The house, we found out later, was once owned by the Lord of the Manor, and the particular one Gary lived in was owned by the hedge keeper for the estate. It was built of brick, and the house I saw when we pulled up was actually at least four houses separated into cottages. We got out of the van and went through the fence into the garden where the falcon, Darling (named after a military officer on Black Adder. If you haven’t seen it, you should), lived in her little home. It was a cage, but a big cage built of wood and wire with a rather spacious, covered shelter. The garden was grassy and surrounded by a fence and some shrubbery. It was simple and very green, which surprised me considering the time of year.
Gary had warned us that, when we arrived, the dogs would be overjoyed that we were there. He opened the door, and out came three beautiful, exuberant dogs. I pegged the first one, Luna, for a whippet. Gary told me that she was, in fact, a lurcher. The second dog, Lionel, looked rather like a terrier, but he was also a lurcher and was, in fact, Luna’s puppy. The third dog, Cherry, was a three-legged, purebred greyhound. She was a racing greyhound that Gary had rescued a few years ago, and the oldest of the three.
When Gary was talking about the rescued birds, I hadn’t quite realized that they were being kept in an actual bird sanctuary. So I was a bit surprised when we walked into the house and found that the only animals that actually lived there were the three dogs, who were incredibly well behaved, the Saker falcon in its apartment outside, and the kestrel that was in a crate the size of a dog kennel and hardly made a sound the entire time we were there.
The house itself was lovely. The flooring was wood, the windows were not boring and uniform like most windows we see here, and a few of the rooms were painted different, bright colors. The art in the house was mostly done by Gary’s friends, and all the pieces complemented each other nicely. The setup of the house was spare, and wonderfully efficient. I was especially struck by how the kitchen was set up, and how everything he did when he was cooking was sort of back to basics. For example, he made coffee in little, independent pots, he poached eggs without the little metal dishes my grandmother used to use, and he fried bacon in a pan in the oven (which I have seen done here, and yes, it works much better). He also makes his own bread (which made me miss making bread) and jam (which I do not miss making).
There was a small yard off the back of the house, and a few steps up to a sort of detached porch which was actually joined to another small building which is his workshop. The back yard was lined with, I believe, a hedge, and I think there was a field on the other side of the hedge, but I’m not quite certain. At any rate, it was pleasant, open, and let the light in nicely.
I had seen a couple of pictures of Gary on the various websites Unkyl sent to me, and it was a pleasure to meet him. He is one of the sweetest, most genuine people I have ever met in my life. He was very gracious and generous, and when he greeted us in the morning or throughout the day with “How are you doing?” or “How are you feeling”, it sounded as if he really, truly, honestly wanted to know. I don’t believe I have ever heard those questions asked in quite that manner before. He has a wide range of woodworking talent – he showed us a few of the instruments he has made, a longbow he crafted, and talked to us about learning to make pipes. He also has quite a way with animals, and his dogs were well-trained and utterly happy. We spent many hours chatting about animals, hunting, nature, exploring, different cultures, travel, and countless other subjects.
He had spent some time planning activities for us and noting some things we might like to see, but he was also open to changing our plans, which we did a few times. I think we wound up seeing rather less than any of us had anticipated, but we still made the most of our time.
Day One: Jet Lag!
We set our luggage down and introduced ourselves properly. Gary offered to give Unkyl his guitar right away, but we decided to chat for a bit first. Gary made some coffee for all of us and we had a seat at the table to talk for a bit. The kestrel was in its crate behind me and just sort of sat watching us. The dogs were still overjoyed that we were there, and Luna made her rounds between all three of us. As soon as someone stopped petting her, she’d go put her head on someone else’s leg.
The conversation revolved mostly around bog oak. I’m afraid I came off as a little bit rude initially because Gary was saying such wonderful things about the wood and I was taking notes about it on my iPhone since I hadn’t brought an extra notebook. (I had two – one for poems and one for my novel, but I’m funny about notebooks, and nothing is supposed to go in them except the subjects I’ve reserved them for. I know…I have issues). As that was the topic of conversation, allow me a little segue to mention a few of the unique characteristics the wood possesses.
