The Master's Summer Outing

The annual Summer visit this year took us to Warwickshire

Start date: 13th June 2016
End date: 14th June 2016

Start time: 3:00pm
End time: 4:30pm

Venue: Dorsington Estate, Dorsington, Warwickshire

Afternoon garden party - Ragley
Afternoon garden party returns to Ragley

The Master’s Summer Outing

Its one of the joys of our Company that each year the new Master brings his or her individual perspective, personality and often some aspects of their home locality, to the life and activities of the Livery. The Master's Summer Outing is a prime example of this phenomenon. Every year is different; reflecting each Master's unique take on how and where best to inform, interest and delight those lucky enough to be able to attend. This year's event certainly did all of these things.  

Two fascinating and very enjoyable days in the beautiful countryside of Warwickshire commenced, a little disconcertingly, with a meeting in a field at the end of an unmarked road. Never-the-less, we all assembled successfully, showing that satellite navigation hasn’t yet completely eroded the nation’s, or perhaps just the Company’s, ability to read a map, to find the Master apparently guarding two large wheelie bins – later discovered to be makeshift traffic bollards.

The venue for the first afternoon’s entertainment was the Dorsington Estate, home of the late Felix Dennis, famous or infamous depending on your perspective, for his appearance in the ‘Schoolkids Oz’ Obscenity Trial of 1971 and later in life a very successful publisher of computer magazines.

At Dorsington we were greeted with a very welcome and very English cream tea, and while we happily snacked we were introduced to Dennis’ passion in later life – the creation of the Heart of England Forest. The plan for this new forest, to which Dennis left some 80% of his considerable fortune when he died, is to create a huge, unbroken swathe of native, broadleaf woodland spanning some 30,000 acres. We heard from Estate Manager David Bliss, an alumni of the very first Challenge of Rural Leadership Course in 1996, that over 1 million trees have already been planted on 3000 acres stretching from the borders of Shakespeare’s ancient forest of Arden southwards to the edge of the Vale of Evesham. Species include Oak, Birch, Alder, Sycamore, Chestnut, Hornbeam, Beech Rowan and Willow.

The second element of this fascinating visit was a delightful tour of the gardens at Dorsington that contain the ever eccentric Dennis’ collection of bronze sculptures – called the Garden of Heroes and Villains. This very individual and catholic collection amounts to some 40 individual pieces, each specially commissioned by Dennis for the garden. It is clear that Dennis sadly passed away before he could get around to commissioning his villains as the garden now features only heroes. They range from ancient heroes - including a piece depicting pre-historic man attacking a woolly mammoth -right through to modern heroes such as Steven Hawking, Elvis Presley Crick and Watson and the Beatles. Touring the gardens in couples or small groups it was not uncommon to come upon a statue in a hidden corner, surrounded by a gaggle of members and guests who would then move on to discover other unusual, unexpected, and to a large degree, unexplained displays in odd places.

While the weather threatened the garden tour in fact we remained dry and it was not until the last few minutes, as we dashed back to the parked cars, that anything really significant in the way of rain fell upon us.

A short drive across country took us to the splendid Welcombe Hotel, where we overnighted. After a short break, to rest, relax or partake of the hotel’s leisure and spa facilities, the Company enjoyed a convivial dinner hosted by the Master. Just over 40 of us sat down to eat in the Welcombe Suite and there was plenty to discuss from the first day’s activities.

The second morning dawned brighter and far less threatening than day one and after a hearty breakfast we set off in our cars for Ragley Hall. This historic Country House is the ancestral seat of the Marquess of Hertford and dates back to 1680. It was designed by Dr Robert Hooke and built for the 1st Earl of Conway. Threatened with demolition on several occasions, due to the instability of the finances of the Seymour family, it was eventually rescued and restored over a period of some 40 years by the 8th Marquess of Hertford the father of the current Marquess who kindly hosted our visit.

Ragley is not only one of the nicest English Stately Homes but also a successful working estate of some 3000 acres. There was a lot for us all to see so the party, by this time swelled to well over 50 participants, was split into two groups to tour the Estate and separately the House and Gardens. The House and Gardens group being further split into two for House and Garden tours.

There was a lot to see in a relatively short time and all the groups were carefully corralled and marshalled by expert staff provided by the Estate. The weather remained dry in the morning so those allocated the garden tour early were the lucky ones as the weather deteriorated in the afternoon – not that this seemed to affect the enjoyment very much for our hardy bunch.

The gardens are extensive and varied, the current fashion for wild flower and naturalistic planting was much in evidence and having heard how small the staff to manage the gardens actually is, this is perhaps not just a nod to fashion but a necessity. Whatever the motivation the outcome is most pleasing and the general response to the garden tour echoed this.

The house is huge and the tour took in just a sample of the rooms. The Great hall was decorated by James Wyatt in 1780 and is presented, as is the rest of the house as it was then. The furniture and paintings are a fascinating reminder of the grandeur of earlier times but they are balanced by intriguing little insights into family life in the Hall today – with photographs of the current Marquess and his family in many of the rooms.

For your correspondent the standout feature of the house tour was the fabulously eccentric and quite spectacular Graham Rust mural. Commissioned by the 9th Marquess and completed, after many years of work, in 1983, it ascends the main Southern staircase and features pets, friends and family and amusingly in the very topmost spot looking down on all the family and friends, the family’s butler - who legend has it was included as an apology for an incident that led to him considering resigning!

The third leg of the Ragley trilogy was a trailer-back tour of the Estate. Hosted by Farm Manager Hamish Stewart the tour took in a number of elements of what is clearly a closely managed and professionally run operation. One fascinating fact that emerged from the tour was that the Farm Shop enterprise run by one of the Estate’s tenants actually turns over in excess of £5m, more than the whole of the rest of the estate put together – food for thought for more than a few of our Company.

Lunch between changeovers for the various tours was held in the Great Hall with lovely views out through the main entrance and out into the gardens and estate. Our host, the Marquess, joined us for lunch, which was excellent, and spent it in deep conversation with the Master.

When all parties had completed their tours there was one last chance to enjoy the hospitality of Ragley’s very professional staff as tea and cake were once again served. Late afternoon saw our party depart after what can only be described as an exceptional Master’s Summer Outing. 

Summer Outing - Dorsington
Past Master Baroness Byford in front of the tribute to 'The Few' at Dorsington Estate
Summer Outing Dorsington
Estate Manager David Bliss meets the WCF party
King Kong - Dorsington
Not a member of our party - thank goodness
Ragley Touring Gardens
Part of the party touring Ragley's delightful gardens
Ragley Estate - Summer Outing
Returning from their garden tour
Summer Outing Welcombe Hotel
Drinks Reception at the Welcome Hotel
Summer Outing House tour Ragley
Gazing up at the amazing Graham Rust mural
Garden of Heroes and Villains - Dorsington
Crick and Watson and the double helix
Ragley Hall
Ragley Hall
Summer Outing -Dorsington
Exploring the sculpture park Dorsington