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Walk on the wildside with Julia and Jasper

By Chris Saunderson

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JULIA King moved to Macduff from Kent four and a half years ago and fell in love with this "little 'neuk' of North East Scotland with its stunning coastline, magnificent woods and forests, rolling farmlands and Grampian Mountains backdrop".

She has been unable to visit her 93-year-old mother, Phyllis Broyd, who lives in Canterbury, due to coronavirus.

C'mon Julia, time to go.
C'mon Julia, time to go.

Julia (64) said: "She is still very active and we were looking forward to taking walks together along the River Stour and through its lovely meadowlands.

"When I realised this wasn't going to happen due to the coronavirus, I started writing up my local walks with Jasper, my four-year-old cocker spaniel, for mum so that she could take 'virtual' walks, with us in spirit, if not in body!

"My mother has enjoyed these 'walks' very much.

Duff House Woods and Beyond

Our walk commences from the secluded woodland carpark at Duff House and initially skirts around the fenced perimeter of the house grounds. Duff House stands quiet and imposing, guarding its interior secrets, its ghosts now free to reclaim their domain without interruption, whilst the splendid intricacies of its exterior architectural features - huge Corinthian pilasters, acanthus leaf topped capitals, ornate balustrades, urns and classical statues - never fail to impress.

The entrance to the Duff House grounds.
The entrance to the Duff House grounds.

Jasper sets a brisk pace, despite serious snuffling along the fence line, tail wagging ceaselessly as he interprets new messages left by earlier

canine adventurers, and depositing several replies of his own...

We enter Wrack Woods through the imposing and recently restored wrought iron gates, with their ornate urns perched atop the gateposts. We head off up the wide main track, flanked by tall ancient trees, rhododendrons, and burgeoning thickets of rampant golden raspberry. Until recently the undergrowth was carpeted in pale lilac crocuses and swathes of snowdrops, then daffodils, and now bluebells are starting to burst into flower.

We pass the Ice House, a conical part sub-terranean structure built in 1816 to act as a refrigerator for the great house, and press on towards the Mausoleum. I imagine William Duff's carriage rattling up this track around 1741, curtains pulled firmly shut to block any view of the shell of Duff House rising from its foundations.

William Duff, Lord Braco, and later 1st Earl Fife, who originally commissioned Duff House in 1735, soon fell out with his architect, William Adam (father of the more famous Robert), over the escalating costs of the project. The dispute rumbled on, culminating in a lawsuit which was won by Adam, but only a few months before his death. Duff then washed his hands of the whole grandiose project and it was left to his son, James, the 2nd Earl, to complete the building and fitting out of Duff House - a lifetime's work.

Over the next two centuries the grounds of Duff House became famous throughout Scotland and tradition has it that by the late 18th century the Duff House gardens contained every species of tree known in the United Kingdom, and rivalled the beauty of Princes Gardens in Edinburgh. The size and magnificent shapes of many of the trees are now simply awe-inspiring, whether they be in full leaf at the height of summer, or stripped bare, revealing their fantastical shapes during winter.

Was it in the film The Hobbit, or Lord of the Rings, that the trees came to life and performed heroic feats? Looking at the Wrack Wood trees, you truly believe this might be possible.

One notable tree to the right of the track is a very tall Araucaria Araucana, or Monkey Puzzle tree. James Duff, 4th Earl Fife, befriended Jose de San Martin whilst fighting with him in Spain against Napoleon during the Peninsular War. San Martin went on to become El Libertador for his part in South America's struggle for independence, and 'Plaza Banff' in Buenos Aires is a memorial to his friendship and the help he received from James Duff of Banff. San Martin visited his old friend at Duff House in 1824 and, it is thought, brought with him from Argentina the seeds which have resulted in the magnificent tree we see today.

Suddenly the vista opens out and down a gentle, now wild garlic strewn incline, stands the Duff Mausoleum. Completed in 1792 by the second Earl it houses the remains of the first five Earls and several other members of the family. The small track behind the Mausoleum reveals a tomb bearing an effigy of a knight. In an effort to authenticate his lineage, James Duff imported several ancient tombs from the Old Kirk in Banff and tried to pass this one off as that of Robert The Bruce. In fact it belonged to a former Provost of Banff, whom, it was said, was so upset at having been moved from his resting place that he shook and shook, moving his tomb away from the Mausoleum wall and causing some damage.

Today he slumbers peacefully and sports a moustache of dog treats. No disrespect intended, I am sure, simply some welcome refreshments kindly left for passing hungry hounds.

Jasper is off and sniffing out adventure.
Jasper is off and sniffing out adventure.

