Thursday, 30 July 2009

Off to Lincolnshire for a long weekend.

On Friday 31 July we shall be driving down to see my youngest daughter Clare and the two grandchildren, Jake and Ellie. It's a long car journey but will be worth it.

And another thing: our private water supply has sprung a serious leak! We are reduced to using bottled water for drinking and cooking etc., as the normal supply has to be fixed. It may take a couple of days.

So, off we jolly well go to Lincolnshire for a short while. Looking forward to seeing Clare, Jake, Ellie and the man of the house, Andy.

By the way, my daughter is a great artist and makes her living by sculpting one-of-a-kind fantasy dolls, such as faeries and things. She sells on commission and via eBay. If you care to see some of her work check out her website: and see what a clever and talented daughter we are blessed with.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The Earl and Countess of Haddington

Mellerstain House is the only large country mansion built solely by Robert Adam. His father, William, built the east and west wings in the early 1700s but the main house is by his more famous son Robert.

Robert Adam built a large place in London called The Adelphi Terrace but this was largely demolished some 80 years ago. Robert Adam's main works were extensions and alterations to existing houses therefore Mellerstain House is unique. It is also most beautifully designed inside. Exquisite plaster-work, especially on the ceilings, needs to be seen to be believed.

I still can't believe that this place became our home for a few years. I think the word serendipity applies. Life just happens, does it not? No matter how clever we think we are we have no control over the way life treats us.

OK, we all end up in the same way, sooner or later, but what happens along life's highway is, more often than not, luck. Well, that's my story - and I'm sticking to it!

It was pure luck that my wife and I ended up here in the Scottish Borders, living in part of Mellerstain House, the family home of the Earl and Countess of Haddington. Two of the nicest people on God's earth. Two of the best people I've ever known.

Above is a recent snapshot of them, taken from part of their website. The Earl is holding one of his chickens. He is extremely fond of birds and has an aviary in his courtyard with various and colourful examples. Elsewhere there are the free-range chickens and cockerels and on the lake there are two resident swans.

The swans produce up to eight or so cygnets each year. Swans are said to be lifelong mates but this year it seems that there are two female swans now residing on the lake. Ménage à trois mayhap?

One of the great pleasures when living here is meeting people from all over the world who come to the UK and discover Mellerstain House. The vast majority fall in love with the place. Some of them have become friends of ours. None of this would have happened without Lady Luck holding my hand for all of my life.

I don't know if there are ghosts. Or if there is a God. Or if there are leprechauns, fairies and angels.

But I do know Lady Luck exists - for all of us.

Friday, 17 July 2009

The Ghost of the Rose Bedroom

Whether or not you believe in the paranormal - and I do not - one often experiences strange happenings.

Have you ever been certain that you know exactly what is about to happen at a particular point? Do you understand what I mean?

Sometimes I've been having a conversation and I know precisely what is going to be said, just before it is said. The surroundings are exactly the same, everything is just as I know it will be. It's as though I'd experienced this whole scene and conversation some time in the past. Déjá vu is, I think, the term we use.

I cannot understand this phenomenon; I just know I've experienced it more than once.

Well, certain other inexplicable things happen all the time. Not all the time to me, but occasionally - especially since I came to live in Mellerstain House. This is just one of those 'strange things'.

It's now about six months since my wife and I came to Mellerstain House. I've studied the history of the place, its origins and inhabitants over almost three centuries. Fascinating stuff too. I need to know all about its history so that visitors touring the house can get answers to their questions.

Easter, 1996, and we are open to the public. I have a group of 20 Dutch tourists to take on a conducted tour. Most of the group speak perfect English; they put we Brits to shame!

Mellerstain has a strong connection with Holland. Lady Grisell Baillie, the eldest of 18 children of Sir Patrick Hume, were in exile in Utrecht, Holland, for some time, owing to Sir Patrick's alleged involvement in the Rye House Plot. Grisel took care of all the family whilst in hiding in Holland. She is one of Scotland's great heroines.

