Norfolk spectacles and Dorset storms

9 February 2020
Ben Pentreath

W E E K   O N E

It was a brilliant bright day as Charlie, Ruth (aka the Bible of British Taste – by the way, have you checked out her beautiful new website? ) and I were breezing up a deserted A11 to Norfolk for the weekend, early in the morning, last Saturday. Ruth, being Ruth, we stopped at a newly reopened highway pub for pints of local beer, well before midday. We pooled around the antique shops of Holt, and arrived at our destination, beautiful Wolterton Hall…. dreamy in the watery late January sunshine, just before late lunchtime.

We were staying with our friends Peter Sheppard and Keith Day, who bought the Hall and Park in 2016 and have been beginning its restoration since.  Their energy is formidable.  The task is huge, but if anyone has the stamina to pull it off, they do.

After lunch, in the lowering afternoon light, we had a fine walk through the outbuildings and walled gardens….

The gardens had been overgrown and deserted. Within minutes of their arrival, vegetable beds had been dug by Peter & Keith, the garden starting to be productive once more.  There is masses to do, but the gardens are in that poise of beautiful melancholy and repair that I find more interesting than if the whole lot was done up and tickettyboo like a garden owned by English Heritage. 

The chicken field…

out to the lake…. 

Looking back up to the hall in the last of the light.

That evening, the household swelled, Peter and Keith entertaining the wonderful Norfolk Churches Trust, followed by a superb dinner in the state dining room, long into the evening.

We all woke late – except for Charlie, who had crept out of the house at dawn to drive to Birmingham to sit his Rose Society Judging examinations.

A fine drizzle met us that day. I did a wet walk of the grounds before breakfast.

Apparently these arches, filled in by the Victorians, were originally designed to let the frost out of the garden. 

Church, was followed by coffee, and a heavenly collection of coffee cups on the red gingham tablecloth.

Here are some glimpses of Peter and Keith’s extraordinary interiors. 

And then it was a huge, long lunch… and the train back to London that evening. Heaven. Charlie was back home from the exams, which had gone very well it turned out.

The following morning, Charlie and the dogs headed to Dorset; I was on the 7am to Swindon, for a days’ work on site for one of our development projects in the Cotswolds.  Not necessarily a  great start for a Monday morning after a weekend in one of the eighteenth century power houses of Norfolk, but here is a random photograph of an allotment that day, which struck my mind as one of my favourite sorts of places on earth. 


W E E K   T W O

It’s been a busy, busy week, and a happy one – but no happier than when I arrived down in Dorset on Friday. Saturday morning was clear, sunny, almost spring-like – the calm before the storm. I’m writing now on Sunday evening – we are hunkered down, Storm Ciara passing through with a bang. It seems strange to think that we had such a beautiful day yesterday and such a grim one today….

Bridport Market early, followed by a walk with the dogs.

The lake sparkled in the sunshine…

Mavis, as you know, is never out of the water, our own version of a Scottish seal. 

And then after lunch in our favourite pub, we drove over to Cerne Abbas.  We have a vague new year’s resolution – a revival of a resolution I cast a few years ago – that we were going to do a new thing every week. And Charlie’s never been to the Cerne Abbas giant, that fantastic chalk figure cut into the hillside above the tiny village of Cerne. In fact, I’ve never walked right up to it. So it was a new thing for both of us. 

Clear chalk streams flow all through the village…. water everywhere.

Oaks rising against blue sky…

We climbed the steep, steep hill overlooking the village…. where you are not at all able to read the mysterious chalk lines cut into the grass.

Then back down to the site of the old Abbey….
All that remains of the Abbey, now, is the old Medieval guest house to the left, and the beautiful Abbey farm… and ancient Abbey gateway – a lost fragment in the garden. 

Lovely Cerne….

And then, on the way home, we called in to Nether Cerne… The beautiful little church that we have spied a million times from the road but have never called in to see.  That’s two new things in a week… which felt good. 

The church sits next to a fine stone and flint farm house. 

