Tuesday, 18 October 2022

Ahead of the Herd

A friend of Balintore has kindly volunteered to have a go at restoring the original bath from the castle which was discovered rather the worse for wear in a local farmyard being used as a cow trough. He very nobly refused payment and I did my best to offer him something "in kind", but to no avail.

Many weeks later, he said that if I found any African taxidermy at an auction, he would quite like such an item. This was an ideal compromise: I check out the local auctions fairly regularly so it is no extra effort to register whether an Impala is looking back at you.

After many months of failed bids, some Antelope horns appeared at a local auction room yesterday. I made a sensible but still modest bid. I know it was a sensible bid as the amount I paid on winning the lot was my maximum bid i.e. someone else would have offered just below this value. OK, so it was not proper taxidermy as such, but I knew it was a fine pair of horns. Proper taxidermy of African specimens carries a price premium, but I had seen some items go for reasonable prices so it was just a question of waiting and pouncing like an African lion. I knew I could not win on an African Cheetah "on price" race. :-)

The Antelope Horns

Curses, I rather fancied the Antelope horns for the walls of Balintore: I was on the horns of a dilemma. :-) I had to steel myself (like an African Black Mamba about to strike) to offer the horns to my friend today for the greater good. Anyhow, it turns out my friend is currently planning a house move, so decorative items are now not on his agenda and Balintore is the unexpected beneficiary.

Just in case anyone thinks I am of the "animals are for trophies" persuasion, let me tell you a current tale. A pigeon has taken up residence in my kitchen and has been there for the last 3 days. I have been trying to gently persuade it to leave, with open windows and doors being proffered, but to no avail. And I am not the type of person to get a pigeon into a flap. I am a bit concerned about the health of the pigeon. Perhaps it is ill and has taken shelter indoors? Perhaps, it knows it is going to die and wants to spend its last days in a Highland Castle (sounds familiar?). As I have not been bothering the bird, it sits just a few feet away from me. I have recently started feeding it and giving it water so it would not die on my watch. It appears desperate for the food.

I pointed out my new friend to Gregor this afternoon and he immediately started the shooing-out behaviour. And later in the day Gregor reported the pigeon has now gone. I am relieved overall, but one of my theories is that you should allow relationships to develop with the other animals on the planet.

Sunday, 9 October 2022

A Castle Weekend

Blog updates this year have been severely impacted by the day job. However, it is good every so often to escape from the world of work, and enjoy what the castle and the beautiful surrounding countryside have to offer. The best way of doing this is to have friends over. So on Friday night I had a mini-dinner party to celebrate the full moon, including special guests from London and Edinburgh.

As my London friends left the castle late in the evening (heading back to Dundee) they took these photos. The photos may be a bit blurry, but they capture the amazing sky that night.

On Saturday morning, my friend Paul and I decided to take advantage of the glorious autumn weather and go for a walk. It was like a dream of summers past, as in one's head one knows that summer had gone, but with the bright sunshine, the warmth of the sun and much vegetation still green, it felt otherwise.

Normally, I am leading guests on walks and determine in advance a route based on how long or how a short a distance might suit them. One has to err on the side of caution and indeed calculate the lowest common denominator within the party. The outcome tends to be one of three short standard walks in the immediate vicinity of the castle. The irony is that I personally like to go for long and unplanned walks.

Paul seemed to be striding out ahead on his own, and I mentioned I was very happy for someone else to lead for a change.  After we had gone a considerable distance along the road away from the castle, we passed a junction that would have been part of a reasonably sized loop, that I have never done before in its entirety. Paul, however, continued straight on. I decided not to comment so as not to compromise his open-ended exploration. The next junction we reached was one where the loop to the left and the loop to the right would have been enormous, and I finally felt the need to intervene and mention that the only sensible next move was to retrace our steps. Paul agreed: I don't think he had thought the route through and just "took off".

I am afraid I was very honest and mentioned that I don't like retracing my steps on a walk. After 50 yards or so, a gate opened off into a forest on the right hand side of the road. I asked "Shall we just head off in that direction?". I instantly chickened out for fear of getting lost or getting stuck, but Paul wanted to do it.

