Searching for the elusive sleepers

James Robbins has been working as a warden with the countryside team at Cotehele, on the banks of the Tamar in east Cornwall, for four years. His personal interest in dormouse ecology and conservation, and his enthusiastic championing of this cause on the estate, has led to him being known as Cotehele’s ‘dormouse warden’

But, ‘are there dormice on the Cotehele estate?’, this question has no quick or easy answer…

‘Back in 2007 there were no confirmed records of dormice on the estate, but there were rumours of a rogue dormouse hanging out in the gardener’s potting shed. The countryside team and volunteers had been searching for their characteristic signs: opened hazel nuts – with no luck. The presence or absence of dormice can be hard to prove.

‘Late that year, however, we found the telltale opened hazel nuts in an outlying area of the estate called Cadsonbury, two miles south-west of Callington. This beautiful spot includes an Iron Age hill fort overlooking the valley of the River Lynher. The lower slopes of the hill are covered in scrub and woodland, and that’s where the opened hazel nuts were found. There are very few mature trees in this woodland, which could mean a shortage of natural holes for the dormice to use for daytime shelter and breeding, so we decided to provide them with dormice boxes both to give them shelter and to help us to monitor their population.

‘Sixty boxes were made from local larch, with the help of volunteers and the children from Calstock primary school; 40 went to Cadsonbury and the remaining 20 stayed at Cotehele.

‘The first season’s monitoring of the boxes found only breeding blue tits and great tits – no dormice. Then in late December 2008, whilst cleaning debris out of the boxes, we found a hibernating dormouse buried in the remains of a blue tit’s nest – the first confirmed record of a dormouse on the Cotehele estate! It was a strange sighting as dormice don’t usually hibernate above ground – they need the high humidity found in damp leaf litter to survive. It’s possible that this dormouse woke up during a warm spell and left its hibernation site, then when the cold weather returned it was forced to use the box for shelter.

‘Since then, we’ve found several dormice in the boxes – along with nuthatches and a brown long-eared bat – but no evidence of breeding, as yet. Fingers crossed!’

Spectacular snowdrops

Is there anything more delightful than a snowdrop? Pushing their gently drooping heads out from the still frosty ground, how anything so delicate and beautiful can choose to appear in gardens at this time of year is anyone’s guess.  Yet year on year the steadfast snowdrop reappears and a visit to a National Trust garden is all the better for them.

Spring is a time not to be missed at National Trust gardens and countryside across the South West.

Snowdrops are expected to be at their best from early February and many National Trust properties, including Fyne Court, Kingston Lacey, Dunster Castle, Arlington Court, Trelissick, Killerton and Lanhydrock will be open allowing walks among the displays.

The garden team at Dunster Castle and gardens planted thousands of snowdrops and bluebells in readiness for spring, ably assisted by green fingered younger volunteers from Dunster First School.

Robin Andrews, Head Gardener at Dunster, said: “We’re expecting a spectacular display this year.

“There are quite a few types of snowdrop that many visitors can see here, including some that they may not be aware of: the common snowdrop, giant snowdrop and Crimean snowdrop.  We’ve planted a 1000 of each variety in the castle gardens as well as 6000 common snowdrops in the river gardens too.

The snowdrops at Fyne Court were believed to have been planted in the 1800s as part of the original Arcadian landscape designed. They were planted to represent light and contrasted in places with the dark, which in this case were laurel bushes with their shiny dark green leaves.

To check on snowdrop events across the South West, please visit

Great strides made as Britons step out

More than 350,000 walks, or one every one and a half minutes, were downloaded from the National Trust website over the last year.

And four of the top ten walks were in the South West, including the most popular – a walk along the Bath Skyline, which was the most popular for the second year running with 14,000 downloads.

The other top South West walks were Stourhead in Wiltshire (seventh with 4,964 downloads), Brownsea Island in Dorset (eighth with 4,724 downloads) and Lansallos in Cornwall (10th with 4,177downloads). All of the walks are free to download and include a map and details of the things that you might see en route.

Walking on the South West coast path between Pencarrow Head and Lansallos Cove, Cornwall.

In 2010 and the total number of downloads increased by 40 per cent compared to 2009 as more Britons sought out walking routes for days out or during weekends away.

Jo Burgon, Outdoor Programme Director at the National Trust, said: “We have seen a remarkable growth in the popularity of walking in the past couple of years.  Our downloadable walks cater for a wide range of walkers with everything from short circular routes to the more challenging hill walks.

“We’re finding that more people want to get out into the great outdoors but often need to be pointed in the right direction. You don’t have to be an expert to go walking, you just need to enjoy getting outside.”

