The Christmas Season at Crafty Dog Towers

The often strange traditions at our country house in the Welsh countryside.

The Christmas Season at Crafty Dog Gardens

At our traditional old country house we have a number of old seasonal traditions that we follow closely.  Christmas, or Yule as some of the old folk still call it round here, is just full of old doings, such as the Christmas Log, toasting in Christmas morning, and welcoming in the New Year.  We even keep up the ritual of the Mari Lwyd – of which, more later!

Waiting for Grout to bring us the keys of the Summer House

            As the sun rises on the first of December, Mr Grout, the Head Gardener, takes the large 4 wheeled barrow up to the woods where with his erstwhile assistant, Pendle the Gardener’s Lad, they fell a small conifer (about 12 feet or so) and transport it back to the house.  Mrs Grainger the Housekeeper has prepared the entrance hall, and as soon as the tree arrives, Mrs Crafty Dog and I welcome it into the house.  Everyone present has a tot of something warming (Lady Penelope usually had warm milk), then we sing a carol as the tree is placed into its pot in the centre of the entrance hall.  The staff always expect me to say a few words, we have another tot of comfort and are then ushered out of the room as Mrs Grainger and the house staff, under the guidance of Higgins the Butler (who acts in Lady Penelope’s stead this year) they dress the tree.  By now after a couple of warming drinks Mrs Crafty Dog and I retire to the parlour to read the papers and have a morning snooze.   

            We have stopped putting real candles on the tree after the incident a few years ago when the last Gardener’s Lad (who was no improvement on the current one!) fell asleep under the tree and woke up terrified that he had had a stroke as he had lost all movement in his legs and in his kerfuffle he nearly knocked the tree over but also damaged a number of the wrapped presents.  It turned out that as he slept the warm wax had dripped onto his overalls and solidified round his legs, hence he couldn’t stand properly, and thus we now have a tree candle ban. And a new Gardener’s Lad (the former one left for another more stately home – with glowing references, no pun intended).

            The new electrical light bulb contraptions are rather nice, if a little heavy on the electricity (I’ve no idea where Higgins got these light bulbs from).  Being a green estate we just turn on another generator on the water wheel in the meadows which is sufficient to keep them going, and run the staff’s electric blankets in their rooms up  in the eaves (it does get cold up on the fourth floor).  As soon as the tree is properly dressed (and Mrs Crafty Dog and I with it), Grout fires off a maroon from the front door step which is the signal for Pendle to pull the lever that runs water through the wheel and pushes the other lever across that switches the current to the tree.  I know it’s a bit archaic as a means of signalling but there’s no mobile coverage beyond the vegetable garden.  Once lit up, we all gather again around the tree, to sing another couple of carols, have a few more toddy’s then toddle off in all directions to do whatever it is that the staff do.  We’re never that sure, but as long as nothing gets broken, everyone gets fed and the sun comes up the next day then all’s well.  Mrs Crafty Dog and I usually stagger to the parlour to try and find the newspapers we were sleeping under earlier, awaiting a pot of dark, strong coffee to revive us before we’re called to lunch.

            This is pretty much the shape of our days over Christmas (not Christmas Day itself), apart from the arrival of the tree that is (or we’d end up with a hall full of trees – it’d be like Narnia!).  Lunch is normally something filling but not too heavy.  Cook does like to have dumplings with everything (we are sure that post Brexit she has snaffled the entire European suet mountain) but even she can’t serve dumplings with Christmas Cake.  Yes, even the cake is an ancient Crafty Dog Towers one, made to a recipe that dates back to our celebrated eighteenth century Cook, Mrs Beetrum.  Some of the more out-dated ingredients have been changed (where can one get real mincemeat made with Dodo these days?) and we don’t use Old Navy rum (Admiral Fortescue Crafty-Dog was rather partial, if a bit too partial, judging by the way he behaved at the Battle of the Nile.[1]  The Crafty Dog Christmas cake is always made in May and every month Cook soaks (she say’s sozzles) the cake in Beetroot Gin (Grout’s own favourite), which results in rather a strong cake, full of body and beta-carotene, and highly flammable[2].  Indeed, it has to be cut and served outdoors.  Far away from a naked flame.  Lady Penelope wasn’t too keen on Cook making it as she wasn’t allowed dried fruit, the cake made her eyes water, and I think if she had still been with us it’s a tradition she might have ended. 

As for the Christmas Pudding, this too is an ancient Crafty Dog Towers tradition said to date back to the days of Major Lord Humphrey Crafty-Dog.   He was rather an unfortunate chap, having taken the wrong side in the English (and Welsh) Civil War.  He was a great favourite of Charles I, and had the role of Keeper of the Royal Hat Box, which of course seemed a bit pointless after Charles I lost his head.  They were dark days, and it is said that young Prince Charles hid in the water-closet in one of the towers from Cromwell’s soldiers.  We even get the occasional visitor who wants to see this hiding place, and they marvel how he fitted in the cistern. We then have to explain that the toilets were a bit bigger in those days and a standard Twyfords would be far too small for a monarch, if even a tiny one. 

