Picture this: Watersmeet/Valley of the Rocks

First posted September 2013

*****

The picturesque North Devon coastal towns of Lynton and Lynmouth, and especially the rugged landscape of Valley of the Rocks, offer some great photo opportunities, as does Watersmeet, which has the same “Little Switzerland” feel to it.

imageAfter talking a shady walk down into the gorge from the roadside car park, you encounter the old Victorian hunting lodge that now houses a tearoom…

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.. and just across the river, the entrance to a cave which was apparently once the home of a hermit.

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From there, take a stroll upstream on the East Lyn River, one of the rivers that meet here, giving the gorge it’s name.

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Although some parts are still rapidly flowing, foaming white water, a long dry spell can expose the very bones of the gorge, the granite river bed, in all it’s dramatic, time-worn glory.

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Further on, evidence of one of the area’s long-vanished industries still stands testament to the skill of Victorian engineers. Two giant lime kilns, now overgrown, lend a brooding atmosphere to the dappled woods.

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Retracing the path, return to the old hunting lodge, cross the bridge over Hoak Oak Water and make your way downstream on the wider, combined river.

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Looking back at the lodge from downstream.

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Walking down the river from the lodge is an easy, reasonably level stroll and before long you came to an impressive slate-faced bridge that allows walkers to cross to the opposite bank making for an undemanding looped route back to the tearooms, just in case anyone requires an extra cream tea to fortify them for the climb back out of the gorge.

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The view from the bridge, looking upstream.

Valley of the Rocks.

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I took a slightly different path on this occasion, staying on the inland side of the rock formations instead of following the coast path.
This was fortunate because the famous Lynton goats were all over the place. Some were good enough to put on a display of horn butting and territorial disputes for me, although sadly I was too slow to get close enough to film them.

These two even managed a circus style balancing act for the assembled tourists.
(Ok, maybe not)

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Picture this: Tapeley Park…

First posted January 2013

*****

Tapeley Park house and gardens is a unique and fascinating place, on the road between Barnstaple and Bideford.

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Tapeley Park house, seen from the Italian terrace garden.

The estate has been in the same family since the 1700’s, and is now owned by local anti-corporate campaigner and political activist, Hector Christie, who runs it on a sustainable basis, and he is proud of his Green credentials, supplying the local community – as well as the estate cafe – with organic vegetables, and using recycled materials wherever possible.

The house has it’s own claim to fame – the fact that it has an important collection of William Morris furniture – ironically preserved over the years, due to the house being unheated and mainly closed up for years, as revealed on a C4 documentary.

But it has always been the grounds – which include a Victorian kitchen garden and experimental permaculture garden – that make us go back time and again.

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The lake is a beautiful place for a picnic.

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Many exotic plants grow in the mild, sheltered climate.

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Neatly trimmed arbours lead you on…

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…to surprises around each corner.

There are animals too. Apart from the wildlife scurrying in the undergrowth, the estate keeps rare breed pigs, sheep, and highland cattle.

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Three little pigs.

The hard landscaping has been lovingly restored, most notably on the steps leading down to the Italian terrace garden…

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…and yet, there are still echoes of the past, lending a eerie calm to quiet, reflective corners.

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There is even a labyrinth, made from the stone shards of an exploded obelisk, victim of a 1931 lightning strike.

A fascinating and, in some indefinable way, enchanted place, it’s somewhere to return to again and again, always discovering something new.

If you’re ever down this way, why not go and see for yourself, you never know what you might find…

Picture this: Summer’s end at Broomhill…

First posted September 2014

With the days becoming noticeably shorter and meteorologists once again reach for descriptions like “autumnal” to make “cold and wet” seem more acceptable, I took the opportunity to visit Broomhill Sculpture Gardens again before the summer came to an end.

Plenty of the sculptures that I photographed in my previous post were still on display here and I knew from several other visits to Broomhill that many of these are semi-permanent installations, giving them the feel of familiar old friends, aging gracefully amongst the trees and lush foliage of the beautiful woodland valley setting.
But there is always something new to see here and the gardens were at the time playing host to the National Sculpture Prize, displaying work by the 2014 finalists in the woods and wildflower meadow down by the river.

Walking up the winding drive from the visitors parking area, the entrance flanked by sleek curving steel forms…

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…you encounter all manner of surprises, rearing above you from the steeply sloping banks or tucked away within the green alcove of a hedge.

