Saturday, 5 June 2010

A great British day out

It's a glorious day and people are flooding through the gates. A cavalcade of MG motor cars sashays down the driveway, risking their undercarriages on the speed bumps. They line up in beautiful British formation, the sun glinting on the gleaming paintwork and chrome.

The hens babble and old people chuckle at their antics. A middle-aged woman as large as Devon is terrified by the bantams who are not too keen on her either. The Indian Runner ducks quack and the sounds from the cafe are of people enjoying a day out in the English countryside on a beautiful day in early summer.

There is a fluttering of dove wings on the stone roof of the old sawmill. They are momentarily startled by a man in shorts who walks by. He has not just knobbly knees but knobbly legs as well. Two girls in outfits too skimpy for their ample frames ask for two adult tickets.

A few minutes earlier, I had arrived to open up and found a queue of visitors, with his Lordship behind the counter,  a bemused expression on his face.

'Ah, there you are,' he says, flustered. 'I'll let you take over.'

I am into my stride today, not at all nervous when yet another car rolls up. I am confident, too, with the till and it no longer fills me with dread.

At the end of the day, 160 visitors and I can go home and put my feet up.

I'll keep you posted.

Love Maddie x

Monday, 17 May 2010

The real world beckons

The wisteria is just about to explode on the coach house wall. A burst of heavenly blue against mellow, golden stone and porticoes.

I am sad today at Mapperton, There is a fine rain falling and the trees above the shop where I work deposit loud drips on the corrugated iron roof. Apart from the occasional Sunday, my sojourn here is coming to an end, after being offered a job I just could not refuse. Sadly, my talents as the Gertrude Jekyll of West Dorset have not been recognised and it's back to an office job for me, at least for the time being.

However, I shall still be writing my Manor from Heaven blog, with the help of bulletins from Her Ladyship and chats with the head gardener. And I intend stopping by with my camera every now and then to record the joys on display in these beautiful gardens.

I'll keep you posted.

Love Maddie x

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Trouble in the henhouse

A plaintive cry goes up from the courtyard, and then the sound of poultry, fighting.

A bantam hen shoots out of the manor gate and hides among the plants for sale. A pair of fat and fluffy bantam cockerels are on the prowl.

'They're desperate for mates of their own, ' says her Ladyship. 'They're both totally frustrated. We could do with someone donating them some girlfriends.'

They try chasing the phoenix jungle fowl into submission but the girls' own cockerel bodyguards are having none of it. A stand-off ensues. Even the Indian runner ducks join in and start name calling.

The white bantam boys slope off to a bench. Then they head through the gates to the churchyard.

Something's gotta give.

I'll keep you posted.

Maddie x

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Monsters, trolls and RHS members

It is spring at Mapperton. The house martins dart in and out of cool passageways, smoke curls up from a bonfire and the handyman is mowing the lawn.

A customer questionnaire has been introduced this week and I shall make it my mission to get as many people to fill it in as possible.

There are lots of RHS members in today which means they don't have to pay - RHS stands for Royal Horticultural Society and if you're a member, it gives you free access to lots of great gardens. Then we have a a lady in a disabled buggy, a set of keys handed in, my apple from last week still on the counter and a spot of rearranging the merchandise, making sure all the teacup handles are pointing the same way.

Flustered by a sudden rush, I give someone too much change and then another moment of panic when I think someone has walked off with the church key and then I realise they're still in there.

The bantams have a fight on the roof, the plants need watering and a woman with a very strange hairstyle - like Marge Simpson's, only black with gold streaks - comes in. I can't take my eyes off it, thinking what a great place for a house martin to nest and then worry my fascinated gaze might be reflected in how she fills in the questionnaire when she gets to the bit about staff.

Two small children scoot around on little wooden bikes and then two girls dressed as fairies tear around chasing a chicken. It seeks sanctuary in my shop but they still come after it. I tell them off and then pretend there is a monster in behind the counter with me just so they get the message.

They roar off, screams bouncing off the golden stone walls, and their mother comes charging in. A rather large lady, she looks as if she could handle herself in a fight. So I make myself look small and pathetic.

'If my children come in again,' she says in a posh voice, while I inwardly quake, 'you have my permission to order them out. Just tell them you turn into a troll when you get angry.'

She knows me, obviously.

Later, a pretty but fragile-looking young woman in a sunhat glides in like something from a Jane Austen novel.

'Do you have the church key?' she asks.

'Only I'd like to have a sit down in the quiet. There are some terribly noisy children running all over the Italian garden.'

I'll keep you posted.

Love Maddie x

Thursday, 22 April 2010

A hit as Mapperton reaches the top ten

I hardly have chance to draw breath this morning as I open up the Pot Shop doors at Mapperton. People are already getting out of their cars, clutching their admission fee and copies of the Mail's Live magazine.

