Yesterday morning, while sorting out laundry, I made a dispiriting discovery. Having forgotten to bring paper napkins with them, the caterers for the last commercial function here had helped themselves to large piles of exquisite antique damask napkins and tablecloths from our dining room linen cupboard. The caterers had then – after using the damask to mop up black coffee and, apparently, to scour roasting pans – stuffed them into a crumpled dirty heap in the corner of the staff kitchen. Several of them are irrevocably ruined. We spend our lives here trying to cherish and conserve the legacy of previous generations. I can’t tell you how depressing and disheartening it is when our efforts are trashed by the thoughtlessness or malice of others.
So it was with great relief that I escaped from the house to take the dogs out into the woods, for some good clean air to clear the head and sooth the heart. The great outdoors always helps one to put things in perspective.
The day was bright and still, the temperature just below freezing, with frost still thick in the shadows. Over the winter, the groundsman has kept busy working away in the woods, clearing scrubby saplings and overgrown rhododendrons, trimming whiskery limes and cutting down any damaged or dying trees. At the bottom of a ride of firs we came upon the first evidence of his recent achievements: a youngish beech, badly damaged when a larger tree fell into it, now cut down and neatly sliced up where it lay.
Walking to the end of the avenue of beeches we found the man himself, sitting in his blue tractor having his lunch break. We left him to enjoy his piece in peace and strode on along the river bank. A little further, we came to another ride, which he has cleared of the scrub that was clogging it up so that, for the first time, I was able to follow the dogs along it on our way home.
There is a burn winding through the woods here, which disappears into a well-constructed stone culvert under the main path before running into the river. Wherever one walks in the policies of the castle, one comes across little reminders like this of the man-made nature of the landscape. In the first half of the nineteenth century, labour was plentiful and cheap: this burn was diverted into an artificial course and runs through several such tunnels and culverts on its two mile-long route to the river.
With one groundsman plus a part-time helper, such Ozymandian landscaping projects are out of the question these days. Our main job is the same in the policies as in the castle: not building, but conserving what we can, as best we can, of the creations of previous generations, in the hope that generations yet to come will be able to enjoy them too. Maintenance of the woods – felling as well as planting – is all part of this great work of the estate. So it was a pleasure to turn from an example of mindless despoiling in the castle, to the mindful deconstruction in the woods: trees felled, logs and branches gathered into neat piles for the sawmill or the bonfire, to keep the woodland healthy and beautiful.
Later in the afternoon, my husband met the groundsman on his way home. ‘You’ve been doing a grand job in the woods, I see,’ remarked my husband. ‘Are you working with the trees again tomorrow?’ The groundsman looked about him at the ancient lime avenues, the dense stands of beech, birch and oak, the great specimen conifers towering above him, and shrugged. ‘Aye,’ he replied with the ghost of a smile, ‘nuthin’ but trees.’