During this conducted tour I took the group of tourists into the Rose Bedroom. This is the only north facing bedroom in the house. Although it is a pretty room it always has a chill feel to it. One could possibly expect this, after all it does face north.

After a brief chat about the room and its original hand-printed rose-pattern wall-paper, the group filed out of the room heading for the first of the south-facing bedrooms, the Manchineel Bedroom. As the final member of the group entered the Manchineel room I looked back towards the Rose Bedroom. I just caught sight of a woman entering the Rose Bedroom. I asked the group leader to stay with the group whilst I nipped swiftly back to the Rose Bedroom.

As I approached the door I called out "Excuse me madam, but we've been in this room already ..." No reply. There was nobody in the room. I looked behind the black Chinese screen - nothing. I opened the door to the en suite bathroom; nothing, nobody there either. There is only one way in and out of the bedroom and the bathroom. Both were completely empty.

Yet I was certain of what I'd seen. Strange, but the tour had to go on.

Later that day Lord Haddington asked me how I'd got on with the house visitors. It was most enjoyable I said. I also mentioned that I thought I'd seen somebody go into the Rose Bedroom but found nobody there.

"Oh, that's Lady Grisell doing her rounds I suppose." he said. "Was she dressed in grey?"

"Yes, I think so - but it must have been a shadow or something; there was definitely nobody in the room or the bathroom." I replied.

The Earl said: "You're not the first who have seen her. She's our resident ghost!"

Lord Haddington has a great interest in the paranormal. He was, until a couple of years ago, president of a Crop Circle group and still likes to investigate new occurrences of these things. He is a most interesting and knowledgeable chap in many areas.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy ... (to quote the Bard's Hamlet).

Thursday, 16 July 2009

In the Mood for Love - A brief encounter ...

I thought I'd offer just one of my favourite film clips and theme music, just for something completely different, as Monty Python's Flying Circus would say.

This film came my way via a free DVD with a Sunday Newspaper. It is Chinese and it took years to get right. It is a story about two people who have unhappy marriages and they find comfort in each other, well, sort of. The music is totally hypnotic I feel. The acting is superb, as is the direction by Wong Kar-wai. The two main characters are played to perfection by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. Maggie Cheung said that this film took so much out of her that she declined to take part in the subsequent film "2046".

Anyway, I think it's one of the best films I've ever seen; I play it at least once every three or four months and love it more each time.

Monday, 13 July 2009

It'll All End in Tears - Floods of Them

And the days dwindled down, October, November ... and these precious days were spent in peaceful learning of the history of Mellerstain and its occupants over the years.

We all learn something new every day. Often inconsequential things, or even silly things; but we go on learning. I'd say that this is what most humans try to do: keep on learning.

It's a bit like blogging. You read one and it interests you. From that one you link to another. The web expands. It seems endlessly interesting. That started me off writing this potted biography.

I delved into the archives of Mellerstain. Spoke with the Haddington family to get some personal history. Many people I spoke to seemed only too pleased to impart nuggets of interest concerning the house, its history, former occupants and the Scottish Borders generally.

The Borders certainly has a history! Quite bloody for a lot of the time, especially concerning "The Reivers". I learnt quite a lot in a couple of months.

Each year, in December, the Earl and Countess throw a Christmas party for all the staff: the gardeners, the tenant farmers and workers, the cleaners and house-keepers,the gamekeeper, the house guides and some retired people. This December was our first Christmas party at Mellerstain and it was just great.

We got to know all the people who help to keep this wonderful estate in pristine condition. Everybody is invited, including wives and children. Towards the end of the festivities one of the Haddington children would delight in handing out the carefully wrapped Christmas gifts. A genuinely warm and pleasurable time.

And this December we had an abundance of snow! Scotland and snow go well together as you probably know. The whole area was blanketed in virgin snow. For days and days, sheer white. And it was cold. Never mind, we had the boilers going full blast and cosy log fires blazing away in the sitting room. Almost a fairytale situation.

