The last Wednesday in February dawned bright cold and sunny, and, after an early morning breakfast, Julie whisked us away to her new place of employment at the National Trust’s Brockhampton Estate near Bromyard in Herefordshire.
The Estate is centred around a small medieval manor house and boasts spectacular woodland and parkland walks so Julie had brought us along to check out the walking trails, before her shift started, so that she could tell visitors what they could expect on their walks.
She parked by an old church situated in the parkland at the top of the estate and we jumped out of the car to explore.
Much of the land is rented out to the local farmers and we half expected to see the sheep grazing here – but not today. Julie was relieved because Bruno and I, being sheep dogs, have very strong herding instincts and so she must keep us under very tight control. It is so important that dogs are never allowed to chase sheep, especially at this time of year, when many of them are ‘in lamb’.
But today, the parkland was free of sheep. Instead, it was littered with broken boughs and branches which had been torn off the trees by the gusty winds of previous days and Bruno and I had great fun jumping over them.
In places the smooth grassy surface was interspersed with small hard green domed ant hills and untidy mole-made earthworks.
As we walked, we overheard the rhythmic yaffle of a green woodpecker as it flew its undulating flight between the trees possibly searching for the tasty termites buried deep within the ant hills.
Today we were following the Red Walk. We could see a large Georgian manor house perched on the slopes above us as we cantered down the hill. This grand house was built in the eighteenth century to replace the medieval manor house which is still located at the bottom of the hill. At that time the original house, despite having been lived in by the same family for centuries, was no longer considered to be fashionable enough for the family and so, they had another house built.
We continued on our walk down a rather steep slope to a gate. A large puddle of muddy brown water sat at its entrance, and I teetered around it on tip toe paws, whilst Bruno splashed straight through it.
There was a large, reed edged expanse of water below us surrounded by many scarily large forestry machines and numerous piles of freshly felled trees, hewn so that the lake could once again be viewed from the Manor House.
Bruno and I would have loved to have had a paddle but it was impossible to get to the water’s edge and indeed, the water level was incredibly low which was surprising, considering how wet it has been recently.
We continued our walk into the woodland. The ground beneath our paws was softer and muddier and we were glad that we had four paws to keep us upright although Bruno still managed to collide with a bush in his attempts to balance himself. We were both getting so muddy. Most of the trees were still naked, although they were covered in buds. Only the ivy and honeysuckle were fully foliaged.
The path took us down a very slippery slidy hill and then back up again and this made the walk quite hard going. We all tried to follow the firmest parts of the path where it hadn’t been churned up by the forestry machinery. The machines themselves stood large and silent and there were even more hewn trees many of them lying like fallen soldiers.
When we found our way back out of the wood, the ground was firmer to our paws, and we made rapid progress across the meadow.
The walk took us back up through the wood and along the driveway to the car.
It was good to sit down again and be driven down to the visitor reception where Julie was going to work.
Having walked the estate, we settled down in the back of the car with some dog biscuits, treats and Kongs but we were more interested in greeting all of the visitors who walked past us. We met couples and families, babes in buggies, teenagers and toddlers and dogs of all shapes, sizes, and varieties. Everyone seemed so delighted to see us and so we wagged our tails, offered gentle paws, and gave big cuddles wherever they were needed, whilst Julie and the team explained all about what Brockhampton has to offer.
As it was half term, there were lots of children-visitors and the Brockhampton Estate had laid on a special holiday ‘Wassail Trail ‘for them, which led them around the newly planted orchards.
Over the last hundred years there has been a dramatic decline in the numbers of orchards in the main fruit-growing regions of the UK because of changes in land-use.
Over the last three years, Brockhampton has embarked on an Orchard Project which aims to reverse this trend, and this has involved planting lots of the older varieties of apples.
Apples have been grown in the UK for centuries, but they originated in Kazakhstan. Alma Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan actually means ‘full of apples”.
From as early as 1500 BC, apple seeds had found their way all across Europe.
However, apples do not grow in isolation. They need insects so that they can produce fruit and these insects rely on wildflowers for their survival. So, in addition to the orchards, wildflower meadows are being planted and these will attract pollinators such as bumblebees, honeybees, butterflies, and hoverflies.
At the end of our day Julie took us to take a look at the Wassail Trail. The paths down to the new orchard were clean, mud free, and designed to keep buggy wheels, feet, and paws clean – not that we cared too much! They led us down to a large wooden fruit basket enclosure containing numerous clusters of young fruit trees. The enclosure had a very unusual shape which is designed to resemble the core of an apple when viewed from above.
As we walked, we looked for the answers to the Wassail Trail and leant how to make a wassail cup.
In years gone by, it was traditional to bless the orchards in the dark winter months in order to assure a good harvest in the autumn. This wassailing involved a celebration of music and dance, drinking and singing and a good time was had by all!!
When we finally reached the end of our first day, we were tired and hungry and ready for sleep, but we, also, had had a really fantastic time!