There are 72 different walks to choose from on the website in the South West out of a total of 240 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Together, the 240 walks cover a total of 858 miles, the distance between Lands End and John O’ Groats. All of the walks can be downloaded for free from

New South West entries on the website include five walks near Arlington Court in Devon, Lacock and Avebury in Wiltshire, Ebworth, near Stroud in Gloucestershire, Lamberts Castle in Dorset, and routes at Cotehele, Trelissick and Fowey in Cornwall.

August was the most popular month for walking with more than 50,000 downloads, or more than one every minute, with the Saturday of the bank holiday weekend the most popular day of the year.

The Bath skyline walk topped the walks chart for the second successive year with over 14,000 downloads during 2010, fifty per cent more than the second placed walk Alderley Edge in Cheshire.

This popular six mile circular walk has spectacular panoramic views of the world heritage city and a short diversion takes you to the stunning Prior Park gardens.

In third place was Flatford Mill in Suffolk, made famous by Constable’s landscape paintings.

An ambitious target has been set to have 1,000 downloadable trails on the National Trust website by spring 2012.  These will include the popular walks together with cycle routes, horse-riding routes and canoe trails.

The first ever National Trust walking festival is set to take place this year between the 22 October 30 October.

The Rebirth of Handmade Photographs

At a time when digital photography is king and analogue photography seems to have fallen into the dustbin of history, the Fox Talbot Museum is looking to the past to find the future of photographic art.

The latest museum exhibition, Handmade Pictures, is the work of Jesseca Ferguson who uses a pinhole camera and prints her images on paper made using a 100 year old technique.

From its earliest days, photography became an art by combining the aesthetic eye common to all artists in selecting the scene to shoot and a command of the technical skills necessary in creating the final print.

Tome-XXIV-Argyrotype Fox Talbot“As good as digital photography is, many photographic artists miss the hands-on feel of analogue photography” said Roger Watson, Curator of the Fox Talbot Museum. “The ease of making pictures using digital cameras and a computer printer goes against the grain of artists who are used to working with both their eyes and hands to create art.”

Jesseca is a Boston artist who chooses to continue working outside the technological mainstream. She uses basic pinhole cameras to create negatives and then prints them on fine artists paper using hand coated 19th century processes, in particular the cyanotype and salted paper prints.

Jesseca Ferguson said: “The poetic aspects of pinhole photography are what draw me to it.  Although the pinhole camera is ‘blind,’ because it has no viewfinder or lens, I find that it ‘sees’ in mysterious ways.  The pinhole camera’s ‘sight’ grants infinite depth of field to the object and images before it, thus allowing us to see the camera’s pinhole vision, which is characterized by the odd clarity of dreams or memory. Working without a viewfinder, I can’t know exactly what my pinhole camera will give me, thus my camera becomes my silent and enigmatic collaborator.

“Usually I work in my own studio, setting up arrangements of images and objects culled from my “museum of memory,” which is my personal collection of oddments, books, and artefacts.  Using only natural light, my exposures often take several hours.  I then contact print my images using 19th century techniques (or modern versions of antique processes) requiring ultra-violet light.  My work is slow, hand-built, and cumulative, rather like the layering of dust or memories over time. “

Roger Watson explained that, 100 years ago as photography became available to a much wider range of people thanks to hand-held cameras with film which could be easily processed, some photographers turned back to older techniques and processes in a bid to make photography an art form.

“We appear to be at another of these turning points where digital printmaking has become, on the one hand, so easy that anyone can make a basic image or on the other hand, so complex and expensive that it must be printed by an expert. In order to separate themselves from the crowds, some photographers have once again turned to the art of hand printmaking. For them, the final object must contain both the art and the craft of photography.”

More information on the exhibition is available on

Tyntesfield unwrapped

A major milestone is about to be reached. The building restoration work on the house and chapel is coming to an end. It reopens on 28 February along with the Home Farm Visitor Centre which houses a splendid restaurant, shop, exhibition space and exciting family play area.

For the past 18 months over 28 miles of scaffold poles have encased the house but now the newly retiled roof with its vibrant black and red diaper pattern is fully restored – and watertight. The house is home to eight species of bats which are protected by strict legislation. So it was bat-friendly building work.

TyntesfieldWhen you step inside the house you step into a Victorian home – with modern touches discretely hidden. Not least a 21st Century heating system using a wood fired boiler to reduce carbon emissions and completely new electrical wiring which is hidden behind old, refurbished, switches and fittings.

Project Manager Tim Cambourne says, “After years of planning and some challenging moments, being able to share this extraordinary project with visitors has been well worth it. The scale of work that has taken place here is quite extraordinary and is probably one of the most significant moments in Tyntesfield’s history.”

Tyntesfield's weathervane forecasting a good season

Highlights of the restoration include the return of the cockerel weather vane – regilded during conservation, it forms a striking sight on the highest point of the house. Joining the cockerel amongst the spectacular turrets and pinnacles of Tyntesfield’s rooftop is the recently reinstated bell spire which was probably originally used to call or keep time for estate staff.

