With seemingly incessant rain falling, gales blowing, trees crashing, the stream flooding and high tides encroaching, the Abbey is besieged. Sadly, we have had to cancel our Snowdrop Sundays for the second year in succession which is a great shame; we have such a lovely display here which we always look forward to sharing with our visitors
and,usually, with lots of their four-legged friends! However with so many trees damaged in the storms which have either had to be cut down or made safe there are many impassable walks and paths. The car park is under water and the mud is horrible! Dave and Leighton spend nearly all their time clearing gutters and drains to keep the water flowing away from the bedrooms and the basement, which houses the museum, dairy and exhibition. It all takes up valuable winter time, reserved for important maintenance which will have to be shelved.
Hartland Quay is being battered on a daily basis by the 90 mile an hour gales but so far the damage isn’t too bad. Bits of the slipway wall have fallen off and a few slates here and there but considering the force of the battering it is standing up well to the elements, thankfully. What a difference a few months make when looking at the photographs of Bear Rock at Hartland Quay!
Jill and Chris, the managers, are doing a fantastic job decorating the rooms. The lounge is so smart with its new curtains and lovely window seats all made by Sue Macdonald from Philham. She is a brilliant curtain maker and is also responsible for the lovely new curtains in some of the bedrooms at the Abbey. Sitting in the lounge window in the Quay Hotel, beside the fire, is the best place possible to watch the enormous seas crashing over the rocks in winter.
The Walled Gardens have survived almost unscathed save the bottom greenhouse which has lost most of its roof. It was not in great shakes anyway but it is a job we were hoping would wait until next year when we could restore it properly. But in the meantime some sheets of perspex will have to
suffice until there is enough in the pot to do the job properly! It is a vital greenhouse which overwinters all the tender perennials and grows tomatoes in the summer and has been there for at least 100 years. Thankfully, so far, we have had only two nights of light frost all winter so nothing has suffered from the cold.
In the Walled Garden the wintersweet (chimonanthus praecox) and the sweet box (sarcococca hookeriana) are flowering and when the air is still,
the heavenly scent fills the air. It is a lovely moment in January when I can pick the first sprigs of these treasures and bring them into the house. They are not the best lookers but my goodness they give such pleasure. Vita Sackville-West, in her wonderful Garden Book from the 1950s, extolled their virtues. The camellias are covered in flowers but it is almost impossible to appreciate their beauty in the lashing rain! All the snowdrops and crocuses are appearing fast and the daffodils are looking promising for our Daffodil Sunday on March 16th.
We have grabbed the bull by the horns and are about to start capping the garden walls in the places where they are at their most precarious. Being such an important part of the Abbey desmenes and having been built in the 18thC we just cannot ignore their state. Over the years bits have fallen off and a good crop of buddleias has rooted high up. When the wind blows the buddleias rock and more stone dislodges! Work starts very shortly and will, hopefully, be finished by early April. We are hoping that the workmen will be
careful with all our precious plants in the borders. Nigel and Sam, the gardeners, have had an awful job lifting the wisteria tendrils off the top of the wall. Over 150 years old and the length of the wall, about 20 metres long, they now lie like snakes on the path. No one is sure how to get them up again as they are so heavy!
There is so much maintenance to be done in the winter and just not enough time and manpower to do it during the time we are closed to the public. For many years Leighton, on his own, has performed miracles but now anno domini is catching up and everything takes that much longer. Poor chap, every time he starts a vital job another tree comes crashing down or drains need clearing and then he has to get the chainsaw out again and that is at least a week of vital time gone.