We have been featured in Clive Aslet's list of top ten great gardens and we're at number four: 'Hidden away in its Dorset combe, Mapperton is a dream of England at its loveliest...handsome, yes, but not overwhelming...Daffodils dance on the banks, and the backdrop is of fields where cattle and sheep can safely graze. Perfection.'

My thoughts entirely. So, as the world and his wife descend on Mapperton, with 70 guests by four o'clock, I have no time for lunch and only a quick visit to the lavatory.

Lord Sandwich towers above a party of ladies as he takes the group on a tour of the house. A steady stream of visitors to the shop buy plants, Ulster Weavers aprons and pretty notebooks. People sit outside the cafe, enjoying the sun and a cream tea.

By 4.30pm, even the bantams have had enough, going to bed early and settling down to roost in the old yew tree next to the church.

It's been a busy day and I'm pooped. But I managed to get the till to balance this week. Think I'll reward myself with supper in my local pub.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Gone with the wind

Back behind the Mapperton till, I manage to overcharge someone for two teenagers. Granny challenges me with a glare and I instantly apologise and appeal for sympathy by claiming it's my first day. She smiles, pats me on the arm and then I immediately feel guilty for telling fibs.

It is overcast with a chilly wind. It is also very noisy. The oil tanker is making a delivery and the lorry engine is running right outside my shop. The handyman is mowing the lawn with a great big machine. With his woolly hat and ear defenders, he looks like a Russian tank operator.

The phoenix jungle fowl mutter, the cockerel shrieks and an Indian runner duck rushes by like a tall person late for a train. The bantams yell in unison when a large and breathless dog tries to break free from its lead and then an old man with a trilby hat walks up to the shop and breaks wind loudly before venturing in. A car alarm goes off in retaliation.

I pick up a note I was left after last week, telling me two things I got wrong. But, like all the best tickings off, it ends in praise: 'Well done with the till total.'

Not only was it a decent sum, it actually tallied with the takings.

I'll keep you posted.

Love Maddie x

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Round and round the garden

I entered Mapperton Gardens as a visitor this week, accompanied by my little helper.

I was armed with my camera. But she saw things through different eyes with a pair of binoculars.

These are some of the things we found:

The north wing.

The orangery.

An ancient urn.

Sunny steps.

Snake's head fritillary.

Hellebores under the pergola.

Stern-looking fish.

A blossom-strewn path.

Textures and colours.

And, finally, thank goodness for binoculars used the wrong way round. My little helper would never have spotted it otherwise.

I'll keep you posted.

Love Maddie x

Saturday, 10 April 2010

A flock of visitors

The sound of contented, hen-like mumblings is coming from the car park. I peep out of the Pot Shop doorway expecting to see a couple of bantams scrabbling around in the mud, only to find two elderly ladies in deep conversation around the plant table.

They are joined by their husbands and then a man comes in wanting admission tickets for seven people. And still the cars come in. I have a slight panic attack when the till malfunctions, the digital display telling me 'operator error'. But visitors to country gardens are generally a cheerful and patient lot. Which is just as well, bearing in mind the terrible combination of maths, electrical equipment and me.

It has been busy at Mapperton since Easter. Glorious weather means scores of visitors coming through the gates. The cafe is now open and people are enjoying their lunch in the sunshine, joined every now and then by a bold bantam cockerel.

A member of staff hands me a brown envelope. My wages! I feel like I did back in 1979 when I had my first pay packet. The amount is about the same too.

Meanwhile, her Ladyship has discovered the blog. Summoned to the office, I stand close to the door as she peers over her spectacles, looking at me and then at the computer screen. There is a pause.

'You write very well,' she says. 'Light, humorous, rather in the style of the English essayists...'

This is quite something coming from a woman who has letters from Samuel Pepys. Is she being sarcastic? I edge closer to the door. Did I complain about the rate of pay? Or mention the time when her Ladyship took me on a guided tour of the gardens with the pet cat wrapped around her neck like a living stole?

Plucking up all my courage, I stammered: 'I can feel a "but" coming on...'

'Not at all,' her Ladyship says. 'How can we get more people to read it?'

So there you go - all followers gratefully received.

I'll keep you posted.

Love Maddie x

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

When the wind blows

The wind is so strong it blows the catkins from the branches. They lie there on the ground, miniature lambs' tails discarded in muddy tracks.

The wind is so cold, so bitterly cold, it hits your cheekbones like a sinus infection.

Up at Mapperton, the wind whooshes through the trees and it feels as if the corrugated roof of the Pot Shop might just take off. In the stone passageway to the office, the gardeners are in formation, amateur sleuths in heavy boots following a trail of footprints. They are trying to track down the person who removed one of the large stones at the top of the driveway in the night. Next to the spot was a single footprint, with a pointy toe and stiletto heel.

They see me and look accusingly at my feet. Fortunately, I am wearing big, fat Ugg boots - the ones I vowed never to wear out of the house because they are so unflattering. They are called Ugg because they're ugly. They are also very warm.