Normally, in pre-quarantine days, we would do a loop around the Mausoleum and then head homewards along a smaller but well used track through the woods. But Jasper's deep and basic wolverine instincts seem to tell him that these are different times and perhaps a more challenging route might be more appropriate, so he dives off to the right, plunging steeply down an overgrown and almost imperceptible (deer?) track, doubling back below the Mausoleum. The building now looms about 50 feet above us, whilst the River Deveron, as this point wide, slow and languorous, flows about 50 feet below us, following a sharp bend in its course down to the sea. The smell of wild garlic is overwhelming as I teeter gingerly

along this precarious slanting path, wondering where it might lead.

First of all, now directly beneath the Mausoleum, I come to a stile, indicating that at some point in the past this was a known and valid track. Jasper comes bounding back from his further explorations in a state of high excitement and I decide that where he leads, I'll follow. Across the stile we enter what seems like another world, magical, secretive, unknown, completely silent apart from lilting birdsong and the tap tap tap of woodpeckers high amongst the lofty trees.

The track weaves through glades of exceptionally tall trees, the tracery of their unfurling leaves stunningly beautiful against blue skies, some fallen so that I have to bend or crawl under their trunks or clamber over them. I also have to pick my way across small streams and tributaries running down the slope and feeding into the Deveron, mere trickles or muddy patches thanks to the recent spell of dry weather, but they could make this route impassable after heavy rain.

A feeling of real peace, calm and otherworldliness has descended and the sense that the spirits of this magical place have remained largely undisturbed for centuries. I feel myself regressing into childhood and would not now be in the least surprised to stumble upon the witch's gingerbread cottage from Hansel and Gretel. These quiet and beautiful dells could equally be home to the 'Peelickers' we've been singing about in our 'virtual choir' sessions recently - mischievous local sprites/imps who 'pit dry rot in yer riggin an rottans in yer foonds' and who will ensure your 'grosset jam wid never mam'. 'There'll be no luck aboot the hoose if the Peelickers git in, but you wonna hear them comin, for they dinna mak a din'!

A heron fishes on the River Deveron.
A heron fishes on the River Deveron.

Or, perhaps even more likely, we might stumble across 'the brown girl' from Joanne Harris's wonderful dark and mystical novel 'A Pocketful of Crows' - 'I am brown as brown can be, and my eyes as black as sloe; I am as brisk and brisk can be, and wild as forest doe'. Yes, I can certainly imagine her here, curled up asleep in a hollow tree trunk or thicket.

The track now begins a steep descent. Jasper's excitement is undiminished and he now sports a huge and impressive stick between his teeth. Definitely best to keep him ahead of me now, otherwise I know from experience, he'll charge up from behind, thwacking the back of my legs with his baton as he overtakes.

I stop and take stock. Our path is curving back on itself and we are now at river level, but the river, to our right, has split around an island and is here narrow and deep. To our left, high on the wooded slope above us I spy through the trees a ruined tower. I thought at first this must be a Duff folly, of which there are several in the area, but later research suggests that this is 'Mount Carmel' (or the Mount of Colleonard) - either a man-made mound built by cups or pots of soil carried by penitent monks from the local Carmelite monastery (their chapel said to have been dedicated by King Robert the Bruce in 1324 on the site of the Mausoleum), or perhaps an ancient fort to protect the nearby ford across the river.

Whilst Jasper relives the glory days of his agility classes, jumping joyously backwards and forwards over a large tree trunk, I take a snap of the first cluster of fully flowering bluebells - and thank my wee furry companion for this magical expedition. It feels like reverting to a deliciously childlike adventure which, without his companionship (and leadership!) I would never nowadays have the confidence to embark upon solo!

We continue on our way, with many more fallen trees and streamlets to negotiate and suddenly the Mausoleum is above us again, way way above us now and our tiny path is becoming smaller and more tangled with undergrowth, and dangerously close to the deep water of the river. We can hear cattle lowing in the distance and then our half of the river rejoins the main flow and the view opens out gloriously into a landscape vista worthy of Gainsborough or Constable.

The sun glistens on the River Deveron.
The sun glistens on the River Deveron.

On the opposite side of the wide river farmland slopes gently to the water's edge and a herd of cows are drinking in the shallows. Now the scene takes a truly surreal turn as I spy a small figure, a woman, swimming all alone in the middle of the river - the first person I have come across on the whole walk thus far. She raises an arm and cries 'it's wonderfully refreshing'! 'Looks it!' I reply, wishing I could join her.