December 31st, 1995 and we were still snowbound. We retired at about 1 o'clock, having spent a while seeing the New Year in. Three months had flown by.

Next morning I got up and looked out of the south-facing window of the bedroom. And the first thing that struck me was patches of green showing through the long sweep of lawn down to the frozen lake. A thaw had set in. Much as we liked the snowy scenes all around us it was good to see some colour at last.

But what was that odd sound I could hear in the background. Sounded a bit like a splashing fountain, a waterfall even. Got dressed quickly. Went downstairs to the Stone Hall. The sound of rushing water increased. Unlocked the door from the Stone Hall into the east passageway into the main house and I stood aghast!

Water was pouring through the ceiling, from the electric lights. Gushing down; the carpeting was sopping wet. I rushed down to the basement. It was swimming in water! A good inch or so was swilling away on the stone floor. It was a nightmare on New Years Day!

I phoned across to the Earl. He came running through the basement area from the west wing. We placed buckets under the water but they filled up so quickly it was hopeless.

The Earl had no idea where the stopcocks were; neither did I. Oh! this was calamitous. And the water kept flooding down. I phoned the now retired security/caretaker, Brian Ellis. He told me to find a door in the basement, next to the wine cellar and shine a torch inside. There I would find two iron wheels, like steering wheels. These were the stopcocks!

Shutting these down was fairly easy, but the water still cascaded down. The whole supply comes from an elevated supply about a third of a mile from the north front of the house. It rises to large storage tanks in the central tower. This central tower then feeds two other large storage tanks: one in the west tower and one in the east tower. It would take a while for the east tower tank to empty when the water to the central tower was cut off. But stop it did, eventually.

All this on New Year's Day! In Scotland this day is a regular holiday. Hogmanay the night before so today would be a getting-over-it-day for most Scots. The Earl and family were the only other occupants of the house today and we all spent hours mopping up as best we could. Fortunately it was only the east tower tank that caused the problem. The supply pipe had frozen during the cold spell and expanded the joint leading into the tank. This pipe was where the water was gushing from.

The next thing was to see the full extent of the damage, get the insurance people involved, and the plumbers, electricians and other necessary people.

There were many other flooding problems reported that day. A bank in Kelso was badly damaged and other homes and businesses suffered likewise. We were not alone, but that was cold comfort, so to speak.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Enter the Dragon - And the Police

Peering into the far darkness of the night waiting for the flashing blue lights and headlamps of the cops car. The immediate surrounds of Mellerstain were now bathed in bright white lights from all the floodlights triggered by the alarm system.

A few minutes had gone by and then the fast-moving headlamps came snaking through the pitch darkness from the west gates along the driveway leading to the main house.

Scrambling down the well-trodden stone spiral stairs in my slippers and dressing gown I opened the front door of the Stone Hall. A sergeant and a constable entered. Two minutes later another car arrived with two more officers.

If there were any intruders they would soon be sorted out.

"Which area caused the alarm?" asked the sergeant. "The east basement area." I replied.

We all trooped down to this area, unlocking a series of doors on the way. This basement corridor is a lengthy one. Running from the old east wing, through the newer Robert Adam main building and ending at the home of the Haddingtons in the west wing. Probably about 300 feet or more long, with various rooms on the south side and stairways on the north side leading up to the ground floor.

Everything was securely locked still. All doors and windows intact down here; better just check the ground floor though. It took about twenty minutes before we were confident that it was sweet F.A. - or a not so welcome False Alarm.

What caused it? Who could say. These things happen the sergeant said. That may be so I thought but it's not something I relished.

We were retracing our steps through the basement corridor, locking doors on the way, when something flashed by our heads. Then another!

"Bats!" yelled a policeman. "You've got bats in the basement!"

Well I never! I'd heard of bats in the belfry, but bats in the basement? Yoiks!

