is why I have been a little quiet this week, on the blogging front. I have been spending all my spare time trekking up and down the road with my baskets of washing. I have been on a mission to wash as much as possible before the holiday cottage is occupied again tomorrow, in the hope we will then all have enough clean knickers to last until the new machine arrives.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Mending Fences

Some freeloading git has broken the fence next to the padlocked gate. They have obviously attempted to climb over the railings, given the footprints in the grass leading up to the fence, and have snapped the top bar clean away from its post. Possibly the weight of all the change in their pockets, saved from not paying the admission fees, has been a contributory factor.

I wonder if they hurt themselves?

Saturday, August 04, 2007

"You Don't Remember Me, Do You?"

It's a phrase that causes an internal slumping of the shoulders every time I hear it.

Today is no exception. I have given my customary welcome as this visitor enters the house and he has responded with "you don't remember me, do you?" My smile remains constant as I search the filing cabinets of my mind. Is he a volunteer I used to see occasionally at a previous property? Is he a visitor I have had a lengthy chat with a year or two ago? A member of staff I was on a course with some time?

It's no good. The folders in my mental filing cabinets are as blank as my expression. He takes pity on me.

"It's Dave! I service your water filter. It'll be due for another in a couple of weeks."

"Dave! Right! Yes, of course. Sorry, it's because I'm seeing you out of context," I explain, relieved the Visitor Memory Game was over for the moment. Dave still looks a little crestfallen I hadn't remembered him. I feel a little guilty, as if I have somehow chosen not to store the water filter man's face in my memory banks. The problem is I see literally hundreds of people every day. If I remembered all of them I'd have no room left to store important memories like where I put my shoes or how much wine is left in the fridge.

The slightly awkward moment ends as I gratefully spot more visitors approaching the door. "Hello," I smile. "Have you visited before?"

"No, they reply. "It's our first time."

I am genuinely delighted to hear that.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Body Odour

An instantly identifiable smell permeates my office.

It swells and fades throughout the day, and is proving difficult to pinpoint. That hasn't stopped me dragging everything out of every corner in my search for the source.

It is the smell of decaying rodent. That awful dead mouse smell that nothing can mask. Unfortunately it is very rare to find the actual body, having gone through this process many times in different rooms of the house. If the unfortunate animal has died under the floorboards or in a wall cavity, we're stuck with it until nature takes its course. My pest control chap has a supply of "rodent deodorant" for these situations, but, frankly, it's so pungent it's a close call as to which smell is harder to live with.

Given the overpowering stench one tiny dead mouse can produce, it does make me wonder how killers manage to hide bodies under floorboards without detection. I have spent the day sitting as close to the open window as possible, apologising to my volunteers for the terrible smell and recommending they eat their sandwiches outside today.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Summer, Finally

It has been simply heavenly having a return to sunny, summer weather. The only remaining signs of the floods are the terribly gouged and potholed roads and the fact that there are an awful lot of carpets and furnishings now discarded outside people's homes.
And the return of the good weather means the return of barbecue season! The fridge has been restocked accordingly.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Back to Normality

Well, almost.

It has been a challenging week. After the drama of the previous week it has been a huge relief to have had a sunny, mostly dry weekend. In particular it has been great to have some visitors again. We opened as normal during the week, but we were fighting a losing battle, really. The surrounding roads were still closed, with many of the staff and volunteers being unable to get to us, let alone visitors. While the catering staff stood around in the empty tea room, the scones untouched, the cakes uneaten, the volunteers roamed the deserted house, switching on lights and moving the furniture in an attempt to remain entertained.

There were a couple of days where everyone went home early, after having no customers at all for hours. Conditions have been generally gloomy.

Thankfully, things seem to be improving. I hardly had to put anything back to how it should be in the house today, which must mean they were nicely busy again.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Uninvited Guests

I stood on the lawn in front of the house, smiling and chatting to the assembled group.

They had each paid to be a part of our Pledger and Benefactor day and we were making sure they felt they received their money's worth. I had given a guided tour of the house and was now making myself available to answer any questions they might have.