Bog oak is a very hard wood, and the fact that the trees have been submerged for so long adds to that. The wood that is pulled from the farmers’ fields has actually begun to fossilize, and it is more mineral than fiber. Gary used the term ‘de-naturized’ to describe it. Although it’s not quite wood, it’s not quite fossil. It’s in a unique in-between state. The longer the wood is underground/underwater, its color darkens significantly. Some of the trees are nearly black all the way through, while others are only blackened a few inches into the wood. Unkyl’s guitar is made of a board that was nearly completely blackened, which makes for an incredibly beautiful color tone in the wood. The board for the first guitar Gary made, for John Doan, was a bit less dark, and the trees appear to be umber at the heart.
The most interesting characteristic of this wood, to me anyway, was what he said about its flexibility: “The wood is actually so hard that, when it is cut, it blunts the blade. But it bends. Actually, it bends more easily than rosewood or sycamore. It has a certain softness to it. It’s hard, but giving.” I’m still chewing on that…(And I may have got the woods that don’t bend as well wrong, but that’s how I remember it. Remember, you’re talking to a poet here).
Gary also told us about the process of drying the wood to a workable state. One of his friends who is especially dedicated to the finding, preservation, and use of this wood has built a kiln in which to dry the trees they find. Drying the trees is an incredibly touchy and sometimes difficult process because if it isn’t done just right—and sometimes even if it is—the wood will crack or split, and it won’t be usable for making instruments. He told us that his friend had taken one of the trees and figured out the perfect way to dry it. The boards that came out of it were fantastic! So, he applied the exact same process to another log. He put it in the kiln and left it for a bit. When he opened the door to go have a look and make sure it was coming along well, the log had dried in a ‘U’ shape and torn the kiln apart. When the trees are dried and all the water has come out of them, the logs are about a third of their original size.
These logs aren’t the only things that have been found in the fens. There are also old bridges or platforms that have been discovered. It’s only a theory, but Gary said it’s possible that they were built there where the land and water met because those were sacred places. They may have been places people went to make sacrifices or to hunt.
We finished our coffee, and Gary said he needed to take the dogs for a walk. He said we could have a nap if we liked, or we could tag along. We decided to tag along. I, of course, wore my usual Skechers, though Gary offered me a pair of Wellington boots because the path would be rather muddy. Unkyl had some kind of special waterproof hiking shoes and said he was all set. Gary had a fleece coat for Cherry, and as soon as he clipped it on, Lionel and Luna went nuts because they knew a walk was coming. He let the dogs into the garden and put their leashes on before we all filed out the gate.
Hough-on-the-hill (pronounced locally as Huff or Who on the hill) really is located on one of the few hills we saw in Lincolnshire. It is a rather small village of about two hundred or so. Walking down from Gary’s house, we didn’t really see many other houses. There was a sidewalk still encroached upon by the fall leaves, and the ground to the left was at a decided slope. I remember this vividly because, in an effort to make room on the sidewalk for everyone, I started out walking on the slope, slipped, stumbled into the middle of the path, caught myself, and everyone was instantly asking if I was all right. Which I was, except for feeling exceptionally silly. So much for my mountain goat impressions…
To our left, there was a low wall made of stone or brick, and beyond was a wide, grassy field with a line of trees along it. I think the field belonged to the manor, which was farther down the road. Before we reached it, off on our right, was the local pub – the Brownlow Arms – and we could see the spire of the church over the treetops. The pub was being renovated and decorated so we didn’t have a chance to go in, but we did meet the landlord briefly, and he seemed like a very nice fellow.
Beyond the pub, we turned left along another wall lined with ivy and holly. Some of the holly still had berries, and I was ridiculously excited about that. The manor house was named “Hough Manor”. Gary noted that the family, Lord and Lady Brownlow, still keep an apartment in the manor, but it’s also available to walk through. We didn’t have time, but it sounded like an interesting thing to see.
Beyond the manor, there was a grassy slope to the right, and we headed down that way. In England, there are public footpaths all over the place, and the farmers give some right-of-way to pedestrians. Although they’re allowed to cultivate their land to the very edge, many of them will leave swaths of earth unplanted and maintain it a little bit for people to walk there.
