An Inspirational Visit

Accompanied by a couple of friends we lunched on excellent fish and chips at The Trusty Servant.  I drank a pint of Doom Bar.  After our meal we attended Minstead Lodge where Noura met us for a tour of this huge building, probably a Victorian reproduction of an earlier manor house.

It was Noura’s day off, because the establishment, apart from the residential students and some staff, is closed at weekends.  However, she came in from her home in Ringwood to accommodate us.  Her husband and two year old daughter also gave generously of their time and wandered around with us.  What was once a family home was bought with a generous legacy and turned into a Training Project for people with learning disabilities.  Martin, whom I’d met soon after we arrived in Minstead, had set up and directed the place for twenty five years, until recently moving to a liaison role with Furzey Gardens.

Kitchen Garden, Minstead Lodge

I had had no idea what a thriving community it is, or how extensive the house and grounds are, so found the visit most informative and spiritually uplifting. Garden, Minstead Lodge One of our guides was a gentleman in transitional accommodation before a move to independent living in Totton.  A delightful and courteous young man, he took pride in showing us round, telling us what the various activities were, and, I suspect, pulling Noura’s leg.  He was clear that he would continue to come and work here after he had moved.  After twenty years in residence I am sure he would need that continuity.  His special area of expertise was feeding and caring for the animals.  We were shown horses, donkeys, and goats all of which answered his call.  The geese were less interested, possibly because their feeder passed us on his way to their field as we came away from it.  Noura’s daughter was particularly fascinated by the chickens, and clutched a couple of what looked like pigeon feathers she had found earlier.  Those preparing for independence in this way live on the upper floor of their current building.  Our guides seemed very willing to give us all the time we needed, in taking us through the communal rooms and the gardens.

There are a number of finely crafted wooden tables and chairs made, seamlessly, out of single enormous trees.  These were made by a local craftsman as payment in kind for professional services rendered by the owner.  Crib figures, Minstead LodgeTable in window seat, Minstead LodgeOne held crib figures, behind which, clearly recently having descended from the chimney to the open fireplace in one of the panelled reception rooms, could be glimpsed a diminutive Father Christmas.  Others stood by window seats from which views down the valley and across the forest could be enjoyed.  The kitchen garden was impressive, and plants were on sale outside the reception area.

The link with Furzey Gardens and the Chelsea Garden was evident on the walls in the form of superb reportage paintings in the style of those decorating the sister project. Kevin making a leaf  We were told by staff member Andy that each resident and staff member of the Lodge made one of the stained glass leaves woven into the walls of the thatched building that features in the winner of Chelsea gold.

After our lunch a light supper of cheese on toast and apple pie and custard sufficed for our evening sustenance.

A Chance Meeting

Early this clear, crisp, autumn morning I walked up to Furzey Gardens and back.  My purpose was to find Martin to ask him if it would be possible to arrange a visit to Minstead Lodge for a friend.  Although Martin set up the establishment in that building, he now works from the gardens in a liaison role.  He was the person to ask.

He wasn’t there.  A welcoming notice informed visitors that the place was closed for the winter, but we were invited to stroll around if we wished.  I did wish.  Seated on a bench was a young woman who was waiting for Pete, who was to meet her there.  She had seen Martin leaving as she arrived.  She didn’t know whether he would be back.

Furzey Gardens

Autumn leavesWell, it was a beautiful day so I went for a wander.  Jackie’s and my last visit had been in June when the rhododendrons were in stunning colour.  For an array of dazzling reds Furzey Gardens could not compete with Exbury which we visited three days ago, but it did its best.

Stone stepsHaving a rather smaller footprint than Exbury, it is the variation provided by the winding paths, with steps of different materials that is Furzey’s charm.  It is as if one is wandering from room to room.

PondThe large pond was looking pretty well cared for.  Maintenance work clearly continues during the closed season, and in fact a group of young men I took to be trainees for that very purpose entered the gardens as I left.

Fairy lettersThe original house, now a retreat building, has a thatched roof, as do various wooden shelters distributed throughout the plot.  Fairies leave signs of their presence in all kinds of nooks and crannies, often inside these constructions.  Children leave letters and mementos for the little folk.  The containers they bring have often been decorated with drawings and stickers.

Chelsea Garden 2

Chelsea Garden

One of the thatched buildings is rather new.  It forms part of the Chelsea Garden.  During our June visit this prize-winning exhibit had not yet been fully returned to its birthplace.  It now has a prime position above the pond.  Ornamental leavesThe handmade ornamental leaves winding among the branches forming the walls of this little house are equally as resplendent as any of those the sunlight picks out on the trees outside.

Martin had not returned to the gardens by the time I was about to leave.  Neither had Pete.  Noura – for that was the young woman’s name – was still waiting.  We got talking.  She offered to take a message for Martin.  When I explained the purpose of my visit, she held up her hand and said: ‘You have come to the right person’.  Just a week into her new post as head of care for the training project, she was here to familiarise herself with the gardens link.  She had entered my mobile number into her phone for Martin.  Now she kept it for herself and gave me hers, so that I could confirm the time of the proposed visit.  The chosen date is her day off, but she will come in to show us around.