As I explained for the seventh time in as many minutes about why the house is limewashed, and therefore not black and white, I noticed a couple of people in the crowd that I was certain were not part of the group. For a start, our Pledgers and Benefactors were all dressed in wet weather gear and sensible footwear, having previously toured the woods and farms on the estate. They also wore name badges. A couple in brightly coloured shorts, with a dog in tow, stood out somewhat.

I watched them for a while, as I continued to chat to our official guests. They'd obviously taken advantage of the unpadlocked gate, as this was actually a closed day, and they would have found the ticket office unmanned. Dogs are not allowed beyond the Gatehouse either, so my hackles were up, but I felt loathe to have a public confrontation in front of our VIPs.

Eventually the man separated from his companion and headed into the house. I was agog at the cheek of it. I finished my conversation about limewash and excused myself. I found the uninvited guest in the Great Hall.

"Hello," I smiled. "Are you with the Pledger group?"

"Oh no, " he replied, "we're just visitors."

"Ah," I said. "Well I'm afraid we're actually closed today. This is a private function."

"Well nobody told us!" he exclaimed.

"That's because there was nobody in the ticket office to tell you. Because we're closed."

I walked him back outside and locked the house before any other opportunistic passersby wandered in.

I then scampered over to the courtyard where McColleague was in charge of the refreshments. I began to recount my tale of naughty visitors blagging a free visit.

"So, I had to usher him out of the door and - bloody hell! There they are again! I've asked them to leave once already!"

Sure enough, the completely unfazed couple, with dog, were now wandering into the courtyard and having a good look round.

"Well," huffed McColleague, "the nerve of it! I'd be so embarrassed, wouldn't you, if I found out I was in the middle of a private function and shouldn't be there?"

"Absolutely," I agreed. "They'll be over here wanting a cup of tea and a biscuit next!"

Our steely stares may have dissuaded them for trying for a free cup of tea, though. As it was they made a point of having a leisurely stroll around, before sauntering off - in the opposite direction to the exit. It was most frustrating. It was as if they knew I couldn't go for the jugular, wouldn't risk a potential scene, it being a day to impress our paying guests and all.

How very, very naughty some people are.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Flooded

I had taken the week off, as holiday, and even booked a locum, so I could be entirely footloose and fancy free.

Ah, the joy of getting up in a leisurely fashion, happy in the knowledge Somebody Else Was Dealing With It. I decided to spend my time off having some day trips out to visit friends and to spend some time with my family. So I drove into town yesterday for a girls day out with my daughter. We had our hair done, shared a splendid lunch, did a bit of shopping. It rained incessantly but I was determined to enjoy my time off, so stayed out as long as possible. A text arrived on my mobile phone. It was from McColleague: The Boss has closed the house and estate and sent everybody home, due to the severe weather.

Perhaps it was time to return, after all.

The journey home was exciting, to say the least. During the hours we'd spent in town the road had flooded in several places and long queues of cars had formed wherever one of these impromptu fords had occurred. The rain lashed the windows of the car, big 4x4s and lorries zoomed by and sent waves of water flooding over us, reducing visibility further as my poor squeaky windscreen wipers tried to keep up with the job in hand.

I was relieved when, an hour later, we finally made it back onto the estate.

"Nearly home now," I said to my daughter.

We drove through the first mile of parkland, the single track road now a torrent of water. The road twists and turns downhill and the last stretch goes through the woods. As we entered the trees I had a feeling all was not well. I couldn't see the road ahead in the distance, just a mass of foliage.

As we drew nearer I could see the massive tree which had fallen down, completely blocking the road. "I'm not staying here in case any more trees are about to come down," I said as I reversed all the way back through the woods and onto the parklnad again.

I phoned my Boss. He was with Lovely Warden in the landrover and we didn't have to wait long before they arrived.

"We'll go down and take a look," said my Boss. "Then we'll come back and let you know the situation."

They rode off into the murk of the woods, and my daughter and I sat and waited, the rain drumming on the roof.

