Imagine our amazement when we awoke to an Arctic landscape on Tuesday morning. Stealthily through the night that lovely white stuff that gives kids and grown-up kids so much pleasure cloaked our immediate environs and the mountains beyond. Having slept in bedrooms with drawn curtains, the children’s jaws dropped when they trickled down into the kitchen and looked out of the windows.
This snow might mean some rescheduling for the movie short we will be filming this week. However Dan is ever known for his ability to work with the conditions he finds, and the mercurial moods of children who may, or may not, feel like donning costumes to do his bidding. It seems that Haribo is an ever ready encouragement to pull out the best performances!
Charlotte is pressed into service as make-up mistress by putting her cosmetics to a rather unconventional use. With the addition of some talcum powder she transforms two of her nephews and one of her nieces into pallid lost souls! Then it is off to the woods for a bit of shooting…………
It’s the Easter Holidays which means one thing for the Lights. Inshriach awaits an invasion. This year subsets of our group employ all means of travel. Most of the children accompany three adults who travel on the sleeper from Euston to Aviemore. The Perrymans opt to fly and hire a car. The old-timers drive themselves, provisions and family luggage the 550 miles needed to traverse this British Isle south to north to reach the Cairngorm National Park.
Nick and I have planned to leave early on the Saturday. Turning in at 10 p.m., we wake at 3 a.m. and are under way by 4.30. This means we cover the Dorset, Wiltshire roads before traffic has begun to clutter our route. We arrive at 2 o’clock in the afternoon just in time for the first activity.
There is an Open Day for wood carving on the estate, featuring WoodenTom. In a sheltered knoll of a small woodland across the fields an informal demonstration of wood carving delights the children and adults for an hour or so. All the larger work benches (vice, shave horse) have been constructed on the spot, as has the structure which forms a shelter for the tea-room.
There in the slightly chilly sunshine and under supervision, the children are shown how to, and are allowed to use the tools. On the way back to the house we swing by the hen-house to top up our egg supply, Joel feeds the hens. Meanwhile Barns has got three chickens roasting and a tray of vegetables. Whilst he preps the meal, games of my ancient set of Spillikins are played. I found the card tube of wooden sticks whilst tidying the toy cupboard at WK.
Dinner is eaten round the table in the dining room by hungry people. Baths, stories, bed…………. the routine is pretty familiar by now and once the children are abed Dan gets a chance to teach me how to play Texas Hold’em Poker. Nick and I sleep like logs.
So its fare thee well Inshriach House and all its inhabitants. A late afternoon walk in the sun and snow shows the landscape at its tranquil best with the tracks and footprints which mark our week in its thrall.
It’s Friday which means they are frying tonight in Aviemore. After a day spent variously filming and walking we send out for F and C all round. Except the two eldest boys who go for battered sausages. No deep-fried Mars Bars are requested, fortunately 🙂
The joys of fish and chips are enduring. It’s possibly Lola’s favourite, she eats this after her swimming lesson every Sunday. She has recently achieved a length of the swimming pool on her back, aged 4.
Fish and chips will always be associated in my mind with visits to my paternal grandmother who lived at Portsmouth. She, one of 10 children, the eldest with 8 brothers and a sister. All those great uncles told such stories of childhood mischief, often scrumping was involved. Do children still scrump?? One of my uncles would take me to see the lights in the famous Southsea Rock Garden or to the funfair on the sea front: pink candyfloss and terrifying rides on the Wild Mouse …………….which the internet tells me is still there. My grandmother was great on spontanaeity and rather permissive, she allowed me to dress up in her clothes…………. and go to the corner shop in them.
On Saturday more Lights will be melting away, meanwhile the snow still lies on the ground, crisp and white, preserved by the very low temperatures, especially at night. First we need to get the Cholseys to Aviemore to catch their 11.30 train. Armed with a fat picnic, their 3 laptops with DVDs, and a Nintendo DS which Sam seems pretty devoted to, they pile into 2 cars and are delivered to their waiting train. It will take them 7 hours to reach their London mainline station and another 3 to get to their door in Oxfordshire.
Shortly after, the Sunburys are on their way. They will break their journey twice to give Ted a good run around and do some shopping.
So it’s Nick, Dan, Lola and me to rattle around the mansion for the rest of the day. Nick spends most of it in the farmyard working on Petal the Land Rover with Walter. Dan has started to edit his sequences and needs to can one or two more. One involves Nick standing unseen below the crest of a hill and throwing up shovels of snow to simulate explosions.
And there are a couple of scenes with dialogue which Lola will deliver, including the final line. When she is not throwing sticks of dynamite made from empty loo rolls covered in red paper, or plodding through the snow with an improvised flame thrower strapped to her back, we sit at the kitchen table and colour fairies and princesses all shades of pink, and make waterlilies with the polystyrene chip containers. She has undivided attention and intends to make the most of it.
As we have leftovers from Thursday’s dinner we invite Lucy, Walter and Malcolm Handoll (who has come from Orkney to run a one-day course in survival and bushcraft skills at Inshriach) to supper. Malcolm and I talk shells in archaeology and he describes some of the many uses to which one can put a limpet shell. For example, Malcolm tells me, you can transport an ember cupped in two shells by inverting the shells periodically when the lower one gets too hot to handle. Is this how the Neolithic community might have transferred fire from site to site?