As soon as we started down the hill, Gary let Lionel and Luna off the leash to run. There are a fair amount of hares in the farmers’ fields, and the dogs like to chase them. They’re rarely ever successful in actually catching one—most times they won’t even make the attempt—but they do love the chase. Apparently, the hares are about as big as Luna, so it was entertaining to think about the dogs trying to take one down. Cherry is a little slower than the lurchers, and as she is at a bit of a disadvantage, Gary keeps her close on the lead. Sometimes he let her off so she could explore a bit, but she stayed with us. There was a fence at the bottom of the hill, and a sign pointing out the public footpath. Gary lifted Cherry over the fence, and off we went.
One of the things that struck me about the countryside was how green everything still was in January. They rarely have snow, and it usually stays that green throughout the year. The trees were leafless, but there were still a fair amount of junipers, tall grasses, and shrubs to make it look very much alive.
The path we walked on was fairly muddy to start, but it flattened out and dried a bit. The lurchers disappeared after a bit, but Cherry walked close to me as I looked around the fields and Unkyl and Gary talked of this and that ahead of me. It was strikingly flat where we were, despite the hill upon which the village was built. The fields, as I said, were very green and lined with hedges. I came across quite a few rose and blackberry brambles, and I’m not quite certain of what the hedges were made. At one point, I stepped over to look at a red, oblong berry still clinging to the hedge, and Gary said it was a rose hip. It was unlike the rose hips I have seen before, and I wondered if the hedge was made of roses, or if it was just a volunteer plant.
A long way off, we could see the highway (I don’t remember if it was the E3 or the E4…whoops!) but we couldn’t hear the cars, which was refreshing. Mostly all I could hear were birds, Cherry’s feet in the grass, and the two of them talking. The air was damp and it smelled of soil, young plants, and a bit of leaf mold. It was a pleasant change from Montana’s January ice-brisk air and the smell of snow. I do enjoy those, but it was delightful to have a bit of a change. There were doves in the trees, gulls in the fields, and the occasional kestrel in the air.
The dogs were a little long coming back, so Gary whistled for them. “If they’ve found something to chase, they’ll be positively foaming at the mouth.” Sure enough, when Lionel caught us up a bit later, he was positively foaming at the mouth. He was also sopping wet and muddy. He showed up from completely the opposite direction the two dogs had disappeared in, and he looked absolutely thrilled. A few minutes later, Luna appeared looking every bit as graceful and delicate as she always did. We had a bit of a laugh at Lionel’s expense, poor guy, and headed back up the hill.
On our way back to the house, we passed another field in which a giant ash tree had been snapped in half, and the top tangled into another tree. They had been having some high winds during December, and the tree had broken then. The trees were leafless and grey with a fringe of light green moss growing along the trunks, completely undisturbed by the windfall. I saw quite a bit of that moss around, and it reminded me of all the Agatha Christie books where the characters came down with Consumption and had to move to drier climates. It’s a rather grim reference, but the moss was lovely.
Back at the house, Gary presented Unkyl with his guitar. I had learned on the plane, much to my chagrin, that it was a classical guitar, not an acoustic guitar. (Meaning nylon strings instead of steel.) As delightful as Spanish music may be, I have never been much of a fan of classical guitars. The tone, to me, sounds dull and hollow, and I much prefer the brighter, louder sound of steel strings. Imagine my surprise, then, when Unkyl started picking out a tune on the guitar, and I actually had to go over and check it to see if he’d lied to me about the nylon strings. He didn’t. The guitar sounds like a softer, slightly deeper acoustic. Most of that beautiful sound can be attributed to the tone of the wood. The back, sides, and headstock are bog oak, the neck is made of a nicely ringed, golden sycamore, and the top is made of German spruce. The tuners are handmade, and the overall design of the guitar is Gary’s own, called the ‘A-series’.
As a luthier, Gary has gone back and looked at many original designs for classical guitars, and he has noticed several features that sort of fell out of use over the years. He added them back to his A-series guitars. As a result, this bog oak guitar has some features I had not seen before such as an arm rest and an adjustable neck. The adjustable neck was especially interesting to me. If the action (the distance between the strings and the fingerboard) is too low or high for the person playing the instrument, there is a key that is inserted in the neck which moves the neck closer or farther away from the strings without affecting the tuning. I have never seen anything like that before! Gary said it used to be included on certain guitars, and he saw no reason why it shouldn’t be included on his.
The binding on the guitar is unique as well. A green veneer is placed around the edges of the instrument, and then covered with animal horn. The shape and clarity of the horn bring out the green and give it a beautiful, soft green color that isn’t precisely even, and makes it look as if it is antique.