Eventually they returned. "It's too dangerous to move," yelled my Boss from the landrover. "We'd be putting ourselves at risk if we try to work in there now."

I was perplexed. How was I going to get home? There is only the one road.

"Is there anyone in the house now?" asked my Boss.

"There's my daughter's boyfriend," I replied.

"Well, phone him and get him to walk up to the fallen tree from the house, and bring your wellies and wet weather gear. Lovely Warden and I will drive you down to the tree in the landrover and get you around it on foot. You'll have to leave your car here."

There then followed a few minutes of prioritising, as I peered into the boot of the car and decided which shopping I would carry on foot and what I would leave behind. It says a lot about how people react under pressure, as I opted to bring the cheesecake and wine and leave behind the toilet rolls.

My daughter and I then clambered into the back seat of the landrover, with our bags, and headed back into the wild woods. My Boss wasn't happy. He kept looking out of the window and saying scary things like "That one's going to go soon, as well."

When we reached the fallen tree again we were instructed to stay put while he and Lovely Warden assessed the best route past it.

"Right," he said, opening the landrover door and gesturing for us to scramble out. "I want you two out of here as quickly as possible."

He guided us up the steep muddy bank and around the massive uprooted base of the tree. My shoes were sodden and didn't provide much in the way of grip. My daughter had sensibly worn her Dr Martens so was doing somewhat better than I. Still, we did both make it to the other side and back onto the road without falling over or dropping the wine and cheesecake. We have finely honed survival skills.

Fortunately my daughter's boyfriend appeared at that point, soaked to the skin himself but clutching two carrier bags full of wellies. At least the final mile was walked with dry feet.

So, the house remains closed for the time being. We are cut off from the outside world rather efficiently. At times like this all you can do is settle down with your cheesecake and wine and count your blessings.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

I've Come All the Way From...

I was telling McColleague and Lovely Warden of my experiences with the visitors who had tried to blag a freebie the other week. We were standing on the lawn in front of the house, at the end of a long day. It was not an open day, but we had all been involved in the Pledger and Benefactor event.

"Then there are those who turn up on closed days and always claim to have come all the way from Australia or something." I was saying. "They have always travelled an unfeasible distance and this is the only time they can see the house, as they have to fly home in the morning, and their visit won't be complete without seeing the place. Which is why they've left it until 5pm on a closed day to turn up, as it's so very important to them."

I paused for breath, momentarily distracted.

A car was approaching along the drive. The gates must have been left open after our Pledgers and Benefactors had departed for the day.

Lovely Warden strode off to intercept them. The car drew to a halt alongside him, and the window rolled down.

I didn't hear the first part of the exchange, but as I drew nearer I had to try hard not to laugh.

"New Zealand?" said Lovely Warden. "No, sorry, that's not quite far enough. Now, if you'd said Australia we'd have let you in, but New Zealand...."

Fortunately he said it with such twinkly-eyed good humour no offence was taken. I will definitely be using that line again though.

Monday, July 16, 2007

True Grit

Last year we had a celebration. McColleague and I decided to put on a bit of a do to mark an important anniversary in the history of the house. We went to the Cash and Carry to spend our massive £30 budget on drinks and nibbles to offer our visitors as they entered the house.

I made my signature dish - cheese and pineapple on sticks - and McColleague knocked up some "Festive Fizz" out of Lambrini, orange juice and lemonade. Our budget goes a long way. We set everything up on doily-lined trays on a table in the Gatehouse. It looked quite posh. We then sprinkled metallic confetti numbers around the base of the glasses to complete our theme. Fancy.

The thing about the gatehouse, though, is that the design means that it is a bit of a wind tunnel. If you stand in it with a tray of drinks and cheese and pineapple on sticks there is a strong chance great gusts of wind will blow assorted grit and debris all over you.

"The confetti!" I cried, as all our little numerical bits of glitter flew into various crevices of the gatehouse and across the lawn.

We spent much of the day trying to keep little black specks of who knows what from getting into our glasses of fizz. The cheese and pineapple was even harder work, as the grit just embedded itself into it.

