Get thee to the Duk­eries

There’s more to Eng­land’s Not­ting­hamshire than the leg­end of Robin Hood

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - CHAR­LOTTE FRAN­CIS

OGLESHIELD, Tick­le­more, Gubbeen, Poacher or Stichel­ton?

They may sound like char­ac­ters in a Shrek movie, but they are the names of British spe­cial­ity cheeses. We are in the farm shop on the Wel­beck Es­tate, on the north­ern bor­der of Sher­wood For­est in Not­ting­hamshire.

Part of a chain of coun­try es­tates known as the Duk­eries, Wel­beck was one of five prop­er­ties pur­chased af­ter the dis­so­lu­tion of the monas­ter­ies by a hand­ful of in­ter­re­lated aris­to­cratic fam­i­lies who, be­tween them, di­vided up great tracts of Sher­wood For­est. Orig­i­nally an abbey founded in 1140, Wel­beck was con­verted into a coun­try res­i­dence by the Cavendish fam­ily (de­scen­dants of the duke of New­cas­tle) and then passed to the Port­lands, who own and man­age the es­tate to­day.

We buy a piece of Stichel­ton (pro­nounced stick­le­ton), which is made on one of the es­tate’s farms. A clas­sic blue cheese, it can­not be la­belled stil­ton as it’s made with raw, or­ganic milk — the first blue cheese to be made this way in Bri­tain since the 1960s. It is de­light­fully creamy and sweet, with a sat­is­fy­ingly sharp bite.

It’s a short walk to the Harley Gallery, housed in the old gas­works that once sup­plied fuel for the reclu­sive fifth duke of Port­land’s ex­ten­sive net­work of un­der­ground tun­nels (he also had a vast un­der­ground ball­room built). We have a quick look at the con­tem­po­rary arts and crafts sec­tion, but it’s the Port­land Col­lec­tion we’ve come to see. Built up over four cen­turies, the dis­plays in­clude a hand­writ­ten let­ter by Oliver Cromwell, the silk gloves worn by Charles I at his ex­e­cu­tion, the con­se­crated drink­ing cup used at his last com­mu­nion, a pike­man’s suit of ar­mour and a roy­al­ist shilling minted dur­ing the Civil War.

We dis­cover that the only way to catch a glimpse of Wel­beck Abbey is on one of the cir­cu­lar walks from the Harley Gallery car park. One of the longer cir­cuits takes in Creswell Crags, lime­stone caves that house Bri­tain’s only Ice Age rock art, but we opt for a short cut and drive to St Winifred’s Church in the vil­lage of Hol­beck. Built in 1913 as a place of wor­ship for the Port­land fam­ily, it’s screened by tall beech hedges and shaped holly bushes.

Lin­colnshire The raised tombs in the church­yard with their moss­cov­ered heraldic mo­tifs tell the story of a dy­nasty.

Next is the Na­tional Trust-owned Clum­ber Park. Orig­i­nally a swath of Sher­wood For­est, it was en­closed as an es­tate by the duke of New­cas­tle to cre­ate a hunt­ing ground for Queen Anne in 1707.

Al­though the orig­i­nal pal­la­dian man­sion was de­stroyed by fire in 1879 and its re­place­ment de­mol­ished in 1938 to avoid tax du­ties, the state­li­ness of the place with its lake, wood­lands, park­land, gar­dens and gothic re­vival chapel re­mains undi­min­ished.

We ap­proach via Lime Tree Av­enue (Europe’s long­est dou­ble row of lime trees) and head straight for the late 18th-cen­tury kitchen gar­den. Framed by the Long Range Glass House on one side and red brick walls along the oth­ers, the re­stored 1.6ha gar­den is a visual and sen­sory de­light. Two 137m herba­ceous bor­ders with clas­sic English favourites such as blue hollyhocks and del­phini­ums, con­trast­ing with yel­low and orange dahlias, sun­flow­ers and glad­i­oli, are set against es­paliered fruit trees, climb­ing roses, neat rows of veg­eta­bles — we have fresh beet­root in the res­tau­rant at lunchtime — and a herb gar­den with mul­ti­ple medic­i­nal and culi­nary va­ri­eties.

It’s a short drive south to Thoresby Hall and Park, once the prin­ci­pal seat of the duke of Kingston and later the Manvers fam­ily. The El­iz­a­bethan-style man­sion is now run as a ho­tel, but the ex­ten­sive grounds are open to the pub­lic. We stroll though rolling green park­land dot­ted with ma­jes­tic cop­per beech trees to the lake, where swans nest on is­lands of weed and large herds of deer are graz­ing. On our way back we skirt a game of cricket that’s in progress and cross a small bridge into a field of sheep. It’s so quintessen­tially English that we de­cide it must be time for tea, so we find a cafe in the clock tower court­yard and or­der a pot of earl grey.

The next day we head to Ruf­ford Abbey, south of Oller­ton. Founded by Cis­ter­cian monks in 1147 and con­verted into a pri­vate house by the sixth earl of Shrews­bury in 1536, Ruf­ford is part ru­ined abbey and part Ja­cobean coun­try house sur­rounded by for­mal gar­dens and wood­land. We ven­ture un­der­neath the abbey to see an ex­hi­bi­tion doc­u­ment­ing the lives of the monks.

Walk­ing down the well-worn night stairs, you can al­most hear the monas­tic shuf­fling of steps; a strict and silent or­der, the monks would rise each day at 2.30am to at­tend ser­vices in the abbey church.

There’s less si­lence to­day and more rous­ing his­tor­i­cal re-en­act­ments. Our visit co­in­cides with a Liv­ing His­tory Week­end cel­e­brat­ing me­dieval life from the 12th to 15th cen­turies. The vol­un­teers rep­re­sent­ing the Knights Hospi­tallers look the part, with their pal­lid, waxen faces peek­ing out un­der hooded gar­ments. We don’t arrive in time to see the Bat­tle of Work­sop, but we do see a man eas­ing him­self into a suit of chain mail and oth­ers sharp­en­ing their swords or flex­ing their long­bows. Women perched on small wooden stools comb wool and stir caul­drons of pease pot­tage or de­li­cious smelling mish­mishiya, a dish of lamb, apri­cots and onions flavoured with Cru­sader spices such as gin­ger, pep­per and cumin.

Work­sop Manor, the fifth Duk­ery sit­u­ated on the out­skirts of the mar­ket town of Work­sop, was once the prin­ci­pal seat of the duke of Nor­folk, but is now in pri­vate own­er­ship. So it seems fit­ting that we should in­stead visit the home and hid­ing place of the peo­ple’s duke, Robin Hood.

The Ma­jor Oak — where Robin is said to have hid­den from the sher­iff of Not­ting­ham — is a 15-minute walk from the visi­tor cen­tre at the Sher­wood For­est Coun­try Park near the vil­lage of Ed­win­stowe. We pass stands of younger 600-year-old oaks — many of them weath­ered into weird and won­der­ful shapes — but noth­ing quite pre­pares us for the size of the 800-year-old Ma­jor Oak. Weigh­ing an es­ti­mated 23 tonnes and with a girth span­ning 10m and branches ex­tend­ing more than 28m, this is no or­di­nary tree — it’s an an­cient mon­u­ment steeped in lore and leg­end.

The re­al­ity is that the tree would have been but a sapling in Robin’s day, but why let that spoil a good story?

Thoresby Hall is now run as a ho­tel

ALAMY

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