Both Paul and myself have a spirit of adventure, and putting us together was perhaps not a good idea! :-) We got deeper into the forest, but there was a kind of route along the bank of a river that ran through a gorge in the forest that we followed. It wasn't a clear route i.e. we did have to climb over trees felled by Storm Arwen, but it was more or less passable with a little effort.

Then I spotted a huge tree that had fallen over the river. "Would you be able to get across that?" I asked Paul.  Paul then set off tightrope-walking along the trunk that was angled at perhaps 20 degrees upwards. I was convinced Paul was only going to go part of the way, and not run the risk of falling into the river, but he reached the other side! There was no way, I was going to tightrope walk myself. Well OK, I will just do the first section and then retreat. Holding onto the tree's branches were a way of staying upright, but when the branch came out of the very top of the trunk, one had to navigate one's way around. It was all rather hairy. However, against my better judgement I found myself on the other bank of the river.

We then set off travelling through an even denser part of the forest. Trees had fallen on top of trees in last year's storms: the trunks perhaps were four layers deep. The only way to make progress was to walk along tree trunks, then climb onto other trunks. Occasionally one had to climb down to ground level, or simply mountaineer over walks of trunks, that blocked one's path. It was totally exhausting. Paul was progressing faster than I was, but we shouted directions to each other to escape the forest in the quickest way we could. Instead of going along the river bank, we aimed for higher ground where it looked like the forest thinned out. At one stage, I was so tired I decided to give up. However, there was no giving up: the route in front of me was arduous but the one behind me was possibly even more arduous.

We were so relieved when the forest thinned out. This is when I took this photo of Paul: I was no longer in pure survival mode. However, you can see the obstacles ahead were still considerable.

We finally made it back to the road leading to the castle, but every rise in altitude was painful as we were both exhausted. We could see the castle in the distance, but when we went round the next bend it seemed even further away. When we finally got back to the castle, Paul passed on lunch (?!?!?) and headed off home after a large cool drink.  Quite how one can pass on food when one has burned an excess of calories is beyond me.

Anyhow, I was much revived by food and drink but clearly any form of physical activity was off the cards for the rest of the day. :-) We had both really enjoyed the walk and the adventure, even if the adventure side had been rather too much for either of us, but the experience definitely reset our head spaces marvellously.

What I can't get over is that Paul did all of this in the kilt he had worn to the dinner party!

Wednesday, 7 September 2022

Beware the Marsupial Screams


a Sugar Glider doing its thang

I hadn't seen my good friend Damian for ages due to Covid, and when I received a dinner party invitation at Bardmony House, I asked if I could bring him along. The hosts Britt and Chris were fine with this, and now we were a party of two hosts and two guests which is a good mix for conviviality.

We had an amazing evening. One indicator is that we only managed to drag ourselves away at 1AM. :-) I then drove Damian back to his house in Dundee,  and it had been pre-arranged that I would sleep on his sofa rather than drive all the way back to the castle.

During the dinner party, we got to taking pets, and Damian said he didn't have any. I begged to differ and pointed out that he had 4 Sugar Gliders. These are small uber-cute, flying marsupials. Strictly speaking they glide rather than fly using their patagia, or gliding membranes, which extend from foreleg to hindleg.

"Oh yes." said Damian, "There is something I should tell you. The Sugar Gliders are temporarily in a large mesh cage in the living room, instead of their usual glass vivarium, which means that, er, there may be a bit of a smell while sleeping on the sofa.". Sure enough, as I headed to bed there was a bit of a smell, but it quickly disappeared as I got used to it and the odour was not going to disturb my night's sleep.

However, I had an incredibly disturbed night and I "thought" I could hear the Sugar Gliders squeaking at high volume at intervals. As I came to in the morning, I reached the conclusion that the squeaking was in my head, because this is not the sound Sugar Gliders make and somehow my imagination had conjured up the squeaking because my brain knew I was sleeping beside four cute marsupials. Sugar Gliders make a sort of quiet electronic chirrup called "crabbing" when they don't want to be handled, which I was familiar with.

