Yesterday it was “Please stay on the path”, a polite request on a charity nature reserve, duly obeyed. Twenty-four hours on, 10 miles away and a world apart, the inscription reads “Shut & fasten gate”. Private estates do not ask; they demand.
For at least 800 years, villagers have walked through the back entrance to Croxton Park in supplication. They have bowed, not to the landowner of the day, but to a higher authority, for the parish church of St James is located at the very heart of the estate. There is but one path to God here – every tempting offshoot from the drive is barred with “Keep out”, “Private” and “No entry” signs. It feels like old-style National Trust, with visitors expected to know their place.
Today, a welcoming committee has assembled on the other side of the gate, peering at us from a short distance. Duly shut and fastened, we leave the gate behind and the curious sheep inch forward towards us over odd bumps and earthworks of grassy antiquity, until their high heels click-clack on the drive. Their dense, curly coats give these dark-coloured ryelands a koala-ish look. Cattle graze behind; beef shorthorns, with light brown flanks flaking like old paint to reveal creamy undercoats, and black-nosed English whites. No run-of-the mill Holstein Friesian milk machines here.
Further along the cowpat-splatted, sheep-dunged drive, the grand Georgian house becomes visible over the fields, a Pride and Prejudice Pemberley, always out of reach. A cattle grid marks the transition to classic parkland. In the pasture, well-spaced veteran trees spread their branches down to cow muzzle height. The oldest oaks, however, have succumbed to age and their whalebone carcasses are strewn where they fell. Their prostrate trunks and limbs are a reminder that the preservation of continuity requires constant change. Where are the young and maturing oaks, the ancient trees for the 23rd century?
The drive ends at the lychgate, a portal to the churchyard. A metal plaque bears the inscription “Please keep the gate shut”. And it is open.