"This was a terrible idea," McColleague asserted, and I was forced to agree.

"What we should have done," I opined, helpfully, "was to set all this up in the Ticket Office."

"Why didn't we?" wondered McColleague. We didn't know.

This year we had a Pledger and Benefactor day. It is a day for presenting the place at its best in the hope of impressing people so much they decide to give us money. McColleague and I were asked to provide the refreshments. We have a good reputation for refreshments, given our past triumphs. This time we played safe, and stuck to tea, coffee and biscuits. We waited until the last possible moment to put everything out on the tables, which, granted, were outside in the courtyard, but under cover and not in a gusty area.

And yet, despite these efforts, there was still a moment or two when I had to excuse myself as I discretely replaced the milk which had inexplicably been contaminated with various bits of grit and a fly.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Amazing!

There is a field of maize right next to the car park.

There was some talk of making a Maize Maze to entertain our visitors and generate a little extra income for the farmer.

There was further talk of making it in the shape of a badger.

I could spot a couple of major flaws in these plans.

1. The maize is still only ankle height. It is not going to be a challenging experience. By the time the maize has grown tall enough to create a truly enjoyable maze experience it will probably be the end of the visitor season.

2. My Boss is unlikely to employ a professional maze maker to create the badger motif. No. It will most likely fall to Lovely Warden to try to fashion something that looks vaguely like an animal out of uprooted plants. I foresee a blobby thing with four protuberances.

The ultimate nail in the Maize Maze coffin came earlier today. Our Learning Officer has been creating flyers to send out to various bodies, announcing the forthcoming attraction.

"Our Property's Maize Maze," the title proclaims. "Can you help our badger back to his set?"

And beneath it, this:
I am bewildered. What word had she intended to use, really? I mean, this is the work of our Learning Officer. How could she have looked at this and thought, "Yup. Job well done. That'll get them in"? How did she put them in envelopes and pop them in the post without once thinking "Hang on a minute! Not rabid. No. Fluffy! That's what I meant!"

I am not sure this is the best marketing ploy we've ever tried, myself.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

I Have the Power

It's true. The delightful Miss Despina has bestowed a Blogging Community Involvement Award upon me. According to the creator of this award, (Mike at Ordinary Folk)"when it comes to blogging, schmoozing is your ticket to making new friends, getting yourself noticed and building a reputation."

I am surprised really, as I always thought I was a grumpy old ratbag who did not so much schmooze as complain endlessly about volunteers, visitors and badly conceived Nursery Rhyme Trails. Maybe complaining is the new schmoozing!

Still, it is very nice to receive anything, and, like my other award, this one will not change my life.

Apparently I am supposed to choose five other bloggers to receive this award. That's a tough call, as most of the bloggers I know would prefer a crate of booze or the equivalent in cash. If you're a blogger and would like this award instead, do let me know.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

But surely those signs don't apply to me?

11am, an hour before we open.

I am getting the house ready, taking off the bat covers and checking the loos are clean. I spy three men the other side of the moat, walking towards the gatehouse.

I head over to the gatehouse myself. They are just the other side of the heavy oak door. I can hear their voices. I open the door, which momentarily surprises them.

“Hello! I’m afraid we don’t open until 12.”

“Yes, I know. It's ok. I’ve been before, I’m just showing these two round.”

“Right. But I’m afraid we don’t open until 12, as it clearly says on the signs on all the gates you’ve come through.”

He decides to go for the cheeky chappie approach.

“Have we woken you up? Were you having a lie-in?”

“No. I am busy getting the house ready for when we open at 12. In the meantime I’m going to have to ask you to leave the premises until then, for health and safety reasons.”

“Health and safety, eh? That gets everywhere these days doesn’t it?”

“Yes. It does. Are you members?”

“No.”

“Right. Well if you want to visit the house you’ll need to go back to the car park and come through our ticket office, where you can buy an admission ticket.”

“There was nobody there.”

“No, that’s because we don’t open until 12.”

