Saturday, 24 December 2022

Merry Christmas 2022

Dear Friends of Balintore,

welcome to the annual Christmas blog entry! 2022 has been quite a year for most people as we distance ourselves from Covid, and this is equally true for everyone involved with Balintore Castle.

The restoration work has continued, but my personal involvement is very limited in terms of time as I am working full time for the UK Meteorological Office. I do my best to attend to "castle admin" in the evenings. This shortage of time explains the limited blog entries: 28 this year compared to a record 56 last year. Far too much time has been taken up attending to the unnecessary problems created by Angus Council.

My builder Gregor is still doing good work at Balintore, but he is now moonlighting part time at another architecturally impressive Victorian shooting lodge in Glen Isla, called Knockshannoch. Knockshannoch is just 6 miles from Balintore. As Gregor has been working for me for ten years, I understand that a little bit of a change is good for him so I do my best not to pout too much. :-)

One of the highlights of this year, was a guided tour round Knockshannoch by the new owners. They also have a huge restoration project ahead of them, though not quite as daunting a one as Balintore. The building has very definitely gone into the right hands, as the couple have an understanding and appreciation of the architecture that means they will do the very best by the building.

Strangely enough, I thought my days of seeing other restoration projects were over, but over the course of the year I was invited to see Park Hall Manor outside Manchester, Llwyn Celyn in South Wales and Gwrych Castle in North Wales. All these visits got me very excited and enthusiastic, which is confirmation that despite the enormous hardships involved, Balintore is the right path for me. Park Hall Manor and Knockshannoch are private residences, so naturally I am discreet and did not blog about these.

My Belgian friend and friend of Balintore, Karel came to visit in the autumn. We decided to turn up on spec for lunch at the Fife Arms Hotel in Braemar. Unfortunately, they were fully booked, but a staff member said if we could wait an hour, they could fit us in. An hour was just the right amount of time to see the flowers outside the gates of Balmoral Castle. To witness the massed ranks of flowers laid by the public was a special thing, and somehow we became part of history in doing so. I am so glad we made this diversion, even though I would never have planned a dedicated trip just to see the flowers. 

I was also grateful that I had held a special castle open day on the Platinum Jubilee weekend, as my instinct was that Her Maj would not be with us for much longer, and this was my little gesture of homage during her lifetime. I am not a Royalist as such, but I am a close observer of history and history in the making, and believe by reconciling ourselves with the bigger picture, we can become better human beings.

"In Memoriam" flowers for Queen Elizabeth at Balmoral Castle

After my usual Christmas with friends in Norfolk last year, I decided that to spend my first Christmas at Balintore, and my Norfolk friends joyfully agreed to come up. This was on the principle of "I have a castle so I should use it!". It helps that my Norfolk friends are fantastic cooks, and won't let me anywhere near my own kitchen - heavenly! :-)

Driving back to the castle for Christmas was an unexpected adventure. Although the weather was bitterly cold, the roads from Oxfordshire to Balintore were clear and the long journey passed without incident. However, just five miles short of the castle, snow and ice appeared on the roads, and my ABS started cutting-in with its characteristic judder on icy bends. Extreme caution was required while driving.  

I started up the castle drive in 4 wheel drive in first gear. After 20 yards there was a strange man standing on the side of the drive with a torch. Aha, I had been phoned a couple of times during the drive by a German chap wanting to visit the castle. I had explained that  I would be back at the castle around 7PM if he was prepared to wait until evening. 