An amazing spread of crocuses around the corner….

And in front of the farmhouse… And we headed home…. and had supper with our neighbour Anne, and rolled into bed early.

Today, the storm was furiously pummelling the valley – all plans, to see our friends Edward and Jane, and for me to then head up to London, were cancelled.  No trains are running, so I will no longer be at my desk first thing as planned.  Hooray.  We’ve had the quietest day – doing absolutely nothing at all except catching up – with bits and pieces, and, I suppose, with ourselves. The best sort of Sunday at all: the calm right in the middle of the storm.


P O S T S C R I P T :   A   F R I E N D   H A S   F A L L E N

For twelve summers now, I’ve loved the old Lime tree at the boundary of our wall and the churchyard, casting shade when it was needed, home to 1000 bees in the summer, and with its beautiful lines drawn against the winter sky at this time of year.  Today, at a little after 5pm, as a huge and terrifying gust of wind hurtled down the valley with ever increasing strength, in the closing hours of Storm Ciara, this mighty friend fell over with a terrible, brief crash. It feels like nothing less than a miracle that the church, and the beautifully repaired roof, was not harmed at all. But our view has changed forever.

Goodbye, old friend. Here you were just a few weeks ago…

And earlier in the winter…

And in the autumn:

High summer…

Early spring:

Good bye old tree.  We’ll remember you.

20 comments on this post

Sarah Smithsays:

You’ve inspired me to do an allotment walk, beautiful post as ever, thank you for sharing.

Diane Keanesays:

How sad about the old lime tree! Of course they are such LIVING living things, it really is like losing a friend. Have you any idea how old it was? So decent of it not to damage the new church roof in it’s demise. Like the Campanile collapsing in Venice, which was described as a “gentleman” for injuring neither buildings nor pedestrians when it fell.

Lovely stacking chair in the Nether Cerne church, a nice addition to your “collection.”



Lovely post. What an amazing job your friends are doing at Wolterton Hall. A life’s work for sure. Beautiful photos. We are still under snow here in western Massachusetts so it is refreshing to know spring will come soon. That tree had a good long life and saw a lot. We have a giant old maple that I hope will not fall down. Every year is a gift with it. WIshing you and Charlie and the critters the best for 2020 as I haven’t remembered to see your posts recently. So much to catch up on. Thanks so much.

Dana Mooreheadsays:

Hi Ben-

It worked! I am writing today to share that this may be my favorite Inspiration ever. Thank you for the incredible images, the misty morning walk, the crocuses, your perfect memorial to your fallen tree. I was moved to tears to see the fallen tree, then the loveliest retrospective from so may angles, across the seasons. What a life this tree had, and so very moved in how you honored her impact on you. Thank you for your eye, your writing and for caring about so many things I do. You are poetry to my soul.

Santa Monica, Ca

Dana Mooreheadsays:

Hi Ben-

Trying in vain to get a note through – I write long, glowing missives that never publish!


Deborah Wagnersays:

Good morning, Ben. Thank you for another outstanding post. So lovely to see the crocuses.

Wolterton Hall. What an undertaking! I bow to their ambition, their energy, and their vision—and, it has to be said, their purse. That walled garden looks immense. I long to roll up my sleeves, grasp hold of a shovel, and start digging.

I was particularly drawn to the white frames in the red room and the wall of portraits (frequently termed “instant ancestors” in the sale rooms here) hung so effectively in the white room. Nice specimen table, also.

I got a thrill of recognition when I glimpsed their George VI coronation chair. I am sitting next to its twin, albeit slightly more tatty.

It’s heartbreaking to see a tree downed, particularly a lovely old friend and particularly when one considers the carbon held in its wood. If I might make a suggestion, it would be to plant more than one sapling to take its place in order to more quickly replace its carbon sink.

Warm hugs in the cold winter,

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Catherine Ssays:

Thrilled to see that allotments have made it into your blog! Our allotments have definitely helped residents from new housing developments on the edge of our beautiful parish to connect with the village community. Thank you as always for highlighting a common sight and making it feel special.