“We’ll be long gone by then.”

“’Oh, I’m sure you will. Enjoy your free visit.”

Friday, July 06, 2007

Long Service Award

Dear Doris

It gives me great pleasure to congratulate you on achieving 10 years of continuous service with our organisation.

Under our policy on Long Service Awards, you are eligible for an award of £100, just a small token to thank you for all the effort and commitment you give to our organisation. You will receive your award in the July salary payment.

Thank you for the dedication you have shown over so many years.

insert squiggly signature here

Director General

insert handwritten "Thank you" here

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Doris' Creature Workshop

On a budget of £0.00 I have created a Fairy and Ogre event! Yes, if you enjoyed the Nursery Rhyme walk you'll love the magical world I have conjured up for our Fairytale Trail.

Witness my impressive troll, fashioned from just a green balloon and a mask, hidden in a tree, at great personal discomfort and risk of falling in the moat, by me!


A fairy in the flowerbed. There are rather a lot of these dotted around the gardens and orchards. The gardener will be finding them for months. I just printed and laminated a bag full and hid them in trees and under bushes. I did not keep a record of how many I produced or where I put them.

Of course, the first thing a visiting child asked me was "How many fairies are there to find?"

I waxed lyrical on the nature of fairies. They come and go as they please. Could be seven, could be seventy.

"You don't know, do you?"

"No."

There was some concern, after my fairy frenzy, that there was nothing for the boys to spot, hence the boglin, situated, appropriately enough, in the wall outside the bogs. He has since vanished without trace, so I suspect he may have been nicked. This stands to reason, since he was the one of the few pieces of quality kit I had.

We also installed the Troll Feet and, bizarrely enough , a crocodile under the bridge.

And after all that effort, it bucketed down with rain, and the marquee was crammed with small children in bedraggled fairy wings making magic wands and getting covered in glue and glitter.

Magic.


Monday, July 02, 2007

Who's That Man?

A very pleasant couple were leaving, heading back to the car park via the Ticket Office.

"Did you enjoy your visit?"

"Oh yes, yes thank you."

"Oh, good."

"Can I just ask - who was that man, outside the house?"

"You mean our volunteer? Why, what did he say?"

"Yes, well, when we walked up to the front door he asked us 'Have you been to this dump before?'"

"Ah yes. That would be Dick. He's a character."

I like Dick, he's funny. He has a habit of saying things that people are quite sure he couldn't possibly have said. It brightens up a rainy afternoon.

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Birds

I am surrounded.

When I go out of the front door there are young swallows on the verge of fledging, in a nest just above my head. The only problem is that they produce a shocking amount of poo. Fortunately Lovely Warden has lovingly crafted a doorstep and doormat protector from pieces of wood. So there are still unsightly piles of poo, but on pieces of wood.


When I step outside my back door I am met by this scene.

The ducks know where grain happens. They beg every bit as much as the cats and dog for their meals. Lurking at the edges of the garden are the moorhens. They are cautious birds and dart in amongst the ducks to grab their share of what's on offer. There is a new family at the moment, the baby moorhens like tiny black pom poms running about the lawn.

I spend a lot of time going "awwww, they're so cute!" and not getting any work done.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Whoops

I was spouting forth to Young Volunteer this morning about the failings of our organisation's technological side, because I couldn't find any accurate information about events on our own website.

"The thing is," I said, "that we can be shockingly bad at the IT side of - whoops!"

I had somehow managed to pour most of the cup of herbal tea I had been holding into my keyboard.

Young Volunteer is learning so much from me.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Missing

McColleague has gone on holiday this week.

Luckily I have the lovely young volunteer I mentioned here, who is now experienced enough to be able to perform most of McColleague's duties in her absence.

She works until about 1 pm each week day and then departs, so I always close up the house myself every evening. Some of my volunteers who steward in the house in the afternoon like to stay on after we close, to help me put the house to bed. Tonight my volunteer and I went to the Court Cupboard to fetch the bat covers. These are the tyvek sheets we use to protect all the surfaces in the Great Hall from the bats which like to socialise in the rafters after dark. They are taken off in the morning, stored in the cupboard, and put back on when we close.