After establishing that the stranger, Lin, was the chap who had been phoning, I invited him into my passenger seat, so we could continue up the drive. However. we could make no progress on the snow and ice, in fact we were going backwards down the drive, no matter what I did with gears, brakes and steering wheel. I decided to reverse back onto the road at the bottom of the drive. Lin shouted at one stage "the road goes the other way" but in the dark and white-out conditions I had missed the sharp bend in the drive and was now dangling and rocking over the edge of a precipice with back and front wheels spinning in mid air.  "Beached" is the correct technical term Lin used. My car was well and truly stuck: it was just very good luck we had not gone over the edge. My neighbour Rob was able to pull me out later in the evening with his powerful Defender with special tyres - huge thanks to Rob.

dangling over the edge in the bleak midwinter

By an amazing coincidence, six Chinese AirBnB guests arrived just after Lin and I got to the castle. They can only have made it to the kitchen wing on foot via a long trek through the snow. Later I found a message from them "It's very dark, and we are very frightened.", which they must have sent before I turned up.

It turns out Lin is half-German (mother from Berlin) and half-Chinese (father from Beijing) and he was able to talk to my guests in Chinese, when I gave everyone a tour round the castle. What are the odds of a Chinese reunion on a remote snow-covered mountainside in Angus? 

I made Lin some dinner and put him up for the night, as road conditions were shocking. He mentioned that today was turning into an amazing adventure for him. I said that I couldn't explain why, but somehow every day at the castle is like this, so this was the norm for me.

At 4AM in the morning water started pouring into the room I was sleeping in at the castle, so I had to abandon ship. The next morning, I understood why. After frozen conditions for a fortnight, the ice-melt has started in the middle of the night. The next morning the snow has largely gone, and by the following morning the 3 foot of snow round the castle, with the icy base that has caused the drive to be impassable, has completely vanished.

I had asked Gregor to take a look at the leaks in the castle roof while I was away, but ironically when I had been away, due to the freezing weather, there were no leaks. These only started up again when I got back to the castle.

Last Thursday, we had the first fire in one of the upper floor fireplaces for at least 60 years - this first fire is shown in the video. The last resident of the castle died in 1963, so the fireplaces have lain unused since then, until of course my restoration started in 2007. My builder Gregor swept the chimney earlier in the week, and removed 2 large rubble bags of grot. I don't normally have time to sit around a fire, but with friends staying over Christmas, fireside chats are just what the doctor ordered.

Anyhow, a Merry Christmas to everyone and best wishes for the New Year,


Sunday, 11 December 2022

I've Been Framed

Conscious of leaks in the castle's rooves, which have damaged antique art works bought for its walls, my brain finally settled upon an artistic medium that would be hardy against water ingress:

Bronze plaques!

I had never investigated the world of the bronze plaque before, but I quickly found out that they were expensive - very expensive. So much for that idea! However, in the quest I came across a "bronzed metal plaque" on eBay that looked the part and that I bagged for a modest £25.

the bronzed plaque - excuse sawdust

It came without a frame, so I asked Gregor (being a carpenter by trade) if he could knock me one up from some of the mouldings we had got from Brechin Castle's carpenters' workshop when the contents were auctioned off. This is exactly the type of job Gregor loves, something that can be done very quickly and yet something that gives a good visual reward.

Gregor's new oak frame 

Naturally, I am not organised enough to actually have a picture of the bronze in Gregor's new oak frame, but I can report that, very satisfyingly, the frame looks like it could be the original one.

you too can stand around the piano and sing this jolly song 

Some German guests at the castle assured me the plaque is southern German rather than Austrian, on account of the language of the inscription. "Grüß Gott grüß Gott mit hellem Klang" is a lyric of a German folk song which doesn't really have an English equivalent but my school boy German yields: "Sing greetings, sing greetings in a bright voice".  My German teacher Mrs. Aitken instilled in us that a light beer was a "Helles" and a dark beer was a "Dunkles". This is where the adjective becomes a noun and so gets capitalised.

Anyhow, the plaque shows hearty types striding about the Alps and hailing each other joyfully. The modelling is in bas relief i.e. not fully 3D but coming out of a 2D scene. Indeed, the bas relief is further very cleverly done in "false perspective" where the more distant the object the more shallow the relief. This mimics the stereo perception of human vision, and gives the illusion of a fully 3D scene using the depth of just a couple of centimetres.

