‘Look on the Taunton Deane website and see what they are intending to do with your father’s house,’  Judith wrote in her card.   I did – and, with a growing sense of outrage, viewed the plans for a large brick and half timber stockbroker house, the sort you can see on the slopes overlooking the Pacific between LA and San Francisco. . 

 

Restharrow, the old house that dad bought in 1958, is to be demolished, though the rare breeding colony of Brown Long-eared Bats in the attic are fighting a rear-guard action.  English Nature and the Environmental Agency have insisted that the current owners create a space in their new house to resettle the bats.  I can imagine the purchasers’ frustration and allow myself a slight smile of satisfaction.  They will get round it of course, but I like the idea of the bats being offered a new home. I wonder if they will have en-suite as well.  It would certainly be less messy! 

 

But my predominant emotion is sadness.  They are going to bulldoze an important part of my identity.  Over the years, the old house has seemed to settle into the hillside, as the wood encroached, the trees grew taller to envelop it and hedges concealed it from the road.  It seemed that Restharrow would never be destroyed; it would just become more overgrown and ultimately disappear into the woodland.  The flints that it is constructed from would return to the soil.  The woodpeckers and nuthatches would continue to whistle and chuckle about the stone flags, where the bird table was, in hope of nuts.  The owls would call on warm summer evenings, and the swallows would still nest in the ruined tool shed, flying through the gap above the sagging door.      

 

I grew up in that house.  I didn’t actually live there for very long – just a couple of years when I was a teenager.  Mum had already formed an attachment with our divorced next door neighbour in the town and felt exiled on the hill.  Perhaps I sensed the parental tension and needed to escape. I spent many hours alone walking through the woods where the reservoirs were. I plotted on graph paper the birds I saw on my daily peregrinations and in early spring wrote precociously to the Somerset County Gazette to report the arrival of chiffchaffs, blackcaps, swallows and the first call of a returning cuckoo.  I kept an eye on the badgers setts, worrying lest the farmers would dig them out.  I knew the glades where the roe deer liked to feed.  I collected pellets from the barn at the bottom of the wood by the reservoir and dissected them to create complete skeletons of shrews and voles.  One spring, I discovered a tawny owls nest in the boll of an ancient oak.  It contained two chicks;   fluffy bundles of white feathers with glaring eyes of the deepest blue and bright yellow beaks which they clicked like castanets.  And in the summer, before the bailiff went on patrol, I would surreptitiously remove my clothes and swim in the reservoir. 

 

I have been back on every available opportunity in the intervening years.  Dad married again and was happy there, decorating the house in his idiosyncratic style, which included Chads in the garden loo, quaintly named ‘Mellors’.  And after he died, I stayed in the house by myself, lighting the log fire again and absorbing the feeling of the place as the mist rolled in from the sea and the trees huddled closer.

 

If  I can feel such a strong connection to a place I have known for half a century, how much more must the Cavendishes feel.  They can trace their connection with Chatsworth back over five centuries, ever since William Cavendish sold up in Suffolk and moved north to marry Bess of Hardwick.  Bess’s Hunting Tower still dominates the escarpment overlooking the big house and Queen Mary’s Bower, where that sad prisoner was allowed to ‘tak the ayre’, still stands in the middle of the last remaining fish pond. 

 

Chatsworth was never allowed to be preserved as a historical vestige.  As Her Grace, The Dowager explains in her book ‘Round About Chatsworth, every incumbent has impressed the estate with their personality, employing the best architects and artists including the greatest landscape artist of them all, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.  This is a landscape that has grown by accretion with passing fashion, consolidating its character as an extension of the family.    

 

Last spring, I rented a tiny up and down cottage on the estate, no bigger than a caravan according to Her Grace. I am beginning to absorb the spirit of the place. 

 

During our walks around the estate over Christmas, my brother, Simon, alerted me to the idea of landscape as memory.  ‘There is hardly a landscape in the United Kingdom that has not been shaped and influenced by generations of inhabitants’, he said,  ‘and when the same family has occupied the same environment century upon century, the place is as much about their character as the portraits in the great hall.’ 

 

Simon has spent the winter creating new flood defences on the River Deben opposite the town of Woodbridge where his 1924 Dutch motor barge is moored.  With the assistance of inmates of HMP Hollesey Bay,  he has hammered two parallel rows of timbers into the mud, connected them aslant with plastic mesh and will start to fill the gaps with discarded Christmas trees nest week. This will baffle the ebb tide and should prevent further erosion while at the same time allowing the waders direct access between the mud and the salt marsh.  Woodbridge has always waged war with the sea. His is the latest in a sequence of flood prevention schemes going back centuries. At low tide, it is possible to see the blackened stumps of piles that were erected in the 14th century to support a double row of timber revetments.  It connects Simon to his environment – so essential at a time of crisis and such rapid change.      

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