Old-Lands: Welsh Conservation, Foraging and Family at its very Finest.
Dear Reader and Friend,
I want to tell you of a place full of wonder I wish the whole world could visit, one human or family at a time. There are certainly times when something feels merely coincidental and there are times when the universe mystically aligns so perfectly that you realize that a Being more loving, creative and capable than you must be in possession of all the cards. Such a time was the serendipitous few days we spent last summer, nestled among history in the border country of Wales.
May I say at the outset of this how very excited I am to share Old-Lands with you. I have been longing to do so for nearly a year and now with the world homebound and at the launch of our foraging collection I hope it is just the right thing to inspire and bring peace.
Two years ago, Chelsey (my sister and coworker for those who are new here) stumbled across an idyllic digital feed of gardens, a manor house with rooms to let, swans and antique welsh wool (I’m betting it was the wool that caught her eye). All I could do at that point was scroll down, follow and then dream. And dream I did do. You see, I have strong genealogical roots in Wales, a deep love for traditional architecture and the invitation to free-range my kids was really just too much. Don’t you love that? You are invited to free range or re-wild your children with your stay at Old-Lands. I still feel a pang in my chest just thinking of it.
As a young man I visited for a day the forest of Dean and a small beach somewhere near Cardiff where my first frigid attempts at boogie boarding mingled with my first warm milk shake. I won’t ever understand a warm milk shake. If I hadn’t had one I wouldn’t believe it either. The memories of that day are potent as a youth, driving past castle after castle keeping my forehead pressed against the glass for a glimpse of a manor perched on a hill or a forest full of Robin Hood’s men. I had so wanted to share that with my children and now with you.
If you have already whipped out your phone to follow @oldlands on Instagram you will see there a blend of beauty, rich with nature, people, hospitality and home. You will see moths, swans, and a gracious old manor house with an austere gothic feel humbled immediately by the livestock huddled, grazing in the foreground. You’ll see a chalkboard with daily sightings, the well-cared for garden, the latest batch of produce in the shop and beds and windows draped with Welsh wool welcoming visitors to come and settle in. We feel beyond blessed that we actually had our moment there.
On an extended family trip to Europe that got unexpectedly cut short we ended up with a few extra days in England. I wasn’t sad. I immediately reached out to see if there was an opening and sure enough, we received the gracious reply that there was one space available just big enough for our crew. We booked horseshoes, the old stable on the grounds and arrived at dusk after a long day of travel.
I don’t think it could have been more idyllic. We had driven past castles, cathedrals and endless green on tiny roads with a tree canopy most of the way (I almost always take the side roads while driving in Europe) My kids and wife had just fallen asleep as we approached and I found myself driving through farmland in a car that often dwarfed the road which was lined with tall hedges. The first well placed sign directed me away from the grand oak-lined entrance around a large bend to a perfect stone cottage and a slow lane marked with speed bumps and signs reminding us to watch for children and animals. I was already transported to a different time and place. It was dark and we were all weary but it pained me to unmake the simple, perfectly arranged bedding and fall asleep.
It did not pain me to wake up. Everything about the place was simple, tidy, old without being musty (even with the slight smell of hay) and exciting. There was a welcome bottle of pressed apple juice, perfectly labeled I might add, and a resource guide of places nearby to explore and eat. Best of all was the letter-boxing map. More of that to come. The early risers got up and we left to get the lay of the land. We peeked into the walled garden and walked down to the lake soaking the toes of our shoes in the heavy morning dew. We didn’t need shoes but then were glad to have them for our jaunt across the pasture aiming for the giant sycamore trees on the other side of the house. We found the boat house, the swan family and a few tiny toads in the grass. We found remnants of glorious formal gardens and plenty of places to make forts or dens as they are appropriately called across the Atlantic. By the time we were back we were starving.
Not to worry…no need to run to Tesco. Under our attic bedroom was a tidy shop. This was the highlight for my four-year old. We could dig out of our pockets those hefty British pound coins and buy all the garden vegetables, eggs, and pressed juice we could eat. She loved to tally the goods in the notebook left there and leave exact change. Sometimes she was forced to leave a generous tip which we didn’t mind in the least. My favorite section was the crate of remnants from the attic of the old house. I am still kicking myself for not selecting a tarnished silver spoon or some other fancy bit of crockery to remind me each morning of those precious days. The rest of my children were overjoyed to pick their unique stamp for our letterboxing adventures.