We opened the cupboard door. Wow. All the sheets were neatly folded.

"Good heavens!" exclaimed my volunteer, in shock. "This is very tidy."

He was right. Normally McColleague or I just grab the covers from the tables and chairs, bundle them up and stuff them into the cupboard in a big, bulky ball.

"Ah," I explained. "That would be our young volunteer who helps in the house in the mornings."

"She's folded them all up," he said, somewhat redundantly, as we both stood looking at their folded neatness. "I thought half of them were missing at first, but it's just that they take up so little room like this."

"Well, she's young and still cares," I said. "She hasn't become jaded like McColleague and I. We just stuff them in any old how. It's not like they're best quality tablecloths - they're only going to get covered in poo."

"True," he agreed.

"Plus it probably took her ages," I ponted out, "whereas McColleague and I can have this room open in under a minute."

"Still, it's nice that she bothered."

"Yes."

I miss McColleague.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Happy Feet

McColleague and I went shopping for arts and crafts items for our next big event.

We had a fairytale theme so were delighted when we spotted some stone feet stepping stones in the gardening department of Woolworths.

"They'd be perfect as troll footprints under the bridge!" we exclaimed. "We'd be crazy not to buy them!"

Once we got them back to the office we unwrapped them and decided we needed Lovely Warden to help install them properly outside. We decided to text him a picture to illustrate our request. McColleague and I giggled just as much over our handiwork (footwork?) here as we did over our halloween exhibit or the nuts incident. Is this childish?


Sunday, June 24, 2007

Coach Parties Welcome

Sometimes you just have a feeling that a particular group will prove challenging.

It began with an email.

Regarding our group visit to thehouse next Friday, 14 of us would like the quiche, 12 would like the ploughmans, the others don't know yet but I'll let you know their choices as soon possible. We'd also like to book the guided walk of the estate, thanks.

I was confused. What group visit next Friday? I went through my diary and my bookings file. Nothing.

I wrote back.

Thanks for confirming your choices for lunch and your booking of an estate walk. Would you be so kind as to complete the attached booking form, so I know how many of you there are, your time of arrival and so on?

The reply was illuminating. Apparently the organiser had already completed a booking form and posted it. The only problem was they'd sent it to the wrong address, hence my surprise at the unexpected lunch confirmation.

So, with only a few days notice, we arranged their visit for them. They were to arrive by coach at 11am, have coffee at our tea room on arrival, then half of them wanted to have a guided walk of the estate, while the other half wanted to visit the house. Then they all required a group lunch. This took a bit of planning, as the tea room is a good two miles away from the house. In the end we came up with the simplest solution. My Boss, who would lead the walk, would go to the tea room when they arrived for coffee and take those who wanted the guided walk on a stroll through the woods. The other half of the group would get back on the coach and be driven down to the house. My Boss would bring his group down to me, finishing his walk at the house, and then the two groups could re-merge, get back onto the coach and head up to the tea room together when they were ready for their lunch.

I did have doubts about the group's ability to master this plan. Considering that they didn't manage to send back the form to the address printed on it, I was not overly optimistic about the chances of them even turning up on time. Or to the right place.

11am came and went. I gave McColleague my "I told you so" look. My Boss radioed. "What time did you say this coach was coming?"

Forty minutes later the coach finally arrived. My Boss gave them a few minutes to get their coffees and then went over to the tea room. He welcomed them warmly and explained that he would be taking those who'd requested it on a guided walk, while the others would drive straight on down to the house. "Any questions?" No, they all understood perfectly. "Right, well I'll go outside and all those who are coming on the walk can meet me by the coach."

Ten minutes later a small group had assembled by the coach. "What are we doing again?" they asked. "Am I on the walk or the coach?"

By the time my Boss was approaching the gates to the house an hour later, he was beginning to feel the strain. Still, at least he hadn't lost any of them en route. He radioed me again. "We're just approaching the house," he said. "The organiser has some money for today's visit and wants to know where she should pay."