In fact, the head of the man in the foreground is the only part of the scene done "in the round" and looking at the back of the piece you can see it is a separate piece of metal that has been inserted. This effect could not have been achieved with a single (rigid) mould.

I would put the piece as late 19th or early 20th Century. Believe it or not, it is actually cast aluminium with a bronze patination, so it is not as heavy as you might expect. The musical staves on the plaque are devoid of notes. I can only assume the sculptor did not have the sheet music, or had expended all the available effort on their technical brilliance in modelling depth.

Sunday, 4 December 2022

Llwyn Celyn

Having visited Wales on Monday and Tuesday of this week for the first time in decades, I now seem to be attached to the country by elastic and today (Saturday) visited a mediaeval hall house called Llwyn Celyn near the Brecon Beacons National Park. This was my fourth ever visit to Wales!

Llwyn Celyn was a prestige restoration project undertaken by the Landmark Trust between 2014 and 2018, and naturally I was following it very closely both online and on TV. There was a 2 part documentary series on More 4 broadcast in 2019 to which I was glued.

The restoration cost £4.2m and deemed worthwhile as Llwyn Celyn is an astonishing survivor from 1420. The project ranks alongside Belmont House and Astley Castle as one of the most involved restorations undertaken by the organisation.

The reason for my visit was that my friend Duncan invited me. He is helping out over this weekend's Open Days and knew I was only a couple of hours drive away. Duncan designed, printed and made the curtains at Llwyn Celyn.

I had concerns that Llwyn Celyn was over-restored as it has been much "smartened up" and there is a great deal new light coloured woodwork (contrasting with the surviving dark coloured woodwork). There was a serious danger that it could look like a sterile new build, and indeed some of the photographs I had seen suggested this was the case.

Thankfully, the moment I stepped in and walked around, the atmosphere was warm, historic, cosy and inviting. It is am important lesson that warmth and warmth alone makes any house feel inviting on a cold winter's day. :-) If a drafty historic building is restored to "modern standards" then it is inevitable there will be some loss of character i.e. the building needs to be stripped, then repaired, and then put-back. Things will never quite be the same after this process, but the important issue is how this is done. At Llwyn Celyn, this has been done impeccably with new top quality oak joinery being used to "fill in the gaps". Most people could not afford this.

new wood for old on the staircase

One intriguing question is whether Llwyn Celyn in 1420 was as "warm and inviting" as it is today. My suspicion is that it was not, even though the building fabric was new. I don't think open fires could ever have been a match for the current under-floor heating, and modern building standards and windows. In short, as building dwellers we have become softies :-), and this poses a considerable challenge for colder and older historic structures.

The sparse but choice items used to decorate the interior are perfect. There is a "shaker" quality to all Landmark Trust interiors: uncluttered to make then practical as holiday lets but with enough historic character to make them period credible/authentic. There is a minefield of debate between period credible and period authentic.

I was taken by this small, cosy and erudite study (double click for full VR panorama experience)

The bathrooms are a triumph: they are modern but have been made to fit in with the historic interior through the use of natural materials and period detailing.


another bathroom

The decision was made to dress the house in a 16th Century guise when the building moved into private ownership after the dissolution of the monasteries. Getting hold of 16th Century furniture is a little difficult, but at least the style is a known quantity and it is possible to locate pieces that channel this spirit.


another bedroom

A couple of beautifully costumed historic re-enactors were certainly 16th Century period credible. :-) The lady provided some music on historic instruments.The sound of the psaltery or lap heart was particularly evocative. The gentleman, a real upholsterer by trade, was demonstrating the sewing of late medieval garments. I thought I was taking a panoramic photograph of the upper hall but for some reason this turned out to be a sequence of stills with the last being a nice candid photo of the gentleman.

period re-enactor

The major debate in the restoration, as I recall, was whether to return the great hall to its original full height. When great halls first appeared, the smoke from a fire in the centre went up through the roof, so they had to be full height. Later chimneys were built on side walls, and great halls were often divided into multiple floors. At Llwyn Celyn, the floor was itself of significant historic character so this was retained and repaired. I think this decision was correct.