A chance meeting?

Still struggling with painful sinuses, I dozed away much of the afternoon.  Apparently we have quite a widespread wandering virus.  Since I collected mine in France it may cover a greater area than this small Island and the Isle of Wight where Kirk and many others are suffering.

Our evening meal was Jackie’s sausage and bacon casserole; mashed potato and swede; brussels sprouts, cauliflower and runner beans, followed by her spicy bread pudding and custard.  She drank Hoegaarden, whilst I enjoyed Isla Negra reserva 2013, an excellent Chilean red wine.

Furzey Gardens

Early this morning I walked down to the village shop, returning via the church footpath and The Splash. Churchyard cow parsley The snowdrops, crocuses, and daffodils have made way in the churchyard for cow parsley.

On my return I had a chat with Gladys and Dave in the garden.  John, otherwise known as Sisyphus (see 19th March post), was just arriving for his day’s gardening.  Nodding in the direction of Jackie who was sitting outside our kitchen door, Dave said she was about to be upset because John would start the day’s lawn mowing.  ‘Oh no’, said I, ‘she loves it.  We are going to Furzey Gardens this afternoon.  She cannot go out in the morning he visits because she gives him coffee at eleven o’clock’.  Gladys responded that she provides his one o’clock cup of tea.  ‘He also brings his own flask’, added Dave.  I was still laughing when I returned to our flat and told Jackie this.  She  quipped that he was like Six Dinner Sid.  Sid is a cat,  the hero of a story told by Inga Moore (2004).  He visits six homes in turn, all of which provide him with a dinner.

Nuthatch female

It is just as well there are no cats, either resident or visiting, in our building, because we are really getting to know our nuthatch family.  Dad has been visiting the feeding station for some time now; having a scoff and a few words with Jackie; then, sated, flying off with some food in his beak.  Now he just feeds himself.  Mum has presumably been sitting on a nest somewhere nearby, but definitely not in the tree to which Dad has been flying as a decoy.  The eggs must have hatched and the juveniles grown up a bit, for she has now emerged and taken her place on the finial of the pole, surveying her offspring’s fearless adventures.

Nuthatch juvenileThe younger bird has not learned to be afraid, and consequently skips around beneath our feet.  He nipped up the steps as Jackie stood watching amazed, and, skirting her trainers, explored the stonework, no doubt seeking insects.

In order for John to prune the hedges around Jackie’s hanging baskets and bird feeders, she has had to move them inside for the day.  The fliers zooming in for nosh were somewhat confused by this.  They swooped, they saw, they scarpered.  ‘Where’, you could see them thinking, ‘has it gone?  I know I left it here’.

Rhododendrons at Furzey gardens

The trip to Furzey Gardens was the culmination of three consecutive days of horticultural feasting.  Aviemore provided breathtaking beauty in a compact, packed, area;  MacPenny’s offered maturity in a large space; Furzey is endlessly stunning in acres of rolling woodland.  RhododendronsBerry had told me this was the time to come because of the rhododendrons.  We have magnificent species in our garden, but nothing could have prepared me for this dazzling array set off at its best on a gloriously sunny day.

Created in 1922 the house and garden remained in the Dalrymple family until the 1960s when it was bought by the charity that now runs it in partnership with the Minstead Training project.

House and shrubbery

Numerous paths take the visitor on a magical tour of shrubberies filled with the most unusual bushes, trees, and plants, collected from all over the world. EnkianthusShrubbery and building There are thatched buildings dotted about, many of which have liitle doors set for fairies.  A child’s note accompanied by a wilting bunch of wild flowers lay on a spar of wood.  A play area contains climbing structures, swings, and even a disused rowing boat that looks as if it had been stranded when the waters of the winter subsided.Gunnera Candelabra primulas A number of plants such as the enormous gunnera or the abundant, healthy, candelabra primulas, provide evidence of the boggy nature of some of the forest soil.Bridge over pond Flower bed There is a substantial pond. Pergola seat A wisteria Elizabeth would be proud of, festoons a rustic pergola and seat. Alpacas The alpacas featured on the 30th March can be seen in the distance in a meadow of wild flowers accessible only to staff and students.  Jackie in gardensThere is still much to be done to restore parts of this amazing treasure to its former glory, and inroads are definitely being made. Child in Furzey Gardens I am not sure how much of the uncultivated area is to remain wild, but I hope a reasonable amount.  The original house is now a place of retreat.

At Chelsea in 2012, the Minstead Training Project carried off gold for the Show Garden.  It is in the process of being brought back to its roots in Furzey Gardens.

This evening we dined on belly of pork roasted long and slow by Jackie.  I drank half a bottle of the Blason des Papes Chateauneuf du Pape 2011, a really excellent wine she bought me for Christmas.