"That's probably your problem." said sergeant policeman. "They can be a bit of a menace when it comes to these sensitive movement sensors. You need to get the Chubb security engineer to see if he can do something about it."

Next day I rang the security company and the engineer arrived that afternoon. He said that this had happened now and again. "We've adjusted the sensitivity as much as we dare. We cannot decrease it further I'm afraid."

Not a happy outcome as far as I was concerned. Bats are a protected species in the UK and must not be removed or disturbed, even if you found where they were hiding. It seemed that I'd just have to live with the problem, but I wasn't too keen on that.

The security engineer explained that a bat flying close to the sensor could set the alarm off, as we'd just experienced. He then came up with a possible solution: fit a second sensor, close to the original one, programmed in such a way as to only set off the alarm if both sensors were activated simultaneously.

This would not guarantee a solution but it would certainly go a long way to curing the problem of false alarms in this area. A bat passing close to one of the sensors would not start the alarm; it would need two bats to simultaneously trigger each sensor and this was pretty unlikely. However, if a person was in the area then this would definitely trigger both sensors immediately.

After discussing this with the factor it was agreed that additional sensors would be worthwhile. This made me a lot happier! No doubt it would also make the police a lot happier. So it was quickly carried out and hopefully my sleep would not be disturbed too much in future.

A few days later, as I was locking up in the basement area, I noticed something like a large leaf on the floor. On closer inspection, as I went to pick it up, I saw it was, yes, a bat. It wasn't moving; I thought it must be dead. Bats don't usually go to sleep on the floor, do they?

I went upstairs and put on a pair of gardening gloves. Down to the basement and the bat was still lying there. Gently pick it up. It moved slightly. Took it into the east courtyard carefully placed it on the side of an old stone wall. It didn't fall off; it just seemed to cling there. I left it to its fate. No doubt there were other bats in the vicinity and hopefully it would survive.

I wondered what further discoveries would come my way in this lovely old place.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

A Rude Awakening

Slept soundly on our first night in Mellerstain. Strong blustery winds blitzed riotously through the plentiful trees but it actually seemed to lull me to sleep.

The Pickfords van arrived at 9.30 next morning and the unloading of our stuff began. It was not a simple operation! The entrance to our first floor quarters was via a stone spiral staircase. This east wing was built by William Adam, father of Robert Adam, in 1725. The ancient stone spiral was well worn. Each step was concave in the centre eroded by hundreds of shoes traipsing up and down over the centuries.

Romantic it may be, but strenuously difficult for the removal men to negotiate. Heavy work and not something I'd enjoy doing day after day. They completed their task efficiently and without mishap, either to our furniture or the building!

With bags of space in the flat we were soon sorted out. There is a large living room in the centre of the flat, about 24 feet long by 16 feet wide. We never used this room! The grandkids would have it as their playroom when they came to stay later on. We chose a cosier sitting room, about 17 x 18 feet. This had a lovely fireplace as well as oil-fired central heating. The kitchen/diner was a very good size too.

The main bedroom had all the necessary alarm sounders installed, intruder and separate fire systems. All of the bedrooms had handbasins with hot and cold water.

Lovely views from each window - so waking up to see such abundant beauty was a totally new experience for both of us.

So far, so good. The Countess, Lady Jane Haddington, came to introduce herself that first afternoon. She insisted that we had dinner with them in the west wing later on which we gladly accepted. She is a genuinely kind spirit; a hard working mother of three children too.

Dinner was great, and a couple of glasses of wine made it perfect. We made our way back to the east wing, tired but very pleased with life.

Soon we were in bed. I was fast asleep almost immediately.

I got up at 3.30 a.m. Not by choice, but by the wailing and shrieking of an alarm! It was excruciatingly loud. I didn't know if it was the fire alarm or the intruder alarm. I felt a bit like corporal Jones in Dad's Army: "Don't panic..don't panic".

Dressing gown on I found the control panels: it was the intruder alarm! Then the phone rang; it was the police. "Your alarm has been triggered" the police kindly informed me - as if I didn't know! "Officers are on their way - please wait until you see their headlights. OK?"