I sighed, inwardly. This was all explained in the booking information I sent. "If she goes to the ticket office on arrival, they'll be happy to deal with it."

A few more minutes passed. The group arrived in front of the house. One of the party approached me. "Hello! I've got some money to pay for today's visit."

"Right. Yes. If you just call in at the ticket office, there," I pointed, "they'll be able to take your payment."

"Where?"

"That building there. You just walked past it to get here. It's usually quite hard to miss."

My Boss finished his part of the proceedings with a relieved smile. "This is the end of the walk, folks," he said. "I hope you enjoyed it. I'll hand you over to Doris now. Anything you want to know about the house, you just ask her."

He patted me on the shoulder as he took his leave. "This lot are daffy," he hissed in my ear before striding away.

"So, what are we doing now?" was the first query from the group.

"Well, now you can have a tour of the house, have a look round the grounds, and then your coach will take you back to the tea room for lunch at 2 o'clock".

At 2.30pm I noticed two things as I walked through the orchards. Firstly, the coach had gone. Secondly a group of people had accumulated near the now empty coach bay. I went over to investigate, with a due sense of foreboding.

"Oh, good," said the organiser of the coach party as I drew near. "Can you call someone at the tea room and get them to find our coach driver? He's taken some of the others back to the top, but we've been left behind and we're really hungry. We'd like our lunch now, too!"

I duly radioed through the message. There was a pause at the other end, where they were either tracking down the coach driver or laughing a lot. Or both, possibly.

I stayed with the group until the coach returned. I didn't want any of them wandering off again, or I could see this scenario playing out before me on an endless loop for the rest of the day.

At last all of them were on the coach and off to have their lunch. Where, despite their original email, detailing their menu choices, none of them could remember what they'd pre-ordered.

Yes, they were a challenging group. Perfectly pleasant, if a little confused. By the end of the day we were almost sorry to see them go. Almost.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

But is it art?

I received an email informing me that the Learning Officer would be organising a two day art partnership event, with an artist present both days to work with the visiting school classes. Felt making and sculpture, it said.

The days it was due to happen coincided with my days off. On the morning of the first day I encountered Lovely Warden on site, as I walked the dog. He had just pounded in an avenue of fence posts in the orchards, as per the instructions of our Learning Officer.

"What's all this for?" he asked me.

I explained about the art and sculpture thing.

"But what are these posts for?"

I shrugged. I had no idea.

Bidding him farewell I made good my escape for the rest of the day. When I returned I boggled at the sight before me. That couldn't be it, surely? Maybe it wasn't finished yet.

I went out again on the second day. I returned later that evening and, yes, that really was it. After two days, and at great expense, having involved the time and labour of Lovely Warden to install numerous fence posts and hiring the talents of a professional artist, the end result was a collection of tattered tramp beards on a line, slap bang in front of the house, ruining the view.



And no matter which angle I looked at it from, it didn't get any better. No amazing sculpture revealed itself.

Still, that night the big storm came and the next morning only the posts remained. How very fortuitous.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Bigger Rain

Well, that was an impressive storm .

Ironically enough, the digger had returned first thing yesterday morning to repair the hole, again.

Watching the river of rainwater flowing across the fields and down across the path, over the newly filled in hole, I began to suspect further repairs may be necessary.

As it turned out, the hole withstood the tide rather well, but the path itself has lost a lot of its surface. Great grooves have been gouged out and bare rubble remains.

The tea room flooded again, a couple of paths in the woods were washed away and the bridge which forms the only access to one of our holiday cottages was swept away entirely, stranding the elderly holidaymakers within. Needless to say it has been an incredibly busy day, especially for our wardens. They have been dashing about in waders, putting things right, building temporary bridges, mending pathways and just being rugged.

Given the unsettled forecast I comfort myself with the expectation of lots more warden in waders action during the week.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Stung

This is what happens when cats swat insects that sting.

Poor Jules, he never learns.