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Reaching the top of the hill, your first view as you round the final curve in the drive is this impressive gryphon, towering over the terrace in front of the hotel…

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…where I sat for a few minutes, looking down over the valley, reading about the sculpture prize and enjoying a refreshing local cider in the late afternoon sun.

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Making my way down the zig-zagging path through the wooded garden, I first encountered sharply stylised African influenced stone figures…

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…juxtaposed with more abstract, modernist pieces, both on the ground and suspended in the branches overhead.

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The path eventually leads down to the lake, the area around it dotted with more sculptures, peering out from the surrounding trees and the still water itself.

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Following the meandering track back up through the woods, I couldn’t resist dropping in on the strange, post-apocalyptic world of the abandoned tennis court, an exhibit I am always drawn to when I come here and one that never fails to provide some striking images.

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Then I made my way to the main display area for the prize finalists, on the way passing what looked like a yoga lesson, frozen in time.

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Details of all the 2014 NSP finalists are included in the links at the top of this post, but here are a selection of some of my favourite pieces, starting with an oversized piece that reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, I can’t think why…

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And I had to get one final shot of this piece, another of my personal favourites, the atmospheric Watchers, frozen in enigmatic contemplation amongst the dappled shade by the riverbank.

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If you can get down there, I recommend that you visit the National Sculpture Prize exhibit at Broomhill, the voting ends soon and the winner will be announced in October.

Picture this: Historic Winchester…

First posted November 2013

*****

Winchester in Hampshire is one of the oldest continuously inhabited areas in the country, having had settlements of one sort or another there since the iron age.

The Romans later made it one of their most important towns, extending it until it was the fifth largest town in Roman Britain.

After the fall of the empire however Winchester, like many other English towns of the day, fell into decline.

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King Alfred. Great, apparently.

The Anglo Saxons rebuilt much of the town, (Alfred the Great himself laid out the street plan) making it the capital of the Kingdom of Wessex and much of their architecture remains, including this ancient defensive feature, the Westgate. It is one of two remaining gateways, the other being Kingsgate.

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Partially rebuilt in the twelfth century, this magnificent fortified gateway (featuring the earliest examples in Britain of inverted archers’ slits, designed specially for hand-held cannon) was still in use as late as 1959, when the High Street was diverted round it.

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Next I went on to the Great Hall, which is all that remains on the site of the old castle that once stood here.

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Originally built around 1225, the imposing hall looms over the large open courtyard that leads to the main entrance, the intricate stonework forming almost geometric patterns on the walls.

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Inside, the cavernous space is surprisingly light, the weak wintery sunlight filtering in through beautifully crafted stained-glass windows.

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On one giant wall there hangs the 12th century recreation of King Arthur’s Round Table

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.. and opposite, on the far wall, HRH Prince Charles’s “Wedding Gates”, made to commemorate the 1981 royal wedding.

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Queens Victoria and Elizabeth are both immortalised in wooden sculpture, Liz getting a more restrained make-over than poor old Vicky, who looks like a teak Davros.

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Finally a stroll down to the cathedral.

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Winchester Cathedral was originally built in 1079, but was added to right up until the 16th century, giving it many differing architectural styles.

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Then it was time to meander back to the car to continue my journey homewards, via a café for a much-needed coffee, taking a last chance to snap a few interesting shots.

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We bid farewell to Winchester as King Alfred saluted the setting sun…

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..and what better to play us on our way than The New Vaudeville Band with “Winchester Cathedral”. (after “Peek-a-boo”)
Take it away boys…

The Night Garden…

Having spent a few weeks getting our new garden looking nice, I finally got round to putting the candle holders out last night and decided to try some long exposure shots when it got dark.

A few carefully placed solar lights added some extra illumination and, with a little digital fiddling the results really are rather lovely.

Picture this: Autumn colours at Arlington Court…

First published in October 2014.

*****

This weekend I’ve once again been playing host to my old friend Ho, who has been taking a well earned break from a frantic work schedule to join me for a spot of relaxation in the beautiful autumnal Devon countryside.
This time we decided to take a stroll around the extensive grounds of Arlington Court, ancestral home of the Chichester family for over 500 years.

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The house itself is an imposing stone built mansion, surrounded by rolling lawns, lakes, and woodlands, criss-crossed with pathways that lead you to various viewpoints overlooking not only the gloriously varied vistas of the estate but also the picturesque church of St James (not owned by the Trust, but adjacent to the house) which just happened to be staging a flower festival at the time of our visit.