OK it was. But I wondered whether it was really OK...

Thursday, 9 July 2009

An Englishman’s Home in a Scottish Castle

October 1995 and we are off to a new life in the Scottish Borders. Everything’s ready for the journey; the Pickford’s Removals van has just set off for the journey northwards with our home packed in it. The furniture will be unloaded the next morning as it will be too late for the same day delivery of course.

The plan is to drive to Mellerstain House and hopefully arrive there before 10 p.m. It will be dark when we arrive and we are not overly familiar with the roads, even in the daylight! Fingers crossed.

The head gardener, Gordon Low, has agreed to wait for us to arrive and to guide us into Mellerstain House. I just hope he hasn’t forgotten!

Our route was along the A1 until we reached the branch road A68. It was dusk by the time we turned left onto this road. Perhaps we should have stayed on the A1 for many miles more, passing Newcastle and other towns. However, the map showed that the A68 cut across country and looked to be the shorter route.

The A68 is not a road I would recommend, especially for night driving. It is like a never-ending roller-coaster. Twists and turns, rolling countryside, hidden dips and pitch black! Even if one knew this road intimately it is still very daunting to negotiate at night.

We stopped twice on this road. I was feeling tired and stressed and my eyes just wanted to close. A ten minute rest, Pat having a coffee from the flask and me having a brief shut-eye.

Eventually we reached Jedburgh, the first Scottish town on this road. From there we travelled on until the town of Earlston. Here we turned right, into the town; we were just five miles from Mellerstain.

Gordon Low was waiting for us in his cottage, as previously arranged. It was just before 10 p.m. We met his wife who made us a cup of tea which we were glad of. Gordon had a large torch which he brought with him in our car and we made our way to the east wing, our new home. It was quite scary. It was so very dark and the wind in the trees made a whooshing ghostly noise.

He had a bunch of keys and opened the door of the wing. Our route inside the mansion house had been isolated from the alarm system but even so I tended to flinch as little red lights started to flash as we went through a very long basement corridor. Gordon explained the system just enough for me to re-set the alarm. He showed us how to get into our new flat and finalise the setting of the system and then he left, walking home to his cottage about half a mile away.

There were two camp beds in one of the ten rooms. These had been set up for our night’s sleep. There was no other furniture at all, apart from carpets. It was good to have a sleep at last. It would be another busy day tomorrow.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Lording it up

Interview over. We left the curator's office in the east wing of Mellerstain and entered the east courtyard. The tea-room was open; we went in and had a coffee. It would take us almost three hours to drive back to Lincolnshire and I was in no hurry to set off.

We were just about to leave the tea-room for a stroll around the gardens when the factor came in. "Oh, so glad I caught you before you go; we haven't paid your travelling expenses. How much are they?"

I hadn't considered it. Nobody had said we would be re-imbursed. "I don't really know ... " I replied.

"Well, here's £50 for petrol. Should cover it don't you think?" said the factor, handing me five ten pound Scottish notes. "If it's any more just let the curator know before you leave. Oh, and by the way, Lord Haddington says that if you want the position it's yours!"

I was so surprised. Totally unexpected to be offered the job in this manner.

"Well yes" I replied, after recovering my speech. "Yes, we'd certainly love to take the job."

"When could you start?" asked the factor. "The present chap and his wife will be retiring in September, when the visitor season is finished for the year. October would be a good time for us.." he went on.

"And for us too!" I replied.

So that was it. It would be a hectic two months or so before we took up our new life in Scotland but we were certainly up for it.

We drove back home; a home that would soon be history. It was almost dreamlike. Everything was happening so speedily and yet so smoothly. Yet it was all real. Not a dream at all but something I'd often dreamed of was actually happening...

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Sh-Shh Shangri-La

Reading my wife's magazine, "The Lady", I saw a small ad for a security-caretaker. Hmm, sounded interesting. Showed it to my wife.