Interestingly enough, the best rooms are the bottom and top halves of the great hall. The bottom-hall is a dining space with a huge open fireplace. The fire was lit on the open day and created a special atmosphere. The upper-hall is, in my opinion, the nicest space of all. Because you are "in the roof", the magnificent timberwork is there for you to enjoy at close quarters and the lower ceiling means that the volume is cosier and easier to heat than it would have been in 1420. There is no doubt this is a fantastic space to chill with friends in front of the woodburning stove. In short, Llwyn Celyn, is very livable. Who would not want this place as their home?

lower hall

upper hall

On the drive to Llwyn Celyn, I spotted Raglan Castle at the side of the road. Oddly enough, I had just been researching Raglan Castle with no notion of its actual location. Perhaps, another trip to Wales is called for? :-)

And just for fun, a 1420 fly-though tour !

Tuesday, 29 November 2022

Good Gwrych

garden terraces at Gwrych

In 1999, when I was looking for a building to restore, one candidate that emerged alongside Balintore was Gwrych Castle in Abergele, North Wales. 

In terms of the restoration required, Gwrych was an even more insane proposition. It is vast and almost totally derelict. On the other hand, it looks utterly magnificent. The way the blocks of the building are composed on the side of a hill is masterful, and they give an impression of a complete mediaeval citadel. The architectural term for the composition of building forms, skillful or otherwise,  is "massing". 

I investigated the status of the building online. It was owned by an absentee American businessman and there was a complex legal situation. "This will take 15 years to resolve." I guessed, and indeed that is more or less exactly how long it took! :-) But we are jumping ahead of ourselves.

I discovered there was a charity "The Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust" which had been started by a resident of Abergele called Mark Baker, when he was 12!  I started chatting to Mark by email (who was 15 at the time) for the situation on the ground. I have to say that things looked hopeless for the Trust, there was little they could do without ownership. So we wished each other well with our respective "distant prospect" projects. The legal side of Balintore took the next 8 years to sort out, and I finally bought it in 2007.

In 2018, Gwrych was finally bought by the Trust and I sent a message of  congratulations to Mark as I knew what a major and long-awaited turning point this was. 

In recent years Mark has visited Balintore a number of times, and I finally got the invite to visit Gwrych today for the first time. So it was very much closing-the-circle. Would Gwrych in-the-flesh get me as excited, as the prospect of restoring her did 20 years ago?

The answer is a resounding "YES"! :-) Despite the insanity, I would definitely have taken on the restoration of Gwrych if the red tape hadn't been there.

The only true way to get a feel for a building is to visit it, and I hadn't quite got my head around the nature of Gwrych. Gwrych and Abergele are inextricably intertwined: a number of massive gate lodges are dotted about the town. These cannot be ignored. The castle looms above the town, so every resident of Abergele in invested in the building. The grounds (236 acres) act as a vast park for the inhabitants. 

When I visited, it became clear the restoration of Gwrych is a dynamic community effort. There were around 30 volunteers in action: working on the gardens, working in the shop and building a number of Santas' grottos for the December season. As far as I can recall, Mark mentioned 3 full-time staff and 50 volunteers, benefitting from the fact Abergele is a retirement town. While most of the building is still in ruin, some areas have been restored and the gardens are zooming ahead. The dining room, now with a ceiling, is an astonishing space.

Most importantly, Gwrych is a going concern: an impressive sum was raised by their recent Halloween events. The money from the reality show "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here" when Gwrych stood-in for an Australian Jungle during Covid, has been of huge benefit. I have to say I was totally fooled by areas of "film set" stonework built for the program. Mark invited me to tap some of the walls: these were foam with a very convincing coating that had been carefully colour-matched to the walls of the castle.

Balintore needs to learn from the community and team aspects of Gwrych. I talked to a number of the volunteers and they were universally lovely. They have taken much of the load off Mark, and he says this has been the best thing ever.