I suspect he must have decided to play with a wasp. If it had been a hornet the effect of its sting would have been far worse I fear.

Every summer we encounter hornets here. They tend to build their nest in the hollow oak tree opposite the house, and head unerringly for the lights once darkness descends.

On one occasion we had two or three circling the lightbulb on the landing and I was too scared to go past them to the bedroom. I slept in the living room, big wuss that I am. And I am right to be wary. Hornets are enormous and menacing with a subsonic rumble that makes bumble bees sound like Joe Pasquale on helium. Many people will tell you that they are less aggressive than wasps, and unlikely to sting, but I am not prepared to give them the opportunity. I avoid them rather than trying to kill them. They are tough creatures and no matter how much you blast them with chemical spray they will not fall down. When they get zapped by the electric bug killer they sizzle and spark and refuse to expire for a good half hour.

One memorable night I went up to bed, snuggled up under the duvet and fell asleep. An hour or so later my husband came upstairs to join me. Time passed, all was snoozy and fine, and then suddenly:

"AAAAAARGH! Oh great buggery FUCK! OW!"

I sat bolt upright in bed, fumbling for the light, as my husband continued to howl anguished obscenities while flailing around the bedroom.

His upper thigh was reddening and swelling rapidly as the culprit crawled sluggishly out from under the duvet. Somehow a hornet had got into the bedding at some earlier point in the evening and I had been sleeping with it in blissful oblivion until my husband had got into bed and disturbed it. Unfortunate as it was for Bert to be stung on the upper thigh he considered himself miraculously lucky not to have been stung any higher up. Though he was saddened at missing out on the opportunity to give the old "take away the pain and leave the swelling" joke a bit of an airing. Sadly, or thankfully, depending on your point of view, I have no photo to illustrate his swollen appendage, but it was impressive. And I am henceforth wary of hornets and check the bed carefully before retiring, if I've had the windows open.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Big Rain

I stood at my kitchen window gazing out at the sheets of rain cascading down. I knew what to expect next. Every time we have heavy rain a river flows through my kitchen. It begins in the utility room, flows gracefully through the kitchen, and out to the back door. This time was no exception and we resignedly moved shoes, chairs and the dog's bag of Eukenuba out of the way as the water began its progress.

However, this time the rain brought with it a multitude of tiny toads.
Well, they might be toads. They might be frogs. They really are far too tiny to tell, as you can see from the picture above. They are about the size of my little finger nail and I must have collected about 30 before I went to bed that night, carefully placing them outside, only for them to return a few minutes later. I can't bear to leave them though, partly because I am so scared of accidentally stepping on one, and partly because they tend to dehydrate and die overnight and I find their tiny dried spindly bodies too unbearably sad as I suck them up the hoover.

The following morning I excitedly reported the tiny toad invasion to McColleague when she arrived for work. She pointed out there were hundreds outside the front door too, the visitor entrance to the house, their tiny bodies clambering over the fibres in the coconut door matting and clinging to the boot brush. Some had already been squished. So, I made a sign, saying "Watch your feet! Tiny toads crossing!" It worked really well, and we had great fun watching people gingerly picking their way across the lawns, trying not to step on any mini amphibians.

The big rains also caused the reappearance of another familiar feature. Yes, the hole is back, bigger and better than ever!
Here you can see the lovely McColleague pointing at it in true local newspaper photography style. I tried to get the builder chap and his digger back again, but he was busy elsewhere on the estate, as the storm drains up at the tea room had also collapsed. The kitchen staff had arrived to find their kitchen entirely flooded. McColleague and I decided to go and investigate and see if any cakes needed rescuing. We are not too proud to eat water damaged scones.
Amazingly, despite the above setting, people were still sitting nearby to sip their cups of tea and shout polite conversation over the noise. I find it amazing that I get comments cards complaining about dribbly teapots, yet no one says a word when they have to leap a trench and dodge the digger, Indiana Jones style, in order to enter the tea room. It seems our visitors are just as unpredictable as our weather.

Thursday, June 14, 2007