Dorset Duck Pond
Of course it’s fun to be on the move every minute when you are on holiday. It always seems there is too little time and too much to see, but sometimes it can be very rewarding to take a day off from the mad rush just to catch your breath and rest for the next jumble of days. When I found I was getting a bit weary after the third week of my six week vacation in Dorset last June, I decided to spend the day reading by the duck pond at the Court guest house where I was staying in Frampton, just a few miles outside Dorchester in Dorset. It was an ideal spot to relax and the weather was superb.
I had foolishly chosen Helen Santmyer’s …And Ladies of the Club as my traveling novel. Foolish, not because it wasn’t excellent reading, but because it contained 1433 pages! I picked it up at the news-stand at LAX just before takeoff without thinking about the effort it would take to drag it around, and the promise I made to myself to travel lightly. Never mind, this morning I was starting on page 1250. I was sure that before the day was over I could finish this tribute to small town America and get on with my plans to read the Dorset history books I had purchased soon after arriving in Dorset. I would present the novel to Peggy and Maureen, by hostesses at the Court, and lighten my luggage considerably.
The duck pond with ramps and bridges
Well, it was not to be. From 9:30am when I seated myself comfortably in a lounge chair by the pond, until 6:00pm when I went up to change for dinner I managed a grand total of 31 pages! My poor showing was mostly due to the fact that Maureen and Peggy’s pond was not just any pond, it has to be one of the most intriguing ponds in all of England. It’s 150ft long and 40ft wide. It has an island in the middle with a graceful weeping willow providing shady spots for the seventeen different kinds of water fowl that inhabit the pond. It has little ramps and bridges arranged throughout for their convenience and Peggy’s husband, Robert, has provided bird houses in strategic locations that seem to be just what every young bird family dreams of because they were all occupied with busy, happy families.
After reading half a page I glanced up to see a mother taking her three young ducklings down one of the ramps for a swim. The ducklings were very young and it may have been their first or second try. One little fellow hesitated at the last minute and started back up the ramp but the mother would have none of it. She unceremoniously pushed him in with her beak. He made a plopping sound and disappeared beneath the water. It was several seconds before he came up, and then began swimming around in circles making a loud peeping noise and ducking under the water again and again. By this time the father duck appeared and both he and the mother joined in raucous quacking that spread throughout the pond. Soon the two peacocks that roamed the grounds joined in and for several minutes the air was filled with the combined voices of the entire bird community including the bantam rooster who occupied premises a few yards from the pond, as they congratulated junior on his first solo swim.
After things calmed down I tried to go back to my book but was interrupted a few minuets later by more commotion. This time a family of gray geese had the nerve to trespass in the territory belonging to some white geese. I’ve never heard such a racket. It was accompanied by feverish flapping of wings on the part of all concerned.
As I watched I suddenly saw a vivid picture of the quad at Hollywood High School in the late forties. I think it was because the willow tree at the center of the pond reminded me of the pepper tree in the center of my high school quad. All of the various social clubs had their territory staked out under the giant tree. The Thedas here, the Gammas there, the Sigmas further down, and on the bench near the science building were the mighty Athenians. If any poor student who didn’t belong wandered in forbidden territory we didn’t flap our arms and quack, we did something much worse, we remained absolutely silent and stared. Unlike the spunky gray geese who stood their ground, the poor unwanted students would usually slink away. A few years after I graduated I heard that a group of non-club members waited until midnight and then brought a chain saw to the quad and completely demolished the mighty pepper tree. Enough time had passed by then for me to appreciate the act and belatedly applaud the midnight lumberjacks. I can’t help wondering how many young people we seriously hurt by our foolishness.
Apparently none of the gray geese were seriously hurt. After being evicted from white goose territory they crossed the bridge and marched onto the turf of a family of Emperor geese and the racket started all over again. When peace returned I started again on my reading but every few minutes something new would happen to distract me; a mother would march by with four or five of her offspring in single file behind her as she made her way to their special spot on the pond. Then I would see her fluffy bottom upturned for long minutes as her more industrious end demonstrated to her young how to scrounge for tasty bits under the water. Then I would be fascinated by a brilliant orange carp swimming close to the surface.
After a while Peggy came out and sat with me until she decided it was time to pinion three new little ducklings. She captured them with practiced ease and took them into the house to do the job. All the while she was gone the parents ran up and down the edge of the pond screeching what sounded like “kidnap! kidnap! Stop thief!” over and over again. They didn’t quiet down until their babies were returned safe and sound. Can’t say I blame them.
The Court furnishes bed, breakfast, and an evening meal but the guests are on their own for lunch. I had enjoyed such a large breakfast at 9:30 I knew I would have no trouble making it through until dinner at 7:30. I had tea making facilities in my room and I could always snack on one of the Cadbury chocolate bars I had tucked away in my suitcase. So when Robert happened by on his way to lunch with Peggy and politely asked if he could bring me something, I politely said no thank you. Nevertheless, he emerged a few minutes later with a tray laden with cheese, crackers, a pot of tea and an assortment of delicious biscuits. In spite of my protests I found them very welcome and made short work of the treats.