The completion of the building restoration work to the mansion and chapel means conservation within the house can progress. In the butler’s pantry you’ll meet the Inventory Officer busy still cataloguing the many thousands of objects that make up the Tyntesfield collection, each of which contribute to the history and story of the house. The discoveries range from nostalgic ice cream containers to far more ominous bones found hidden between the joists of a first-floor bathroom.

Outside of the house, there is much to see and do. In the rose garden take a seat in the beautifully repaired gazebos, pick up seasonal produce in the kitchen garden or enjoy one of the walks in the wider estate, including routes along the Victorian carriage ways with views across the Yeo Valley.

Your outdoor nation

We’re keen to develop what we can offer in terms of outdoor spaces and experiences, so we’ve launched a 6 month campaign to raise awareness of the outdoors.

We’re well known for our work with houses, but less known for our work with the outdoors. Yet we manage great swathes of countryside and coastline which are available for people to use for walking, cycling, camping and simply enjoying being outside. The majority of our houses have spectacular outdoor spaces and places that are available throughout the year too, yet many people believe everything stops in October when most of our houses close for winter cleaning and restoration.

Outdoor Nation Plym Woods

We’ve extended our opening hours so people can enjoy our gardens, parklands and woods and we’re opening many of our shops, tea rooms and restaurants throughout the winter months. So we’re creating a debate – conversation not consultation – to gather people’s views on what Britain feels about outdoors, whether we are losing touch with the countryside and what we need to do to rekindle that love affair

Please visit to let us know your views or you can let us know what you think here on your South West blog.

Stay in one of the National Trust’s oldest buildings

Holidaymakers will have the chance to stay in a medieval manor house thanks to a transformation that has created the grandest and oldest holiday property in the National Trust’s portfolio.

Shute Barton, near Axminster in east Devon, dates back to the 13th century and is part of what was a larger family house owned by the Bonville family. It has stood through a staggering amount of history from the dissolution of the monasteries through to the Second World War.

Shute Barton nr Axminster

Come and stay in one the Trust's oldest buildings

The house – which has reputedly the largest fireplace in England where two oxen could be roasted at once – was given to the National Trust in 1959 by the Carew Pole family. Cousins of this family, the Pole Carews, lived there until 2009.

The features include 17th century panelling in one of the master bedrooms and a great hall on the top floor dating from 1450 and reached by a tiny spiral staircase. The room has a garderobe in the corner and an incredible hammer beam roof which can be enjoyed by guests today when they holiday at Shute Barton.

Guests can dine under original paintings belonging to the Carew Pole family, sleep in antique beds and look out of the original lead windows to views little altered over the centuries. The house is approached through an ornate gatehouse – a scheduled monument in its own right – and there are formal gardens which stretch out to the back of the building.

The house, which accommodates ten people, is an ideal venue for a special family holiday in incredible surroundings, and is well located for the sites such as the Jurassic Coast and the attractive coastal villages of Beer and Seaton. It is available for bookings from February 2011.

To book go to or call the National Trust holiday cottages booking office on: 0844 8002070

panelled bedroom at Shute Barton

The Master bedroom has wonderful views over the garden

The kitchen at Shute Barton

Shute's well equipped kitchen

You’re Hired!

Five new 16- and 17-year-old apprentices have recently started work with the Trust’s direct labour teams based at Killerton, Cotehele (pictured) and Bodmin. They will work alongside skilled craftsmen for three years, learning and practising traditional trades such as stone masonry, brickwork, carpentry, joinery, plumbing/leadwork, painting and decoration – all essential in helping to protect the buildings cared for by the Trust.

New National Trust Apprentices

Pictured outside Cotehele

Defending Drogo from the drips

2011 is all set to be quite a year for Castle Drogo on Dartmoor, with the celebration of its 100th birthday and the launch of a major fundraising appeal to help save this unique national treasure.

The self-made millionaire Julius Drewe laid his castle’s foundation stone on his 55th birthday, 4 April 1911: the first of hundreds of thousands of blocks of Dartmoor granite that were to follow in the construction of an extraordinary building – the last castle to be built in England – which took 20 years to complete.

