I wanted to make the most of my newly renewed, after some years absence, National Trust membership by going to Biddulph Grange - at its best at this time of year with a mass of rhododendrons and azaleas; N was less than enthusiastic and quoted as saying 'you're far more interested in gardens than me'; and the girls still had homework to do. The weather was as uncertain as we were - sunny one moment, heavy showers the next. N needed to go for a run as part of his somewhat lackadaisical preparation for the Manchester 10km run in a few weeks time, and we also had to recover a car abandoned after the Ball in Buxton the night before. By 3pm I'd given up on Biddulph - it would be shutting by the time we got there. So we came to a compromise. We would go to Lyme Park - a National Trust property effectively on our doorstep - and have a walk there and then have an early supper at the Rams Head which serves up a good meal in pleasing surrounds. Decided then.
It was after five by the time we got there and I was concerned the park might be shut (as the handbook suggested it would be). However a large notice greeted us as we turned into the grounds informing us that they were open till 8.00pm. No need to worry then. There was a strong sense of being tale-end Charlies - such cars as there were were all going in the opposite direction to us, and when we got to the car park it was practically empty. We put our boots on under the shelter of the raised boot of the car as yet another heavy shower passed overhead. Was this a good idea? We persevered and as it eased set off for the little wooden gate which led into the park right behind this magnificent house. (Lyme Park was where they filmed the TV series of Pride and Prejudice - you know, the one with Colin Firth as Mr Darcy where he strides out of the lake in wet trews and all the women faint. The part that has dogged his career ever since by setting him in cliched stone.)
I have often wandered in the gardens and admired the vistas of the park beyond. There is a long avenue of trees that leads through it where once carriages would arrive from the south; there are marshy bogs and tufted grass and birch copses through which deer munch and meander. We passed an incongruous lady in smart trousers and unsuitable heels walking her dog at a swift click-clacky pace as we trudged by in our noiseless wellies. The grass was damp and spongy beneath our feet, the air heavy with wet scents of earth and plant. There wasn't a breath of air and, after the high-heeled lady, not another person about. We were alone with the birds, the bees, the trees and the deer. It was magical.
As we walked up the avenue, some deer with black and white striped 'targets' on their bottoms, drifted across our path. The ground rose gently at first, and then a little more steeply as we reached the outer stone walls of the park. Here an elegant gate with a simple design of gothic arches marked the 'arrival' at the big house for those weary travellers of old. We passed through a wooded gate in the wall to its side where now a magnificent beech wood stretched up to the right while to the left pines predominated. We turned to the left, stepping over a small stream, and followed the walled perimeter of the pine wood. Climbing gently uphill we passed through another wooden gate and were now on the moorland which stretched as far as the eye could see beyond the beech and pine wood. The contrast in atmosphere was remarkable and very beautiful.
I decided we should follow the wall south, rather than north and we were greatly rewarded. Another gate in the wall appeared in due course and we stepped back into the forest and followed a pathway through the high beech trees. Some saplings grew at a lower level and I pointed out the unfurling leaves from their thin brown cocoon. They were the most perfect delicate concertinas of translucent lime green - so delicate that if you tried to stretch out the concertina to see the shape of the leaves they would become, they tore immediately. The juxtaposition of bare golden moorland to our left from where the sound of a stream babbled up, with the stillness of the wood and the birdsong which echoed throughout it, was quite exquisite. I looked back and saw E had sat down on the edge of the path where it rose steeply and took a twist and was simply looking out at the moor beyond, drinking in the atmosphere. She'd chosen the exact same spot I would have chosen and, if alone, I would have sat there in quiet contemplation for hours.
We left the path and took a short cut through the trees which, like most beech woods, were beautifully spaced and open. The canopy above us was not yet dense as this was just the start of new growth. Light filtered easily through and, looking up, you saw a delicate tracery of branches with intermittent bright green clouds of new life and the sky beyond. Underfoot the rain had left the thick carpet of brown leaves and pine needles soft, silent and fragrant. More bursts of lime green from moss and lichen enlivened the earthy canvas and every now and then thin gnarled fingers of fern were starting to reach out of the ground towards warmth and light after the dormancy of winter.