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We began our tour on the front lawn of the house, heading down to the ornamental lake, stocked with lazily cruising carp and topped with a proliferation of water lilies, pausing on the way to admire the splendor of an ancient oak tree that has stood on the site since well before the house or grounds existed.
The tree is preserved primarily for the scientifically important and internationally recognised variety of lichen, moss and fungi that festoon its gnarled and twisted trunk.

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The church is just visible through the trees that overlook the lake, providing a focal point for visitors, an invitation to investigate the hidden beauty of the peaceful sanctuary as you make your way round the estate.

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But before we headed into the cool vaulted space of the flower-strewn chapel we made our way down the shady path amongst the trees to discover what the woods had to offer.

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Before too long we came upon a small camp in a clearing, complete with a traditional clay oven beneath the billowing folds of a parachute canopy, along with rustic huts constructed from sticks salvaged from the woodland floor.

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The woods have the quiet atmosphere of a primeval forest, rotting trees left where they fell, allowing the verdant moss to take hold and making perfect burrows for small animals and insects, creating shapes that look for all the world like the backbones of long-dead dinosaurs or mythical dragons.

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Occasionally a gate or stile will allow a view across the cattle grazing fields of the deer park, to the densely wooded slopes of the valley, the trees starting to display the muted tones of autumn foliage.

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We retraced the path back to the lake and made for the tower of the church, immediately seeing signs of the floral attraction within…
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…already catching the scent of the expertly designed bouquets before we even entered the light and airy space of St James’s, the vibrant colours of hundreds of flowers perfectly complimenting the stained glass windows and ornamental carvings on the walls.
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Our final two stops were at the formal and walled kitchen gardens, the latter of which provides fresh produce for the house and its cafe.
There was even an imperious peacock to welcome us to his domain, although he didn’t seem keen on me taking his picture and I required several stealthy attempts to capture him in all his iridescent glory.
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There is even an “insect hotel” high-rise apartment block for bees and other pollinators…
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…and there is always something intriguing around the next corner or through the next inviting door.
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…and of course the Chichester family symbol, a heron grappling with an eel, is in evidence everywhere.
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All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable visit to a place that I’m sure I’ll visit again and again, because there is always something new to discover.

Arlington Court house and gardens are open until the end of October, I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys relaxing amidst spectacular scenery, basking in the more genteel atmosphere of days gone by and leaving the stresses and strains of modern life behind for a few hours.

Picture this: Webbers Wood, Arlington Court…

Located on the edge of Exmoor not far from Barnstaple, the sprawling estate has been owned by the Chichester family for over 500 years, although the house has only stood in the grounds since 1823.

Instead of entering the National Trust-run property at the main entrance near the house, however, we enter the back way via the gate that leads into the working forestry land on the lower end of the estate, the gateposts topped with the Chichester family emblem, a heron brandishing an eel…

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…along the track that gives a great view over the Yeo river valley to the hills opposite – also owned by Arlington – where I have often spotted the resident herd of deer.
No deer today, but a noticeable change in the trees as autumn colours begin to show themselves.

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All along the winding track there is evidence of forestry conservation in progress.

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The most vivid autumn colours are provided by the rows of bright orange beech trees, especially when seen against the verdant green of the ferns and pines.

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A giant chestnut and ancient oak trees add different shades to the landscape.

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And on a smaller scale, the variety of alien looking fungus growing on fallen trunks and tree stumps is extraordinary, new forms and textures everywhere you look.

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But the most obvious change in the landscape today was the level of the river and the intensity of the waterfalls that criss-cross the trail, the recent rainfall having turned some of these gently trickling streams into foaming torrents that rush down the steep sides of the valley through the woods.

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The low stone bridge at the weir is almost overwhelmed by the height of the water, the arches (which I have walked through in the past) filled almost to the top…

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.. and the sparsely wooded plain on the riverbank has the look of a primordial forest.

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One of the newly expanded waterfalls which runs under the track after flowing down the rocky slope…

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… had become so impressive that I climbed the slope above the track and filmed my walk back downstream.
(You may wish to lower the volume before playing the clip)

The age of this woodland is evident wherever you look, the rugged rocky skeleton sometimes visible just beneath the surface…

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.. and some strange organic shapes too.

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If you would like to visit Arlington Court and see what else this beautiful estate has to offer, then go to THIS LINK.