Castle Drogo nestling in the autumnal trees under a cloudy sky

The enthralling story of the castle’s construction – at the core of which is the complex relationship of two fascinating men: Julius Drewe and his architect, the mercurial genius Edwin Lutyens – is brilliantly told in the Castle Drogo souvenir guide. You can pick up a copy at the visitor centre (open all year) or buy it online at

The castle remains the only 20th-century building in Devon to be listed Grade I, and it was the first 20th-century building to be accepted by the National Trust, with its doors thrown open to the public for the first time in 1975. Since then more than 4 million people have visited and become captivated by Castle Drogo, and its beautiful garden and estate, and last autumn it deservedly won Visit Devon’s Gold Award for the best visitor attraction in 2010, and Silver in South West Tourism’s Excellence Awards.

building castle drogo

Perhaps one of the reasons why Drogo is such an evocative place, and loved by so many people, is that it vividly and poignantly encapsulates so much of the story of the 20th century, with its startling social changes. From the solid certainties of the Edwardian era when that first stone was laid – a time of confidence, of old ways and new wealth – to the devastating blow of the First World War that cut down an entire generation of young men; through the struggles and changed realities of the inter-war years, when the Drewe family were at last able to move into part of the building and make it their home, to the Second World War, when the now-completed castle sheltered children made homeless by the Blitz; and so on to the 1970s when the Drewes took the decision to give their home to the National Trust.

What lies ahead?

It’s been an amazing story so far, and now Drogo is embarking upon an exciting new phase in its life as the Trust aims to save it from ruin – an unimaginable fate for such an important building, but the shadow of which has hung over it from the very beginning. The castle looks mighty and strong, rising up out of the craggy landscape of the Teign Gorge like a tor hewn by men, but at its heart there is a tragic flaw. Julius Drewe’s dream was for Lutyens to build him a proper medieval fortress, not a pretend castle, and one of its most authentic features – its flat roof – became its inherent weakness. Lutyens tried to seal the roof using asphalt (relatively new and untested at the time), but contraction and expansion of the concrete beneath resulted in it cracking, and before the castle was even finished it had begun to leak. Add to this Drewe’s determination that there should be no windowsills or guttering to compromise the design, and so you have a building that has leaked through its roof, its walls and its windows for its entire existence.

After several unsuccessful attempts over the years to make the castle watertight, at last the Trust has found a permanent solution using modern materials, which has been tried and tested on the chapel roof since its application four years ago – with total success.

A public appeal to raise £1.5million – called A Design for Life? – has now been launched to help seal the leaks for good. Work will begin in 2012 and it will be conservation on a monumental scale: there are 2,355 granite blocks weighing 680 tonnes to be removed from the roof, and replaced once the new roof system has been installed; 900 windows with over 13,000 separate panes of glass to be refurbished; and over 60,000 metres of pointing to be replaced. Throughout it all, Castle Drogo will remain open and you will have some very exciting opportunities (of which more later…) to see the work going on, to discover different parts and aspects of the castle – including the roof itself – and to experience Drogo’s story in a totally new way.

To get involved,  find out about the appeal or to make a donation, please go to or come along to Castle Drogo itself and ask any member of staff or volunteer to tell you more. You can also keep in touch with the save Castle Drogo appeal by following them on twitter

Let’s hear it for Val!

There is no greater accolade for a working gardener than to be invited by the Royal Horticultural Society to become an Associate of Honour. Val Anderson, Head Gardener at Antony in Cornwall, recently received this award in recognition both of her 35 years of outstanding work at Antony and of her passion and dedication to the training of the gardeners of the future. Many current National Trust gardeners owe their start in horticulture to Val’s inspirational guidance, encouragement and commitment during their three-year traineeships at Antony.

There are never more than 100 RHS Associates of Honour at any one time, so this truly is a rare and distinguished achievement. Val collected her gold medal at Hampton Court last summer in exalted horticultural company, including Sir Roy Strong, Alan Titchmarsh and Roy Lancaster (who took the photograph, left). ‘It was’, Val said, ‘really special, great fun and one of the best days of my life’. Her proudest moment came when John Sales, formerly the Trust’s chief gardens adviser, said that her award was ‘richly deserved’, to which we would all say: hear hear!

Val Anderson

Val at the awards ceremony, flanked by former National Trust colleagues Peter Hall (left), who also received the Assoiciate of Honour, and Michael Hickson (right), formerly Head Gardener at Knightshayes Court, who received the Victoria Medal of Honour.

At the start of her career, Val worked in commercial nurseries and her main interest was in propagating; she never expected to become involved in amenity horticulture and says of Antony ‘when I came here, I wasn’t stopping’. But it got to her, as it does to so many visitors who return again and again to enjoy the beautiful formal garden around the 18th-century house, and the huge and glorious woodland garden that is owned by the Carew-Pole family who gave Antony to the Trust in 1961 and still live here today. Val says: ‘It’s the whole thing: the setting, the staff and volunteers who work here, the plant collection, the way that the garden has developed so much… it just draws me back all the time.’

The woodland garden reopens on 1 March; the house and garden on 29 March. The year-long Alice Experience, inspired by the filming of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland here, is no more but Alice fans will be still be able to discover the rabbit hole in the garden.