Monday, 31 March 2014

A little herd of England’s timorous deer…

The National Trust’s Charlecote Park is one of my favourite places to wander around: especially West Park – home to the main breeding herd of fallow deer. There is a grandeur in the mature tree-lined avenue down to the west gate, on the Stratford Road; and, the last time I was there, a great deal of mystery, until the fog – that had covered everything in a damp monochrome shroud – eventually lifted.

The contrast between West Park, and the rest of the estate, is quite marked; and is exemplified by the two groups of deer that populate each. In the main grounds, the deer are less timorous, and even quite approachable when in the right mood (usually during or after feeding); whereas those to the west – where the ground is more natural and wild – retain more of their essential character: especially as the presence of fawns makes the mothering does protective, and the fathering bucks permanently on-guard. Should the presence of the occasional human get too much – and they are a much rarer sight than the deer, on this side of the park – the herd also has the deer sanctuary to retreat to.

In the more visited areas, to the east and north of the house, the deer – bucks of all ages: kept, I think, mostly for decoration; and to make flesh of the legend of Shakespeare’s supposed poaching (and supposed retribution in his portrayal of the fusspot, Justice Shallow) – are outnumbered by both visitors and the wonderful flock of splotchy Jacob sheep. The sheep behave as sheep always do: grouping stochastically together, mimicking and following each other’s actions, intent on munching on as much grass as they can. Whereas the deer have become more domesticated: the presence of those strange upright creatures who seem intent on photographing their every move not being quite so alarming.

If you sit on a fallen tree, for instance, close to the ground where food has been scattered by their keepers, even the younger ones will quite happily – although occasionally glancing at you with barely concealed forbearance – wander within feet of you: not at all bothered by the constant clicking of your shutter; their simple minds intent, like the companion sheep, on filling their gullets.

Approach them when they are sated, or basking in the sun, and you will soon know when you have overstepped their boundaries. The less brave will rise, stand and stare – getting to their hooves in reverse order of fearlessness. The last to do so, though – if he can be bothered; and with a disdainful eye aimed towards your camera – will always be Boris: a large leucistic buck, with a face that bears witness to many rutting duels and skirmishes.

Why “Boris”? Well, with his pure white coat, and obvious leadership status – combined with his slightly ‘interesting’ facial features – there was no real alternative! He also seems keen on communicating; and I have seen him lower his head, ever so slightly, and walk purposefully, but slowly, towards those too curious to appreciate his personal space. It’s a message that is always read loud and clear (I believe that he is actually pretty chilled – he’s just become accustomed to bossing others about…); and I have never seen him concede the smallest amount of ground, unless he, and his cabinet, are majorly outnumbered – and then they will saunter away, prompted more by a desire to be left alone, rather than any concern for their safety. (If you have Boris defending you, there is probably very little that bothers you!)

The thick fog appeared to have left me with the park to myself – although, as the sun emerged, a scattering of other visitors appeared. However, I was alone, initially, when I popped into the Orangery Restaurant for my usual brunchfast of warming soup (which is always served with a very large chunk of fresh bread), moist treacle flapjack (there is none better), and steaming Americano.

The previous time I was here, I had the company of one of Charlecote’s resident, and characterful, cats: sitting, nuzzling, on my knee: occasionally staring intensely at his image, reflected back, on my iPhone. “Is this me?” However, Jasper – who had been an almost permanent gatekeeper for the restaurant: often trying to sneak in for warmth, company, or food (when, really, he knew better…) – died, a few days later; and the Orangery is a sadder place for his absence.

It is such individuals that make Charlecote – the humans: volunteers and staff alike; as well as the wild- and not-so-wild-life – as much of an attraction as it is the landscape and architecture. And they are a large part of the reason I return again and again: watching how the seasons affect them; making each visit different – whether a quick stroll to and from the restaurant, or a longer walk around the parkland. And, if I leave, with venison in my bag, like young Will, then it is probably only in the form of sausages, acquired legally, from the local produce shop in the Pantry!

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