"What do you think?" I asked. She wasn't sure. Not enough detail in the advert. Well, faint heart never won ... whatever, so a letter was sent off. Brief CV included. Reply received a few days later, asking me to telephone to arrange an interview.

Phoned the writer that day. "When can you come for interview?" she asked. "Any time you like." I said. "We'll get back to you soon ... goodbye for now."

Few days later, letter arrives: Please attend for interview at 11 a.m. on Monday next. Oops ... cannot make that day! School summer holidays were on but on that one day I'd been asked to complete the budget reconciliation with Lincoln County Education staff. I could not let them down.

Telephoned the lady who'd given me the interview date. I was pretty sure she would not think well of me having said "Any time you like..." Well, I was wrong. When my explanation was given she said she would consult the Earl to see if he could see me some other time.

Yes, the job was to look after the home of the 13th Earl of Haddington and his family in the Scottish Borders. A week later another phone call: "The Earl will be available to see you next Wednesday. Can you make it then?" I could, and did.

We drove up to Scotland from Lincoln on the Tuesday, stayed in a B&B overnight. Next morning we found Mellerstain House, situated twixt Kelso and Melrose in the Borders.

Fabulous looking place. Acres of parkland at the front and lovely acres of gardens at the rear. Large castellated central building and east and west wings either side.

My wife and I would live in the east wing quarters with the earl and family living in the west wing. The central part was now open to the public for part of the year and was no longer occupied.

The interview was in the curator's office. Present were Flora T,(curator), John H(factor) and John George Baillie Hamilton, 13th Earl of Haddington.

Wife and I were greeted and we sat down to be grilled. It was a friendly enough grilling. Interviews have never really bothered me. Relaxed and just happy to see this wonderful place.

Towards the end of the interview the Earl asked me if I had any family in Scotland or any friends or relatives. No, none at all I said. In fact, Scotland was about the only place in the UK that I'd never even been to!

He seemed a bit puzzled and said: "Well, tell me why I you want to come and live here?"

"To be perfectly frank" I replied, "I've always dreamed of living in a place such as this - but I've never had enough money. So, I thought why not join somebody who already has one."

My wife looked horrified. The Earl laughed. We were thanked for coming and the curator said: "We'll let you know..." The usual brush off line; or was it?

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Survival of the Weakest

In 1987 life was killing me. At times I dreaded the approach of dawn. I was weak. Not physically you understand; more like a car, a good car, but with spark plugs fouled up and a flat battery.

The solution was simple: re-charge the battery and change the spark plugs.

Leaving a secure job might seem madness to many. To me it sparked a new lease of life and restored the power needed to drive on.

Most people resist change. It's sometimes easier to leave things as they are. Even though we might be uncomfortable we at least feel secure in the status quo. But when the nettle is grasped firmly its sting does not hurt.

Once I'd accepted that my job was the problem my problem was solved. Another job was soon found. Not as well paid but a million times more enjoyable. Some adjustments had to be made to fit our new circumstances. That was easy; like changing gear down a bit. Stop speeding and just cruise along.

We moved house, from Southend on Sea to Lincolnshire. That was a good move. I applied for a job as finance officer in Caistor Yarborough School. The interview was friendly and I felt relaxed. Two days later I got the job.

The Principal of the school was one of the nicest men you could wish to work with. One of nature's true gentlemen. He was quite amazing in so many ways. For example, I attended one of the morning assemblies and he knew each of the pupils by name it seemed; there were about 450 of them! He was always at his desk before any of us, and he was usually the last to leave at the end of the school day.

The job itself was to manage the annual budget and the budgets of each school department. Placing orders for goods and equipment and making the payments. It was something I felt at home with. All the teaching staff were great to work with and my two office colleagues, (the school secretary and the Principal's secretary), were efficient and friendly too.

Compared to my job as a Customs & Excise VAT man this was nirvana. Changing lanes and changing gear was one of the best moves I'd ever made. Could things get any better?