21 November, 2007

Exmoor ponies! and mud

Well, after a lovely cosy evening with the girls tucked up with hot water bottles, a chill air without and Calvados and Rebecca within, we all slept like babes and woke to a gorgeous, blue-sky day (at first, although later the winds swept up some clouds). I awoke to find all children and John off on a walk, so I followed suit and took the camera. Through the lovely old town of Stogursey ("Stoke de Courcy", the church notes informed me, some old family of de Courcy having founded the village in 14-something). A changeable, typically English sky of grey, blinking blue, scudding clouds, this moment a terribly threatening black bank against the house, the next a cloudless expanse, promising a perfect day.

Home and I had no sooner brewed a cup of tea than the kitchen was overrun by a band of starving girls, even though they'd already had a first breakfast of waffles and maple syrup. By the next half hour they had all consumed their weight on fried eggs, toasted bagels, cream cheese, goats cheese, smoked trout, smoked salmon and strawberries. It must have been SOME early walk.

After that we were hot on the trail of the Holy Birthday Grail: Exmoor Ponies. Now if life has taught me anything, it has been to over-prepare. So I had researched the Exmoor Pony Centre, the rescue arm of these wild species, running about on the moors. This way, even if we ended up not tracking (I didn't say "stalking") ponies in the open, at least we'd see them in semi-captivity. And after some interesting adventures with the SatNav we've christened Davina ("wait, Davina, we can't ALWAYS be one mile away from our destination!") we arrived. A lovely young employee, far too shy to be questioned as to her name, showed us around and most importantly introduced us to the ponies themselves, having been laboriously gathered off the moor after their birth last summer. Unbelievably fluffy, cosy and curly, they stood eating their hay interminably while she described their living conditions. I could see that, as cold, damp and lonely as this girl appeared, any of our three children would have traded their lives for hers in an instant.

From there we repaired to the moor itself where we tried, unsuccessfully, to find some ponies in the wild, just on their own. I had found a message online earnestly asking people to stop leaving treats on a certain spot, as it was becoming a target for "overly aggressive ponies," and had sheepishly earmarked this spot as our destination (really, the carrots in John's pocket were for... us!). No go. As it transpired, the carrots WERE for us, as we saw nary a pony in the long windy walk we undertook. But it was LOVELY, the scrubby underbrush studded with yellow flowers and the occasional clearing where it was obvious a pony or two had cleared the grass. Darn. No ponies.

We stopped off in the really cute town of Dulverton for a lunch at the Courtyard Cafe, and then the girls were off to the local needlework shop to find a project to keep them occupied should the next day prove rainy (it was). I visited the local butcher for mince for spaghetti and meatballs, and then we were off home again, to read, play cards, and most importantly write in the Landmark Trust Logbook, where so many stories, true and tall, are written by all guests about every property they own. I confess to having produced some extremely unlikely tales in logs I have written (a secret passage under the Pineapple House in Scotland? don't think so), so I was completely empathetic with the girls' energetic project to produce "the best log entry ever." Drawings of Fred and Ginger, of ponies, and a certain account of a passageway under the moat ensued. Everyone happy.

Sunday they did their homework like good girls and worked on their needlepoint, albeit creating rather more, shall we say, liberal? versions of the kits they had bought than the makers intended. "I have SO MUCH respect for Indiana Nona now!" Avery said, her room boasting a sampler made by my mother. Me too! The rain came and went, and at one point we took a walk to what turned out to be the largest known mud stream and they JUMPED. As you can imagine, they have never been muddier. Awash with mud, straight into their boots and all through their jeans. The perfect relaxation for hard-working ten and eleven year olds. Now and then the girls repaired to the castle keep to run pony games, feed the geese, whatever else took their fancy. Leftover macaroni and cheese for lunch, horrid packing, and then it was, sadly, time to take our leave of the glorious place.

Well, since then it's been laundry, laundry, laundry.

And Thanksgiving prep! Lest it be feared that we expatriots have forgotten our roots, I must assure that I spent my entire late afternoon shredding brussels sprouts, peeling and slicing carrots, simmering mushrooms, garlic, fresh sage, onions and celery for stuffing. And cranberry sauce! And John tore out the insides of countless loaves of Italian bread for the stuffing. Tomorrow is the day. Gobble, gobble, everyone. We miss you terribly.

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