Anyhow, Damian told me that his wife had reported that all four of the Sugar Gliders were squeaking loudly all night, and that she sent her apologies. This had never happened before. Occasionally, a single Sugar Glider would scream/squeak (which is their alarm signal). This would cause the remaining three Sugar Gliders to freeze and face in the direction of the alarm call.

Anyhow, Sugar Gliders are nocturnal. Imagine waking up and finding that a strange man was sleeping next to you - it would make me scream too! :-) I am a very deep sleeper, so I suspect I did not fully wake-up, but moved to that in-between realm, where thoughts and dreams mingle indistinguishably

Sunday, 31 July 2022

Book Review: Downton Shabby

With my ear to the ground for other infeasibly overambitious restoration projects, the case of the imperilled Hopwood Hall outside Rochdale and its eponymous saviour Hopwood DePree cannot have failed to make it onto my radar. As soon as it did, I immediately sent a message of support. This was in 2017.

The story behind Hopwood's involvement in saving the building, as an Hollywood producer resident in LA, is a remarkable one. So remarkable in fact, that as the plot of a Hollywood movie, it would stretch credibility. Growing up in the U.S., Hopwood's grandfather told him tales of a family castle in England. Hopwood, took these just as stories, but later in life after his grandfather, and indeed father had passed away, some late-night wine-fuelled web-surfing revealed the reality of the rapidly disintegrating Hopwood Hall. This was the long lost family castle, dating from 1420.

On Hopwood's first visit, he realised he would be changed by the building and made a commitment to do what he could to save it. Hopwood's account of the story "Downton Shabby" has just been published, and I realised it was a "must read" for me. I finished the book last night.

Downton Shabby - The Book

This blog article is purely a book review, in the context of my own restoration project. Previous blog book reviews may be found here.

There are endless resources on the Web if you want to find out more about Hopwood and "his" Hall. Naturally, Hopwood is not publicity shy: there is a vlog; a comedy stand-up tour (not joking!); a website and now this book, which has in turn caused a minor media storm. Here's a good starting place for web-surfing, wine-fueled or otherwise:


"Downton Shabby" is written with a light touch, and is very much an "entertainment". There is not a great amount of self-reveal, but enough to ground the book in reality. Hopwood starts to look into surrogacy as a way of having children as he gets older, but then withdraws for the present as the hall demands his full attention. He is drawn back into the Hollywood-life every now and again, and clearly still wants to have relevancy there amongst his crazy circle of friends, but ultimately realises where his soul is more nourished, despite the damp and cold of Salford. It is a compelling tale of self-discovery.

The best and funniest parts of the book are the accounts of his clashes with British culture. You can't help but fall in love with his builder Bob, who is forever making jokes at Hopwood's expense - and Hopwood comes to realise that this "culture of insult" is very much the British way and even learns to love it himself.  Hopwood is embraced by the British aristocracy and British establishment, themselves encumbered by crumbling stately piles. They generously provide help, advice and friendship. While Hopwood often feels out of place and not worthy in their company, it is a tribute to the quality of the man that he is open and non-prejudicial, in a way that perhaps only a foreigner can be.

There were many resonances with Balintore Castle: the cold, the discomfort, the despair, the scale of works required. I found reading anything on dry-rot intensely uncomfortable, and had to speed read these passages. I related to Hopwood's heartache when vandals destroyed historic fabric: during my tenure at Balintore historic fabric has been destroyed too, and I also cried.

In particular, I related to the life-changing journey. His total involvement with the building has spanned almost 10 years now. This ramped up in 2017 when he took responsibility for the building from Rochdale Council. Continuing with a restoration in the longer term can be more difficult than starting off, particularly when light cannot be seen at the end of the tunnel. It took 12 years before there was a single habitable room at Balintore Castle. This was not the way I had planned things to go at all, but there were Council prohibitions, and the despair this caused was huge.