Then, feeling a little guilty about all the calories, I decided to take a walk. I checked with Maureen and learned that she and the neighboring farmers didn’t mind if ramblers passed through their fields as long as they didn’t disturb the grazing cows and remembered to close gates. I had no intention of disturbing cows and closing gates was a small price to pay for the privilege of walking in Dorset’s enchanting countryside. I had intended to walk for only half an hour or so but found the way so lovely I didn’t want to turn back. I passed through groves of ancient oaks and lovely birches. I stood on a footbridge and listened to the gurgle of the Frome River as I watched the graceful movements of a mare and her foal grazing by the waterside. I passed a cluster of storybook houses in a little hamlet known as Southover where wisteria twined over porches and lilac and laburnum crowded over fences. I saw several fine examples of the Thatcher’s art, one with a trademark owl added to the roof ridge.
I had been walking for about two hours, crossing meadows and fields, seeing many cows and always closing gates when I came to another meadow that didn’t seem any different from the rest but as soon as I entered, the group of Friesians that had been peacefully grazing on the far side clopped over to my side to look me over. Soon I was surrounded by mooing cows that seemed friendly enough but kept nudging me and licking my shoes. It was a bit disconcerting to have twenty cows – I counted them – find me so interesting. If I took three steps to the left they took three steps to the left, if I took three steps to the right they took three steps to the right. If I stood still they stood still. This particular meadow was surrounded by thick hedges growing over and through the fences. I couldn’t find a gate and there was no place where I could climb over. I was tempted to turn back but after twenty minutes of playing follow the leader with the cows I found a small space at the bottom of the fence just big enough for me to slide through. The cows kept licking and nudging me as I laid down on my back and inched my way through the opening. One old girl with a white face and beautiful long eyelashes gave my face one last slurpy lick as I pulled myself through to the other side. When I looked back I saw them all crowded together mooing frantically trying to press themselves through the small opening. I thought it best to get out of sight as quickly as possible. I guess I had broken one of the primary rambler’s rules – I had disturbed the cows – but it certainly wasn’t intentional.
Maureen, host of The Court
I couldn’t help laughing as I started back to the Court; we must have been a sight.
I walked several miles that afternoon and circled all around the Court. The three story red brick house was a welcome sight when I saw it on my return. The Court consists of a beautiful country house that has been divided into two completely separate units for the two couples who own it, plus a spacious wing with seven guest rooms decorated with the care that gives them a cozy intimate quality that makes guests feel they are staying with good friends who have impeccable taste. The four acres surrounding the house have been beautifully landscaped with fountains and rose gardens in delightful settings. There is a large kitchen garden from which Peggy and Maureen choose the appropriate vegetables for the evening meal, and a raspberry patch that is opened to the neighborhood for picking in season.
Peggy and Maureen, with their husbands Robert and Colin, manage seventeen head of beautiful Jersey cows – so of course they always have plenty of lovely fresh milk and thick cream – and care for the sixty acres of woodland, fields, and riverside that comprise their property. They prepare flawless cordon bleu meals served on exquisite lace tablecloths with fine crystal and Wedgwood china.
After my adventure with the friendly Friesians I found myself in a part of the property I hadn’t explored before. As I headed back towards the duck pond, something near a bunch of blazing rhododendrons caught my eye. I thought I saw a group of twenty or so tiny gravestones. Upon closer inspection I found they were indeed gravestones, each erected in the memory of a cherished pet. The most recent must have been put in place by Peggy or Maureen because the date was 1982 and the inscription read: Sally, a Wonderful Friend – so sadly missed. There were a few more placed in the 70s and 80s but then I realized that most had a much earlier date, the earliest still readable was 1857. Several were so worn they were only partly readable and must have been much older. In a special area all by itself was a large flat stone. Its inscription was easy read:
In memory of a little dog long favored
And caressed by his kind mistress M. M. S. he
Was accidentally drowned on February 4, 1887
A snow storm brought poor little waif
For shelter to our door
He felt by instinct he was safe
He never left us more
A bold unruly pet he’s been
For courage did not lack
On bigger dogs he was never seen
To turn his little back
With children much he loved to play
He was never known to bite
He had one fault he loved to stray
And steal from Marcia’s sight
And sad event has come at last
Which must befall the best
And little Waif away hath past
And lies beneath at rest
On his and end no eye was bent
No hand stretched forth to save
Too near the rushing stream he went
Than sank beneath the wave
I sat there for several minutes in quiet reflection – sometimes the English go too far with their sentimental attachment to their pets. You would never catch me being emotional about any pet of mine! Then why did I have a catch in my throat and tears in my eyes as I walked back to my lounge chair by the pond? I didn’t want Peggy or Maureen or any of their other guests to see me with red eyes and a runny nose so I tried to think of something cheerful to take my mind off the “poor little waif.” The only thing I could think of was a rhyme I’d seen on another gravestone in another Dorset village the day before:
IN MEMORY OF THE CLERK’S SON
BLESS MY iiiii
HERE HE LIES
IN A BAD PICKLE
KILLED BY AN ICICLE
IN THE YEAR 1776
That helped a bit and I was actually in pretty good shape when I joined the other guests by the pond. We chatted a while and I learned all about their day’s adventures. Having cars, they had traveled many miles and seen many sights, but I don’t think one of them had as satisfying a day as I had – even if I had to sit up in bed half the night to finish …And Ladies of the Club.