Okay. What is letterboxing? I am afraid I have only done the world’s best form of letterboxing so I can’t exactly say. Think geocaching but way more charming. At Old-Lands it is a beautifully illustrated map with delightful clues that are good enough to give you hope but hard enough and far enough apart that you feel like a naturalist and He-man by the time you are done. You’ve climbed fences, ambled through fields of grass up to your waist and over your head (if you are 4 feet tall), forded small streams and avoided plenty of stinging nettle to place a unique stamp in 9 of the 10 circles at the bottom of the map. We left one undone because we wanted a very clear reason go back. Really though, no prize, no bag of sweets just good old hearty satisfaction.
Scattered around the property were tin boxes with a notebook and a stamp. When found you place a stamp on your map to prove you found each letterbox and stamp the notebook with your stamp to claim your place in history. I don’t want to spoil any clues, but our favorite box was on an island in the middle of the lake where the swans nest (there were three beautiful swan eggs) and where an old stone turret from the house had ended up after being replaced. Narnia would have been jealous of this kind of wonder and magic. My children were in heaven and I must say I was right there with them.
Old-Lands doesn’t force fun on you. You go find it. You peek in the Forest Schoolroom and open up drawers of curious objects collected over the years. You steer clear of the swallow droppings that have been glorified with signage that welcomes the poop on a designated spot, you find the huge hollow bush and play a half-hearted game of tennis with the cows as audience. You sneak around at night, without the kids, trying to glimpse a hedgehog and scare yourself silly when the cat jumps out of the bushes instead. I swear we heard the little bristle-y critters but we never caught a glimpse. I honestly had not had this kind of real fun since I was a child. I wish I could tell you how much it meant to me to offer my children that kind of experience and not just an afternoon of it.
We of course ambled around castles in varying degrees of ruin, ate some delightful pub food and some less delightful pub food, and drove through the hometowns of several ancestors wondering if that church or shop had been there and knowing enough to tell what we could of their stories. But we always came back to Horseshoes. Old-Lands gave us a home there among our ancestors and took us back-in-time enough to feel connected and nurtured by their stories, circumstances and surroundings. I couldn’t help but wonder if my shop-keeping great-grandfather had made deliveries to the old house or if the harvest had needed extra hands from the neighboring village. My own story felt more real and personal and the past far less distant. Wales is rich with narrative. Whether your blood intermingles with the people you pass on the street or not, you will feel right at home in the grass, the trees, cloaked in welsh wool and sipping the pressed juices of apples from the trees at Old-Lands. I wish this upon you all and upon myself and my family again. Someday.
These days make those days feel more unattainable but there is magic intermingled in this moment too. Our family welcomed a new baby on the very day the world shut down around us. Our bliss has been amplified by having everyone home all the time. We have had some hard days and are honestly grateful for them. We are learning and being stretched. Like our time at OldLands these days of sheltering in place and social distancing will create distinct memories that are heirlooms in themselves. Of course, I love the thought of gathering a few items and creating experiences that will draw you back to this time where the world came together by being apart. Our quarantine collection and our new foraging collection are intended to occupy while indoors and inspire while out, respectively.
Choose a heritage wooden puzzle to complete this weekend and a year from now to commemorate how far you have come. Grab an acorn doorstop to remind you to keep the door open to friends and family when the time comes or just to let the breeze in. Press some flowers, start keeping a journal, fly a kite or read that daunting classic (may I suggest David Copperfield). If you are a like me with kids making constant requests, time is hard to come by, so engage them in a good read aloud (my favorite ones here and here) or give your adult children a date by reading to the grandkids over the phone a couple of funny picture books (this one, this and these should fit the bill). And don't forget the Welsh wool blankets to snuggle up with.
We have tried to create a bit of Oldlands at our house. We got rabbits and set up a mud kitchen. We brought in some delightful german made wood food to forage for in the backyard and recreate the honesty shop at Oldlands. Stamps are on their way so watch for the our version of Letterboxing coming soon or make your own in your neck of the woods.
Thank you for taking the time to join our endeavors here at Heirloom. We have felt so very blessed by those of you who have reached out with encouraging words, ordered something we hope you have wanted for a long time because you could and for joining us in doing our part to make this delightful world even more livable. We would love to hear from you and learn of your adventures indoors and out with #FriendofHeirloom
My sincerest wishes for your health, growth (not just around the waistline) and happiness,
P.S. To Claire and Sam and all those who preserve, enrich and graciously share OldLands: Thank you, Thank you. You have taught me much and still do. I have some moss for you to identify and do you think I can order a pallet of that apple juice?
To learn more about Old-Lands or to book your stay visit here.
To dig deeper into the conservation and biodiversity efforts the Gwent Wildlife Trust.