Anyhow, it looks like Hopwood really is in it for the long term, and his persistence has turned around many of the doubters that appear in the book. Hopwood insists throughout that the restoration is not an individual effort, and even guiltily confesses to claiming the use of the word "we" even though the only thing he is "hands on" with, a lot of the time, is the keyboard. Anyhow, I wish him and his team the best of luck.

And if it is in any doubt, "Downton Shabby" is heartily recommended. It is far better than it has any right to be. :-)

Hopwood Hall as first spotted by Hopwood on the Internet

a current Hopwood Hall interior

Tuesday, 12 July 2022

Hitting The Wall

Four times in my life I have had to clear out a freezer that has been switched off. On each of these occasions, the power had been off for such a long time that the process was traumatising. And, as if this wasn't bad enough, on each of these occasions I was not the one had switched the freezer off in the first place.

Three years ago, my builders switched off my freezer at the castle, while I was away at my house in Oxfordshire. I returned and was extremely upset because this was the third time they had done the freezer switch-off while I was away. On each previous occasion the contents were ruined and the appliance was a write-off.

I told my builders that this time they would have to empty the fridge, because it was not my fault i.e. whoever switches the fridge off must take the responsibility of emptying it. However, the builders did not empty the freezer, instead they simply taped it shut with duck-tape.

Roll 3 years forward to May of this year. When I returned to the Balintore after attending a funeral, the fridge was standing in front of the castle. Some American students were helping out with the restoration, and clearly my builders had instructed them to take the freezer out of the building.

There it stayed like a grey Neolithic monolith from your worst nightmares, until two days before the Open Day in June. I felt obliged to comment to Gregor: "This is not a good look for the Open Day". When I next passed the front of the castle, the fridge was on its back lying on the flat bed of my pick-up truck, and Gregor commented "You can just take it to the tip like that". "You cannot possibly do that to another human being, Gregor, you have to empty it", I replied. Gregor said he was not able to do it and left the scene. It is true that he has an overpowering gag reflex in response to smell. We have cleared blocked drains together in the past, and Gregor was retching throughout.

There was no alternative. I mounted the truck and removed the duck tape. The smell was indescribable. I started removing the slimy contents item by item and placing them in either  a plastic bag or a food bin (if biodegradable).  I have an exceptionally strong stomach, but even I was retching. In fact it was so appalling I went to fetch Gregor to help me, but he refused. I had started by climbing up to the fridge, removing an item, and the climbing down again to bin it. However, I realised that I had to somehow speed up the process otherwise I would not last the course. I placed a large sheet of polythene on the ground, which allowed me to throw the contents from the back of the truck.

There were the remains of around 12 brown trout, sections of the rear end of a Roe Deer, a chicken, some kind of game bird, a joint of beef and mince. Many of the items were simply unidentifiable. Oddly, I realised that a surprising number of the items were not as decomposed as you might think after three years, because the fridge had been sealed and this had stopped quite a lot of micro-organisms and larvae from doing their work. So the fish were still intact and strangely firm but had a revolting slimy surface. So there was structure, but the smell of death and decay was overpowering.

I would have rinsed the fridge out, left to my own devices, but as it was flat on its back, water would have just stayed in the appliance, so I guiltily realised I has no strength physically or mentally to move the freezer to the upright position again and rinse it out. Emptying the fridge and disposing of the remains in the forest had taken a long time and it was getting late in the day.

Gregor drove me to Forfar tip so he could man-handle the freezer off my pick-up for me. This was much appreciated, given my bad back.

As Gregor was doing this, an employee of the tip came rushing up and challenged "Is there anything in that freezer?". Gregor was able to say, in all honesty "No there isn't". The employee was not convinced, "Tape is generally a warning sign that there is food still in there". He started approaching the unit. I was in the passenger seat muttering over and over again under my breath: "Don't open the door! Don't open the door!", but of course I could not say anything out loud and admit our guilt.