Susan Lammimansays:

Thank you for glimpses of a glorious February. Here in the Blue mountains of NSW we are wallowing in torrents of welcome rain

Kathie Johnsonsays:

Old friend indeed. I too lost a dear old friend. When I get to go back to the state of my birth, I always visit my Grandpa’s old home. The family sold it after his death. The home faces the street you approach from, you can see it and my dear buckeye tree from far off. When I turned onto the street there stood Grandpa’s house without its grace. So stark, so shocking. Gone. Of course I thought that tree would always be there where it belonged. I feel blessed to have rested, played and thought deeply, sitting between the large comforting roots. I know that dear friend is responsible for the way trees make me feel. Hoping you both find a way to fill that empty ground that feels right. I’m sure you have thought about saving a few branches or logs and make something. I wish I could have had a branch to fashion a curtain rod. Love from Texas.

Herman Prager III, Ph.D.says:

Awesome post. Thank you very much. Always so encouraging, and interesting.

susan herbstersays:

You must plant another tree of your choosing.


Thank you Ben for another fabulous post and showing us that wonderful Hall and garden area. What a wonderful place and the interiors look amazing. Just love your adventures, please keep them coming. I will be in the UK from Australia next week and cant wait for my trip down to Canterbury Cathedral. I visit the cathedral every time I am in England because it is such a magnificent place and to pray at St Thomas a’ Becket’s tomb.
Once again, well done Ben and looking forward to your next post.
Malcolm Pym

Darlene Chandlersays:

Lovely pictures of your friends home in Norfolk, but a beautiful place inside and out and Cerne was so lovely to see. Nice to see the crocus flowering, as we are having snow in Canada. Peter and Keith’s garden and what they have done so far is amazing. That lovely church in Cerne and the chalk art work in the hills, so interesting. So sad about your tree, but so lucky no damage was done to the church or your home. Happy Charlie did well on his exams. So again lovely to see all of the greenery and the lake pictures. And what a lovely plan you both have to do something new each week, a very positive enlightening thing to do. So uplifting to see the interiors also of Peter and Keith’s home and what they have accomplished with their work there. Magnificent home. Thank you for the lovely blog.


Thank goodness for the people who have the vision and money to bring back these wonderful buildings, whether a mansion in extensive grounds or a tiny church. And thank you too for bringing these places to our attention. Super post. Best wishes, Nicola

Peter Sullivan, Cape Townsays:

Fascinating to see Peter and Keith’s new project.I was blown away by their project in Fitzrovia and the flat in Venice.It is amazing what they can achieve.Wonderful photographs, Ben

Dana jenkinssays:



Dear Ben,
thank you for sharing all your wonderful experiences with us. The very beautiful Wolterton Hall, which I saw also on Instagram, was such a treat for the eyes also the gardens! A wonderful interior and to own such an estate is amazing and heavenly ! Dorset is so very beautiful as always and spring is around the corner, all the masses of snowdrops and crocuses, it’s so beautiful to see ….. The storm was also here in Germany last night and it’s still very windy now !
Hope it will pass very soon …..
Wish you a wonderful week and thank you again !
Yours Birgit from Germany 🙂

Dee Bowkersays:

Thanks for sharing. I loved seeing your friends’ beautiful hall, outbuildings and gardens. I always love to see pure untouched building when possible. The outbuilding interiors are fascinating. Reading your blog is just what is needed at this time of year, trying to get through the last, sometimes difficult parts of winter.

Patricia Taylorsays:

The calm today after the storm – yesterday was spent with tea
and home-made rock buns and a 1OOO piece jigsaw and today starts
with as always your so welcome words and images – thank you.

Debra Mooresays:

Lovely blog Ben really enjoyed your photos of Norfolk and Cerne Abbas. So uplifting to see crocus flowering spring is not long now. However the storm has reminded us we are still in winter. Great to see Mavis enjoying her swim. Enjoy your extra night or two at the parsonage lm sure you need it with your busy life.

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