When sensible people facing long journeys on the morrow are thinking of going to bed, Dan and Walter opt to go to the pub. The trip turns into a lock-in. At 5.30 a noise in the house wakes me. I lay there for a while then think I’ll just pad along the gallery to check on Lola, who chose to sleep in the huge fourposter of the master bedroom. But there is no sign of her father. I check all the bedrooms and he is definitely not in the house. With a sense of rising panic (it is minus 14, there are ditches and the lanes are treacherous) I phone Dan’s mobile but he does not answer. Thankfully Walter does answer when I ring his and I learn they are both in the bothy about to settle down for a session of their VHSVideo club. Dan will be back soon…………….
Soon drifts on and in the end Nick has to fetch our lad, who then sleeps in the car, virtually all the way home to Hackney. He wakes up intermittently to post a Tweet courtesy of my Orange dongle. Lola is an absolutely brilliant passenger. We stop at one of the watering holes Dan and I used to use on journeys to and from Edinburgh when he was up there reading English, and Lola orders her usual. Dan tells Lola that there is a kind of very large school in this big city, to which he and Mummy went and met each other. “What do you think we did at that big school, Lola?” “Colouring?” asks Lola hopefully. “Well yes, they called that Geography”.
Nick and I eventually fall indoors at midnight, 14 hours after we left Inshriach. We have already put our marker down for 2011.
It’s lucky that we brought plenty of supplies with us. Driving into Aviemore is not easy but we manage to top up with fresh produce thanks to Lucy who has snow tyres, and to Ryan who cycles in with a large rucksack to fill. Ryan has already done a 20km ride on his mountain bike through stunning wilderness. He says he did not see another soul all day.
The children are either play-acting inside and outdoors with Dan and Barns, watching the latest kiddy movies on ‘deeves’ (Lola’s word), colouring and stickers in the kitchen or playing mothers and fathers in one of the ten bedrooms. It’s fairly hectic and noisy but pretty much harmonious all the way.
After supper on Wednesday the adults have their own ‘make and do’ session. Armed with raspberry jellies to dilute, sweetie feet and lips, strings of pink sugared pastille, and strawberry-flavoured jelly tapes, Charlotte and Emma take some jam tart baking trays and basins to create a gelatinous mass, and this will be offered to one of the unwitting cast for an ‘autopsy’.
Thursday brings us our treat. Allan Heaney and Eleanor Honeyborne of OnePotBorrowed come to the house with all their ingredients and cook our dinner. They have compiled a delicious menu for us which includes Mull Cheddar and cauliflower soup with a dash of wholegrain mustard, a venison casserole with herby dumplings, roasted and green vegetables, followed by chocolate and nut individual tartlets garnished with strawberries.
Thirteen of us sit down to enjoy this meal: Sam and Joel are allowed to stay up and we have invited Lucy, Walter and Helen. It’s an opportunity to dress up, a chance for me to sport an aigrette! This is, after all, an Edwardian country house which retains much of its character and most of its original features such as the oak panelling, open fires, period furniture including the 20-seater dining table in the central hall.
You might find yourself sleeping in Mrs Black’s or Mr George’s room, or even the French Maid’s. Inshriach was built in 1906 by the Blacks, a publishing family, as a shooting lodge. The walls bear plenty of evidence of its former occupants.
Before the younger children were put to bed there was the matter of the shooting of the innards’ investigation scene and Ruby, sporting improvised braces to place her in the character of ‘Blair’, was given the opportunity to discover that after a preliminary poke, a confection of jelly and sweeties actually tastes quite good. In the interests of good taste of another kind, this moment does not make the final cut!
Other special effects are subsequently crafted in the cellar at Inshriach when Dan, Barns and Walter fine tune a minor conflagration involving a small fluffy toy dog. These kids have fun too. Smaller folk are long since tucked up in bed.
On Friday morning Nick will have to take Ems and Ruby to Inverness airport for their return flight to London. This is the beginning of the Breaking of The Fellowship for this year.
I drift up the foothills of awareness to dozy wakefulness. Nick and I exchange a few words then I poke my nose above the coverlet and from my vantage point I can see out of the window and spy a winter wonderland. It is a beautifully still view of trees laden with snow and the wispiest of flakes drifting down. Leaping out of bed (relatively speaking) I can peer down onto the pristine whiteness carpeting the ground around the house and into the wooded slopes beyond the lawn and immediate confines of the house grounds.
Everyone is really excited. There’s lots of looking out of windows and enjoyment of good fortune. Last year we arrived to week-old snow which only allowed us a couple of days of winter sports before a thaw really set in. We had resigned ourselves to a snow-less holiday this year. Instead we have a fresh consignment of top grade snow delivered to our door. Various children drift in and out of my room as I gaze in wonder.
To cap it all I am offered the ultimate treat: a breakfast in bed cooked by Daniel. A boiled egg with a side order of bacon and grilled tomato on toast is presented to me by Sam. Above-mentioned smalls get tastes before they are encouraged to leave Granny in peace.