Blackpool Mill and The Bear need maintenance too in the winter while they are empty. They are always full up with families over Christmas and the New Year and then they go quiet later in January and February. Having been full up for most of the year they both need a vital facelift. New bedding, duvets etc need to be bought and all the curtains
and chair covers washed and walls painted. We want all our guests to feel as though they are the first in the cottages, all through the year! Debbie and Anne, the housekeepers, are wonderful and do a great job between lets. It is not always easy for them if there has been an untidy family who leave late, but they work wonders. St Margaret’s Hospice shop in Dulverton has the best selection of puzzles and books of any charity shop and whenever I pass it I always call in to add to the cottage libraries! We think it is essential to have lots of good books for those wet days when guests want to curl up in front of the log-burning stoves or to lie in the incessant summer sun in North Devon! We still have the February half term weeks available and even if this extraordinarily wild weather continues the cottages are fully central heated and have lovely wood burners to curl up in front of after some really good stimulating walks along the coast. You will definitely get a reduction!It is time to redo the Abbey leaflet for 2014; always an exciting and worrying combination! Exciting to change the design but worrying in that it has to ‘sell’ the Abbey for the forthcoming season and we mustn’t forget to put in all the new events which are still not sorted out. My computer is so full of photographs which are less than well organised and trying to find that vital ‘magical’ image of the garden that someone took in July is not so easy!
There is lots to look forward to this year. Daffodil Day is not far off (16th March) which will be the first opportunity to see the lovely collection of our historic daffodils and there will be lots of primroses and violets as well as many
early spring flowers in the gardens. It is a lovely time to visit before the opening season proper starts and is a great chance to come in at a reduced price which also admits visitors to the museum, William Stukeley Exhibition and the shop. The house is open too at a small extra charge. The Old Kitchens will be open again for the first time this year; after such a successful first season we are thrilled that Jo and Kath will be back in their pinnies again serving their delicious homemade lunches and cream teas. In addition there will be hot soup and hot pasties which always assures boiling hot weather! They did such a fantastic job last year and we are thrilled they want to continue. Passing the Tea Room always made us feel hungry at the sight of the scrumptious cakes!
We have exciting times ahead. We open for the season on 30th March when all the spring flowers should be looking lovely and then we have a fabulous Easter Sunday and Monday of fun to look forward to. Being so late (20th and
21st April) it is at our best bluebell time and so we will be combining Bluebell Days with an Easter Egg Hunt and some traditional children’s games. We will also be open on Good Friday too. The following weekend (27th April) there will be a Bluebell Sunday. These days are great fun for all ages and, very importantly, lots of doggies! Then on May 5th we will have a second running of the Hartland Hartbreaker, a gruelling cross-country run up and down the coast and around the Hartland Abbey Estate all in aid of
the wonderful Children’s Hospice South West. It is open to all but you need to be seriously tough and fit!
Later, in summer we are having some wonderful outdoor theatre in conjunction with The Plough Arts Centre, Torrington. This will be the third year of working together and we are so thankful to Richard Wolfenden-Brown for bringing the performing arts to Hartland Abbey. It is really great fun. This summer we have The Tempest, George’s Marvellous Medicine, The Pirates of Penzance and Robin Hood to look forward to, and there might be more! All the details of all the events, admission prices etc are on our website and the Plough Arts
Last, and certainly not least, news on Timmy, the ginger kitten who many people met last year in the kiosk. We were so worried that the dogs would eat him up which they had almost succeeded in doing once, but with great care and a lot of threats to the dogs as to what would happen to them IF they ate him up, everyone is living very happily together now, thank goodness. Timmy now rules the roost and the dogs give me very old-fashioned looks as if to say ‘do we really have to have this thing in our house’ but Nellie, the puppy, and Tim have wonderful games together. During this horrible weather he is definitely not earning his keep, keeping the mouse population under control, and we have had to have a few words with him on this as cat food is very expensive and we do want to see a return! However he has taken no notice and spends all day and night curled up on the sofa while the mice run riot. Hopefully he will be in the kiosk to welcome evryone this year but not on the days that Mick mans the kiosk – he is not too keen on cats! Colin, however, loves them! Do come and visit us and have lots of fun. We so enjoy meeting our visitors and do all we can to make a happy day for everyone who visits Hartland Abbey.