We press on but our path has all but disappeared. Jasper bounds ahead undaunted by the fact that his shaggy coat (which just missed the dog groomer's attentions before lockdown) is now festooned with foliage, brambles, burrs and creeper, not to mention a liberal slathering of mud plastering his luxuriant locks but, faced with either the dense tangles of brambles ahead, or a near vertical ascent to the tried and tested path which I sense is now running above us, I opt for the climb, which proves challenging! I eventually emerge at the top on hands and knees, splattered with mud and dust, twigs sprouting from my hair and grab a branch, panting in disarray, for the final haul back into reality.

Having met no one, not ONE single person (apart from the mystery swimmer), on the entire walk so far, a pristine couple instantly materialise on the path and recoil at the double spectacle of horror (canine and barely human) that presents itself! They attempt far more than the required social distancing to sidle past this alarming vision whilst Jasper bounds up to them, wearing his best 'I'm so pleased to see you' grimace and launches into his inevitable 'pat me, I'm adorable' wagglebum skiffle as he weaves between their legs!

Jasper on the beautiful riverside walk.
Jasper on the beautiful riverside walk.

Embarrassment over, we now continue along the marked woodland track back to Duff House with its beautiful broad sweep of daffodils, planted some years ago by a local group of Girl Guides, its abundance of magnificent trees, beech and horse chestnut especially stunning. We know each one individually. There's the one with the stump rearing out at right angles from the trunk, truly the head of a monster, a relative of the Loch Ness clan; then there's the mighty horse chestnut whose massive trunks swirls dramatically upwards in a great whoosh, as though formed by centuries of lashing waves and currents. Other trees stretch sinister arms over the path above us, or harbour knots and whorls in their trunks that form Peelicker faces (or worse) that gurn and leer as we pass.

Then we come to the substantial headstone marking the graves of three 19th century canine scions of Duff House, Bevis, Tip, and their pup, Barkis, set back from the path before a small grove where some budding Ray Mears/Bear Grylls types have erected two quite accomplished wigwam type dwellings from branches and brushwood.

An improvised wig wam which has been made in the woodland.
An improvised wig wam which has been made in the woodland.

Jasper pays his respects at the headstone in typical doggy fashion. Then he is off again, in pioneering mode, and has picked up an alluring scent, so we again deviate from our usual route and following a short track to our right find ourselves at the furthest perimeter of the Duff House Royal Golf Course and on the banks of the River Deveron once again. Here Jasper spies ducks and plunges straight into the reed beds. His quarry fly away and he emerges crestfallen and covered in thick glutinous mud.

One of the many trails leading through the woods.
One of the many trails leading through the woods.

We now enter yet another, different, enchanted world. Here the river is wide, calm and deep, making its steady progress towards the nearby sea, and with the buttercups and daisies adorning its grassy banks, we could almost be on the Stour (either in Canterbury or Suffolk!), but its flow is soon punctuated by little pockets of rapids, Jasper's coveted ducks bravely paddling against the current, reminding us that this is, after all, a Scottish river, that can, on occasion, roar and rage with the best of them.

The far banks are now thickly wooded and this whole realm is presided over by a regal heron, regarding his domain from a small island towards the far bank. He launches himself effortlessly from his pad, and glides low above us, temporarily blotting out the sun like a huge jumbo jet. All other bird song has momentarily ceased and his wing beats are deafening in the silence.

We trot along an almost hidden track through a glade of birch trees; the sky is an intense blue; the dappled sunlight glints on the last daffodils swaying in a gentle breeze; the wild garlic creates a froth of white bobbing foam against a sea of green and it really feels that nothing, and nowhere, could ever be more perfect.

The beautiful Moray Firth in the background.
The beautiful Moray Firth in the background.

The remainder of our walk takes us along the river on the edge of the golf course and I wonder how many golf balls have been swept along its route into the Moray Firth. Across the river an impressive ruin can be seen amongst the trees, definitely a Duff folly, each corner topped with a tell-tale Adam urn - more a summer house than a folly, perhaps?

There comes a point where we must cut across the golf course with it sandy hollows (so tempting to a small hound) and its gradations of carefully manicured turf. We sneak back through the gate leading to Duff House and the carpark. Going through the gate I feel I am leaving an imaginary dream world and re-entering grown up reality. But the wonderful thing is - I know I can do it all again tomorrow! The latter part of our walk probably won't be an option once the golfballs start flying again, but for now it will be our guilty quarantine pleasure.

The walks leads you through the woods along the river.
The walks leads you through the woods along the river.

On the way home Jasper tells me, confidentially, this is his favourite walk...

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