Nick has dressed quickly and is outside shovelling snow from around the cars, and clearing a way down the drive. We will need to go into Aviemore for supplies. The cleared snow later serves to enable the creation of a snowlady whose head is topped with the blonde curly wig I tucked in my bag for Maria. Before the children get togged up to go outside, I step out of the front door and teeter about in my fake Ugg slippers to take a few photos of snow, whose surface is pockmarked only by pheasant footprints.
The children spend the rest of the morning doing fun in the snow. Emma and I take Ruby in the backpack for a walk down to the river and along the bend where the rapids are. The toboggans are again pressed into service until bit by bit cold wet children come indoors holding out hands on the margins of frostbite! Good job there is a huge vat of spicy parsnip soup made by Emma and my homemade soda bread rolls at lunchtime.
As for the swede, clearly the snow has put the kibbosh on Star Wars, unless we take one snowy scene from the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. Thoughts are pooled and eventually it is decided to swede The Thing. This 1982 John Carpenter cult movie is highly regarded by Dan and his contemporaries. It was my late nephew Max’s favourite movie. In it, scientists in the Antarctic are confronted by a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of the people that it kills. The beauty of the movie is the suspenseful power of the unseen horror. Dan seems to think he can film a series of sequences which will engage the children without exposing them to the stuff of nightmares. Filming has begun in earnest.
By coincidence we have brought an upmarket remote-controlled toy helicopter with us. This was given to Dan for Christmas, got broken a few hours later and has been repaired by Nick and brought to Inshriach to hand over. It is probably the one requirement for filming that we could not have improvised or found at Inshriach. Amazingly, Walter produces just about every other prop that is needed, or the materials to manufacture what we need. We only need to buy a few things in Aviemore, the Sue Ryder charity shop provides for the wardrobe mistress, and Tesco has a variety of jellies and sweets to make the entrails. Let the fun begin…….
Lots of unblogged days have elapsed. Nick and I have been rattling around at 88. I have had to spend more hours than I would have wished at my desk digitising marine mollusc records for the Conch Soc and digging out material to concoct a half-way decent Marine Recorder’s Report. Amazingly my initial pessimism is transformed when a week later (but not all spent toiling over the text!!) I have a reasonable story to tell.
We take one day out to drive to Dorchester to look at a house that might do………… but it won’t. The hunt is on though, as our prospective purchasers may be breathing down our necks very soon.
So now we are on our way north. A long way north as it happens, all the way to the Cairngorms National Park. We’ve left Surrey at 5.30 a.m. and stop for coffee and a breakfast bap north of Birmingham. We’ve also got various snacks to munch, fruit, and a flask of my frugal soup – all the bits of leek, cauliflower, broccoli which never make it to the vegetable tureen, bizzed up with potato. When it’s my turn at the steering wheel it turns out that I am driving my very favourite stretch on the northbound journey.
Some shortish distance north of Lancaster the scenery changes to the unique landscape of the southernwestern Lake District. Forged in an environment of colliding continents and vanishing oceans these soft grey flannel hills, with their curvy summits, talus slopes of shaly scree and gentle mossy green lower flanks, with fields at their feet, are the remnants of eons of rock weathering in that part of the British Isles which, for geologists, is the Iapetus Suture Zone. In geological time where landmasses meet something’s gotta give, one continent subsumes the other in the subduction process. To get some sense of this, visit the Restless Earth section at the Our Dynamic Earth Museum if you are ever in Edinburgh. The violence of these Earth movements, the volcanic eruptions and the remnants we see today are clearly described Here.
Leaving the M6 north at Gretna Green we join the Clyde Valley Tourist route and cross from the delightfully named Elvanfoot to the outer outskirts of Edinburgh. Once over the Forth Road Bridge we are into the last, ruggedly beautiful stage of our journey. Places with evocative names: Kinross, Perth, Birnam, Pitlochry, Blair Atholl, Dalwhinnie, Kingussie, Ralia.
At Ralia we leave the main road to slip down to the tearoom for a cuppa to while a bit of time before we can politely arrive at Inshriach. We have begged a concession to arrive a day ahead of our official booking, but they need time to ready it after previous visitors. The tearoom is a very cosy octagonal building, with windows and bar stools around the perimeter inside, free wireless and very deliciously filled sandwiches to have with equally good tea or coffee.
At Aviemore we turn off the A9 and, picking up bread and milk on the way, we eventually arrive at Inshriach at half past four……eleven hours then. Lucy Micklethwait is still getting rooms ready but is not too busy to stop and drink tea with us. The year since we were last here melts away, as has, sadly, the snow, and we are back into our chatty banter.
Just after 7 Nick pops down to the station to round up the Cholsey contingent who, on arrival, burst through the front door full of how long and boring their train journey was. Much later, when the children are bedded, Barns, Lukie, Nick and I eat a fiercely hot curry which even with the addition of a generous amount of coconut milk is still very warming to the palate. I must remember that one and half Scotch Bonnet chillis is too much even for a large vat of chicken curry. That dozen of the cheery red crumpled chillis, that I bought at Hackney and froze, is going to last a very long time.