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  • Carol Duval

North and South

The M1 north to Leeds is never fun but in winter its litter-strewn hard shoulders without the camouflage of bushes in leaf made for a drab journey. Still, we managed to find some bright spots, starting with Tankersley Manor, a spa hotel north of Sheffield where we could swim and wash the cobwebs away.

Later we stopped in Wakefield, which rekindled memories of having read Oliver Goldsmith's novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, at high school. I can't imagine such a book being on today's reading lists!

On the drive back south we stopped off in another town we'd never visited before, Derby, which was similar to Wakefield and Newport but more upmarket. We admit to being breakfast snobs and enjoyed the perfect poached eggs and trendy trimmings at the Bear much more than the rubbery scrambled eggs and sugary beans we've found in so many hotels--which is why we seek alternatives.

Back south, our final month started with a restful night at the Evesham Hotel with its gorgeous grounds and Tudor connections. Was the watery pageant put on for Queen Elizabeth I when she stayed there the inspiration for A Midsummer Night's Dream? Was Shakespeare a guest?

Last pet sit: Odiham, Hampshire. Dog: Harvey, a velvety black retriever who's a VERY LUCKY boy. He lives in unsustainable splendour in a house that's gorgeous but we're glad we're not paying the power bill. Like the Tudors, restraint isn't an issue.

Like Barney, Harvey is also a toy lover and presenting these is his way of greeting. When super-excited, he grabs his sleeping blanket, which is quite a load for a dog's jaws. However, his black fur, while blending in beautifully with the monochrome decor, isn't great for visibility. I got a brief shock one night when a disembodied giraffe came towards me out of the gloom.

A March surprise--waking up to snow this morning. It was a joy seeing Harvey take such pleasure in romping, digging, eating and sniffing about in the snow. He shared a friendly moment with the Shetland pony that lives in the farm down the road.

Something different about looking after Harvey is that he's got a spends one day a week at the Herriard Hound Hotel, a fancy name for a farmyard. This gives us a free day and him a day romping with other dogs. He was eager to get out there when we dropped him off and eager to greet us on our return. Typical dog.

The nearest town is Farnham, which pretty much has it all. Lovely old heart, relatively sympathetic new buildings, the arts, great coffee and book shops and a sense of humour.

Our National Trust membership came in handy with a few fascinating properties within striking distance. Coincidentally, each of the three houses we visited during our dog sit in Hampshire looking after Harvey were in chronological order. First was the Vyne, its history going back to late medieval and Tudor times. Last time we visited, it was autumn so it was lovely to see it in its near-awakening phase in early spring.

Next stop--Hinton Ampner. The highlights of this Edwardian country house are the delightfully warm and cosy-- for a huge house--rooms with views across the South Downs, the contents which are original and so faithfully reflect the tastes and lifestyle of its owner and the clipped topiary gardens.

Polesden Lacey is interesting from a more modern historical point of view, its last owner, socialite Maggie Greville, who entertained 20th century kings and queens. As in most NT properties, the houses themselves and their contents, including massive collections of ceramics, paintings and artifacts, are impressive. With a pianist playing in one of the public rooms, we could imagine what it would have been like to have arrived on a Friday afternoon for a long weekend being lavishly entertained.

But for me, it's the gardens. Spring blossoms were suddenly appearing while snowdrops were vanishing.

One reason we did this particular pet sit was to be within striking distance of family and friends. I caught up with Charters colleague, Sue Howell at the Leather Bottle; St George's colleagues at the Golden Retriever; Sue and Michael Wakeford at the Thatched Tavern near Ascot; and Gay and Ian Kelly visited from Chobham.

A last couple of walks with Harvey in surrounding lanes, woods and fields and then off for our final week at a house swap near Tunbridge Wells.

Rusthall is on the outskirts of Royal Tunbridge Wells and is one of the strangest places in the UK we've ever seen, featuring a weird and wonderful collection of sandstone outcrops. Entering into our road was like driving between Scylla and Charybdis. It was fascinating seeing a largish lorry make it through one morning. One particularly noticeable rock gives its names to the local pub, the Toad Rock Retreat, popular with locals and as quirky as its name.

Tunbridge Wells is a very different but lovely town famed for its smart and historic Pantiles.

We revisited Bateman's, Rudyard Kipling's home but this time it was a very different experience being in spring. I love the quirkiness of this house, which so suits an imaginative person such as Kipling. This time we learnt of his horrendous childhood, ripped from his carefree days in India at six years old and left in the care of what sound like truly horrible foster parents. At least we could take comfort in the fact that he did very well for himself once his writing took off, earning enough to buy this wonderful property.

Spring was really coming in with so much abundance and even the odd tulip beginning to open in its sheltered walled garden position.

Our friend from Chicago, Michael Baushelt joined us for a few days during which time we visited Sissinghurst, home of Vita Sackville-West and her husband Howard. It was a rainy, miserable day but the views were still spectacular from the top of Vita's tower where she did most of her writing and reading. When not involved in literary pursuits, they created the most magnificent garden. Even in early spring it was a delight with its many 'rooms', each with its own flavour.

One last National Trust property, Knole, the sprawling, art-filled castle which Vita would have inherited if she'd been a boy. Instead, her gay cousin, Eddy, reluctantly took it on. However, after living in cosier tower rooms for a few years, where he could pursue his writing and musical activities, he decided life in Ireland was much more his scene.

As for us, we've had so many great experiences here this time round but like Eddy, are ready to move on. Next stop--Spain.

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