The employee opened the door. The wall of putrefaction hit instantly, he recoiled backwards six feet, and from the depth of his soul exclaiming loudly "Oh, my God!". He had just enough composure to slam the door closed again, but was obviously in too much of a state of shock to do or say anything else, and Gregor and I drove off taking this window of opportunity to leave the scene of the crime.

If there had been any food in the unit, then it clearly would not have been accepted, so I was right to go against Gregor's exhortations of just dumping it contents and all from a practical point of view, let alone the moral one of course.

So my apologies go out to the Forfar employee, I did the best I could. The morale of this story, kiddies, is that if you switch a freezer off, then you have to empty and clean it yourself. I can assure you that if you had to go through what I went through, then you will never, ever do it again.

I have some graphic images of the fridge contents, but I will spare you with this single photograph taken at the least traumatising angle.


disposing of the bodies

Sunday, 19 June 2022

Jubilee Bake Off

One of the fun "Open Day" events was a "Platinum Jubilee Bake Off", suggested by friend of Balintore Emma. For my sins, I have never watched a single episode of "The Great British Bake-Off" on TV, and was nervous about the amount of organisation that might be required given how much else was happening on the Open Day. However, I rationalised it was all about sampling cakes and pontificating - what's not to like? :-)

one of the entries - yums !

The judging was at 12:00 on the Open Day, and I invited Sara, the housekeeper, to be my co-judge, We were very impressed by the standard of the 6 entries during the tasting. Eventually, we retired to a private room to adjudicate. Sara and I had come to completely different verdicts in the 3 categories: best flavour, best presentation and the overall winner. This was a valuable education for me, for those times in life when you feel unfairly judged. Anyhow, during our discussions it became obvious that Sara and I had picked up the same strengths and weaknesses in the entries, and we were able to come to a joint decision perfectly amicably.

Best Flavour: strawberry meringues

A meringue is a common item, but these were in a different league - nothing short of perfection. Crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside. 

strawberry meringues

Best Presentation: hedgehog macaroons

And yes we did feel guilty eating these as they looked so good and, er, cute!

hedgehog macaroons

Overall Winner: passion fruit gin and tonic cupcakes

I swore I would not be swayed by presentation and I am sceptical of the current lady-vogue for cupcakes, but the icing on these magnificent looking mini-sponges tasted amazing - beautifully balanced between sweet and sharp. Caitlin, our worthy winner, and is now booked in for a free night's stay at the castle's AirBnB!

passion fruit and gin and tonic cupcakes

Wednesday, 1 June 2022

Plantinum Jubilee Preparations

Thanks to Emma, Simon, Gregor and Liam for decorating the castle today! This is in preparation for the Balintore Castle Platinum Jubilee Open Day this Saturday. Bunting has been strung-up, flags are now fluttering in the breeze and balloons have been inflated. 

If you are looking for a free fun day out over the long Jubilee Weekend, then come along to the Balintore Castle Jubilee Open Day 10:00-20:00 on Saturday the 4th June. There is car-parking, food and drink, castle tours, family and kiddie-friendly activities.

The event is free, but admission is strictly and only by timed ticket, here.

Here are some of the special activities:

The Great Jubilee Bake-Off

Bring your home baking to the castle Servants' Hall by 12:00 on Saturday, when judging will occur. Marks will be awarded for presentation and taste. The overall winner's prize is a free night's stay in the castle's lovingly restored AirBnB accommodation.

Find the Queen's Crown Jewels

Thieves have hidden the Queen's Crown Jewels in the grounds of Balintore Castle. If you can find 5 of the 10 jewels, then the Queen (or loyal stand-in) will give you a personal reward.

Design Your Own Crown

All the materials are provided for you to make and decorate your own crown. And you get to wear the crown and take it home too. :-)

Queen's Canopy

Come and plant a tree in the grounds of Balintore Castle as part of the Jubilee Queen's Canopy Scheme. All necessary equipment and tree are provided. Why not dedicate the tree to a loved one?

the entrance tower

the servants' hall

the principal dressing room

the open day reception