The gardeners march on and try to find more clues.

Meanwhile, a real thief is accosted in the churchyard, where the only grave belongs to a former lady of the manor. The gardeners think there has been a flurry of fluffy, white snow. Closer inspecton reveals a sparrowhawk blatantly plucking the feathers from one of the doves that last week was tapdancing on the Pot Shop roof. Challenged by the handyman, the sparrowhawk takes off with his still-warm prize. It is looking for a good place to eat.

Talking of which, the cafe is finally due to open in time for Easter, following refurbishment and a change of management. Now watch the crowds descend like sparrowhawks on this magical place. No more book reading behind the counter for me.

I'll keep you posted

Love Maddie x

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Water, water , everywhere

Rain pings on the corrugated iron roof. The bantams cluck, a cockerel crows and an Indian Runner lets out a loud cackle. Nice weather for ducks.

A pheasant shrieks his metallic cry, a robin chirrups in the hedgerow and an unseen aeroplane high above brings back Brits from faraway lands.

The visitor count to the gardens is slightly up today, in spite of the showers. I have managed to master the staff discount button on the till - yet another reason for me to get things I neither really want nor need. But my father's birthday is coming up and also my sister's. I wander around the shop, wondering what I might buy them, while rearranging leaflets that have curled up in the damp.

Should I go for shiny, shiny Fair Trade things from India or a locally-turned yew-wood toadstool as my very own talisman or a greetings card of an old oak tree?

Meanwhile the visitors wander around some of the most important and distinctive gardens in Dorset. Gardens famous for their romantic setting, varied planting and tranquility.

The peace is shattered by a fight among the bantams. The handyman comes in and asks for a wire coat hanger. I bristle, thinking he might be wanting to shut those hens up for good.

But he's trying to find a buried water pipe and needs the coat hanger for dowsing.

Oh, the joys of country life.

I'll keep you posted.

Love Maddie x

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Nothing can be finer

Through the swirling mists, you can just about make out the vague shape of tall, twisted chimneys and the snarling face of an eagle on top of the gatepost.

The start of the season is quiet, so very cold and only the crocuses and snowdrops shout out above the still, fog-bound air.

I busy myself by rearranging the exquisite Emma Bridgewater pottery and colour-co-ordinating the tea cloths on the clothes horse. I am pleased I finally bowed and became a slave to fashion because my Merino Ugg Boots keep my feet warm against the freezing flagstones and my pink Musto jacket makes me feel as snug as a bug in a rug.

I dust along the shelves in the children's section and accidentally set off two clockwork donkeys and a springy-octopus. I spill my coffee from my Thermos all over the counter and use up my tissues trying to clear it. In the afternoon, my nose is running for England and I apologise to the head gardener for using my sleeve.

Not the best look for the front of house of a manor house declared as the nation's finest four years ago. And you can read here why Mapperton is a cut above the rest.

Incidentally, I am not being paid to write this blog, much to Mr Grigg's annoyance. I am doing it because I love the place and can't get enough of it. The combination of the beauty of the setting, the formal gardens fighting off the advancing encroachment of the ancient Dorset landscape beyond the walls and the harmony of architectural styles is good for the soul.

And besides, I get staff discount working in the Pot Shop. Which is what I point out to Mr Grigg when describing some of the beautiful items for sale.

'There are some lovely doormats up there,' I say.

'Yes, you,' he replies.

I'll keep you posted.

Love Maddie x

Friday, 12 March 2010

Manors maketh woman

After spending the winter working from home and in the corridors of power on the council Death Star, I realised if I didn't get out more I was going to go quietly insane.

Which is exactly what Mr Grigg called me when I declared I was going to take a job for one day a week in the gift shop at a local stately home at the minimum wage. Not just any stately home, though. This is Mapperton, heaven on earth, the best little manor house in Dorset in the most beautiful countryside in the world.

Two Facebook friends said they loved it too - and working in the gift shop was their first job at the age of 13. You've heard of career progression? Well this is career regression in my case.

The lady of the manor thought I was mad too.

'Are you sure there's nothing else you should be doing?' she said with a shrug (or it could have been a trug), hastily adding: 'But we'd be delighted to have you.'

So last week I started my first day in the Pot Shop, rearranging the products on sale and making conversation with the punters. Of which there were two. And even they came in on a special two-for-one deal. Like stately homes all over the country, the season has just begin. Business is slow.

'You just wait until the coaches start coming,' said the handyman, sending the fear of God up my spine because I am rubbish at maths. I have a till to help me, but I usually break all things electric, and the thought of hordes of tourists talking at once and flashing fivers began to send me in a spin.

I managed to get by without completely wrecking the till and this week we had more customers. Three to be precise. There was also an Indian runner duck that struck up conversation with me and a party of doves that spent the morning tap dancing on the corrugated iron roof above my head.

Life doesn't get much better than this.

I'll keep you posted.

Love Maddie x