Mark had to attend a meeting on the Christmas ticket arrangements, which gave me a chance to really explore the building and grounds on my own and to pick up the vibes. Gwrych is not just a building, it is a 19th Century park that hosted tourists in the 19th and 20th Century. It could do so again in the 21st and indeed the grounds (paid entry!) are currently well used.

As you explore, there are certain areas where the massing of buildings and walls around you is entirely convincing: you could have stepped back in time to the middle ages. Massing is just as much about enclosed spaces as how buildings look on the horizon.

So Gwrych was a film set before there were film sets and Gwrych was a mediaeval fantasyland before there were theme parks. It is no accident Gwrych has been used for filming. Gwrych is the happy marriage between landscape, buildings and gardens. The castle is built on bedrock that is jutting out of the hill side, and seems to grow out of the ground.

What appears from ground level to be battlements, are in fact terraced formal gardens and scenic walkways.  In fact, it was only by studying some aerial photos recently, that I realised that around half the castle is actually fake and these are gardens masquerading as castle. While Gwrych Castle is large; things have been carefully orchestrated to make it appears even more monumental and impressive from ground level.

Now Gwrych is a good news story. The road ahead will not be an easy one, but at least there is a road and individuals that are prepared to walk on it. I had the ruined parts of the building to myself for a while, and there was still the unadulterated thrill of a vast abandoned building and yet there was comfort in rather than the normal despair for such a building's future.

loved this Neptune statue

P.S. My camera phone died within minutes of arriving at Gwrych - typical! Well, at least the two bad photos I took are mine. :-) Search online to see the full magnificence of the building.

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

Wednesday, 25 May 2022

Gregor's Unwitting Bolection

I directed Gregor to install my smallest reclaimed marble fireplaces into the smallest bedroom at the castle. This is the attic room (RA17 in the plans) that we are currently working on. Gregor came back with a "It won't fit.", and sure enough the fireplace opening is in a very short diagonal stretch of wall, so there is no room for manoeuvre. I have around 8 reclaimed fireplaces and 8 reclaimed cast iron inserts and yet none of them would fit. I was in despair but had to rush off to attend to some other business.

When I came back, Gregor said "I have an idea". He showed me a reclaimed length of moulding (an architrave), and said "I could make you a fireplace out of this.". "The moulding would work as the legs, and I could put a slate shelf on the top.", he continued. 

I was astonished because Gregor had almost described what is known as a "Bolection Fireplace": a style of which I am very enamoured. Here, there is no shelf but the top and sides are made from the same deep moulding. It can provide a very elegant simple look, especially when executed in a rich marble.  

After catching my breath, I managed "Do you know what a bolection fireplace is?". Gregor admitted he didn't, and I explained that he had unwittingly invented it, and that I would be very happy for him to build me one. :-)

the fireplace opening needing a fireplace
a bona fide bolection fireplace - only £4500 on eBay

Gregor's DIY bolection fireplace

now with feet, coordinating green marble fender and stove

bolection with surrounding wall patched with plasterboard.

I had planned to use the small reclaimed green marble fender in this location, because it probably wouldn't fit anywhere else. However, now that the fireplace was bolection, there is a visual resonance as the fender is itself of a bolection design. And given the plain nature of the fireplace, the richness of the fender provides much needed class. We will be painting the fireplace to coordinate, but the colours are as yet un-sublimated.

Ironically, the marble of the eBay bolection fireplace is identical to that of the fender. The legs of the fender were not long enough, so Gregor made the bolection fireplace feet into which the fender could slot. We had one reclaimed narrow wood burner which would just fit onto the limited hearth area so this is what we used. It's funny how things come together.

The molding came from Brechin Castle's carpenter's workshop. Brechin Castle has been on the market for around 3 years, and keen-eyed auction watchers will have seen items from the castle for sale over this period as the Dalhousie Estate clears out the accumulation of centuries.

It's somehow fitting that Gregor has turned a door frame from Brechin Castle into a fireplace at Balintore Castle.