The guitar is an absolute work of art. We talked for a bit about what was most interesting to each of us about it, and I was listening closely to the words Gary was using to describe the materials and his thoughts regarding the construction of these guitars. The trees themselves are incredibly old, and he uses the boards to construct these guitars which, while being in his own unique—therefore newer—style, reach back to older conventions and designs for classical guitars. Part of his reasoning for selecting the materials he does is for the effect, but part of it is also for that history. The horn, he said, seems historical, antique, and visceral. It seemed to be a good pairing to wood that was taken from the borderlands of earth and water which may or may not have been a sacred place. Inlaid in various places in the rosette and the bridge are ‘cup and ring’ symbols, which are commonly found in various sacred places throughout Europe and add to the mystery of the instrument. All this, coupled with the features he brought back to his design, culminate in a feeling of timelessness. Although he never said that word specifically, all the words he used and the concepts he described surrounding the guitar came together to say just that: These guitars are a physical representation of timelessness. They take the past and the present together and give them voice.
Unkyl played with his guitar for a bit and we adjourned to the kitchen for something to eat. Gary set out some bread (homemade), cheeses (brie and locally made stilton, which were amazing!), a pork pie (a local dish which was interesting to try), some meat (ham and salami), and butter (which was a bit more yellow than our butter, and had a bit of a heavier flavor while having a little less taste, which I liked). I went for some tea that time around, which was very tasty. It was Yorkshire tea, and I’m thinking I’ll need to scan some tea shops for it. It was a very simple black tea, but it had excellent flavor! Unkyl and Gary had some wine.
It was getting on three thirty at that point, and Unkyl and I both sort of gave up on staying awake much longer. We trooped upstairs and had a nap while Gary went to feed the birds. We planned to take a two hour nap and then decide if we wanted to go to a pub for dinner, or if we wanted to just stay in and have a quiet evening by the fire. I was afraid I would oversleep, and I woke up after an hour and just laid upstairs wondering if I should get up, or try to fall back to sleep and wake up to my alarm. Instead, I laid there until the alarm went off and headed downstairs.
Gary was back, and I sat at the table with him while we talked about Montana, the Sioux, native American pursuits, camping, horses, hunting, shooting, animals in general, and dogs specifically. I think we’d asked him about fourteen times by that point what kind of dogs Lionel and Luna were, because we kept forgetting. I asked him again, and he told me that, once upon a time, greyhounds were a bit more all-around hunting dogs. They were fast enough and strong enough to take down a deer. But, only the master was allowed to have greyhounds. So, the serfs would occasionally “borrow” the master’s dog when he wasn’t looking, and breed it to their own dog (usually terriers or collies). As the pups that resulted were not purebred greyhounds, the serfs were allowed to keep the dogs, and their dog would have some of the speed, strength, and hunting prowess of the master’s dog. That breed is called a lurcher. Luna has more of the greyhound body and hair, while Lionel has his mum’s color, but he takes after a terrier a little more in terms of looks.
Unkyl came down and started playing his guitar, and Gary and I figured it’d probably be best to stay in for the evening. He started making dinner and I asked if I could help, so I peeled and cut up three enormous potatoes while he put together a Lincolnshire stew—Lincolnshire sausages (locally grown pork and herbs), mushrooms, and vegetables in a wine sauce. (I think it was wine…I saw the bottle but I didn’t look at the label. Whatever it was, it was really good!) He cooked the potatoes and mashed them, and we had stew and mashed potatoes for dinner, which was absolutely excellent. All of us elected to have beer with dinner, so he and I split Brakspear Bitter, and Unkyl had EPA.
Over dinner, we chatted about art, culture, history, archery, poetry, words, and landscape. Afterward, we adjourned to the living room and sat in front of the fire with the dogs to talk about the next day’s plan. Gary had worked out that we would go to the fenlands and walk around a bit to see where the trees were dug up, and then we would go to a town called Stamford while we still had the light and drop in to a pub for dinner. Unkyl said that we’d also like to stop in Pinchbeck if we could, since that was where the rumors said our ancestors had come from. Gary got out a map and we spent some time planning a route which would ensure we could go everywhere we hoped to. Then we settled in to talk about art some more, family, work, and lutherie. Around eleven, we adjourned to our rooms and headed for bed.