It was Major Humphrey who held Crafty-Dog Towers when it was besieged by a Parliamentarian army led by Cromwell, who was assisted by Colonel Peregrine Crafty-Dog, Humphrey’s younger brother who took the side of Parliament during the war.  It was Peregrine who caught Lord Humphrey trying to escape down a secret passageway from the Chapel out into the lower meadows (under the sundial).  The tunnel is said to still exist though despite Pendle and Grout searching we can find no signs of it.   Humphrey was taken to London and suffered the same fate as Charles I.  He is now one of the ghosts of Crafty Dog Towers, and wanders where the east wing used to stand before being demolished by Cromwell and Sir Peregrine to make the towers less of a military structure.  Peregrine succeeded to the title in place of his brother.  Yes, Sir Humphrey now haunts the visitor’s car park, around the recycling bins, searching for that tunnel to escape down. Or maybe he’s still searching for his head?  Sometimes he’s seen with it, sometimes not. Anyway, less of the spirits, back to the pudding.  

Christmas Pudding used to be a spiced plum and dried fruit pudding affair, which it still is to some extent.  Once again there is a large (some would say inordinately so) amount of alcohol in which the dried fruit is soaked, but instead of the minced meat of the seventeenth century we use a fine fruit mincemeat.  Then there is the florin. Sir Humphrey began the custom of adding a silver florin to the pudding, and whosoever found it would have a week’s leave and transport paid for them to go home and return.  Not an issue when staff came from the next village or so, but it became a problem in the last century when Cuthbert St. John Crafty-Dog liked to hire governess’s for his children from France or Germany.  Rents on the estate’s cottages had to go up just to pay for the tradition, which meant it wasn’t popular.  Cook today substitutes a florin with a £2 coin, and we are very careful when chewing since the accident when Cook swallowed it and it took four of us to wrestle her to the floor and administer the Heimlich manoeuvre.  And even then it shot across the room and nearly killed the Under Footman – it missed his left ear by a few inches.  Hit him straight between the eyes and knocked him clean out.

            After lunch, if we have survived lunch, and it’s dry, we take a tour of the grounds, albeit the ones nearer the house, so we can retreat to the warm if required.  The greenhouses are looking good at the moment as Grout is growing lovely orchids, heated by his spirit stove. It’s a remarkable contraption, all gleaming copper pipes, fed by a large copper tank.  It has a bit of a leak it would appear, so Grout keeps an old gin bottle under it to collect the drips.  I have suggested I get the local plumber to sort it out but he keeps insisting that it’s no bother.  What a considerate chap old Grout is.    He even keeps a supply of empty bottles in case the leak gets too severe.  Considerate, and thoughtful. 

If the weather over Christmas is really good then we may ask Higgins to arrange for one of the staff to drive us out in the charabanc.  But not Cook.  Definitely NOT cook.  NEVER AGAIN!  Mrs Crafty Dog and I still wake at night remembering her taking us around the lanes of West Wales in the Rolls, at break-neck speed, down lanes so narrow the door handles touched the hedges on both sides (and places where the hedges were actually stone walls) and often there was grass growing down the centre of the road too.  She considers the use of the brake pedal a sign of weakness, and I don’t think she used the gear stick much – fourth gear was sufficient.  Admittedly, there was absolutely no damage to the outside of the vehicle, and inside there were only the dents our finger nails had made in the leather of the door handles.  Though there was that tractor that drove through a hedge to avoid us (who knew a Massey Ferguson could go so fast?), and the three hikers who climbed (or rather flew) up a six-foot-bank to get out of her way too.  I am so glad that we have a sliding glass screen between us and the driver as I should imagine her language was somewhat ripe.  I was going to call her in to the parlour for a dressing down but neither Mrs CD nor I were brave enough.  We just drew a line under the whole matter.

As for that Pendle – he was a bit quiet in the weeks leading up to Christmas or rather, he was keeping a low profile.  Old Grout and I were convinced he’s up to something, and Grout suspected its one of his money-making schemes which he has now and again.  Like when he tried knitting socks out of old baling twine.  They looked nice, and he sold some at the local market, but they did tend to chafe a bit and if you ran in them the friction gave the socks somewhat of a tendency to ignite.

Oddments of wood and twigs have disappeared from the woodstore, and someone has been rummaging in the staff Christmas decorations box.  There has been a slight smell of fish-glue from the lower potting shed when Mrs Crafty Dog and I went past yesterday and the sign on the door read, “KEeP OwT – Crafftsmun at WerK” (a craftsman but evidently no word-smith!).  We did try the door but it was firmly locked from the inside and despite us asking what was going on there was no reply, apart from the sound of sawing and hammering and the odd swear word.  I think it sounded like Pendle but Mrs Crafty Dog didn’t concur so we left the swearing carpenter to it.

Then one morning we were wakened by a scream from Cook as she flung open the kitchen shutters.  There on the patio, glaring back at her with sparkly eyes and a bright red bauble nose was a seven foot high wooden reindeer.  We all rushed down to see what had scared her.  We couldn’t believe our eyes.  Pendle stood next to his creation, beaming as brightly as the beastie’s red nose.  Grout was astonished, as were we, and even Cook was when we’d calmed her down with a mug of beef tea laced with green-house gin.  Pendle explained that he had got the plans off the intraweb and had originally intended to make them for Christmas, selling them at the local Christmas market.  However, he had totally exhausted his supply of timber and Christmas decorations as he had not realised how big the reindeer was actually going to be.  Grout asked to see the plans that the boy had printed off.  He scoured them, and then held them up beside the gargantuan statue. 

“Aha!” he said, having understood what had caused the problem.  “What scale did you use?”

“1 cm to 1 metre,” he replied.

“Its 1 inch to 1 foot,” Grout confirmed. 

Pendle looked crestfallen when he realised the enormity of his mathematical hiccup – enormity being the operative word.

Still, I suggested we move it to the end of the drive in front of the main door to the house and cover it with Christmas lights.  We did that in the afternoon and it took six sets of lamps.  Grout has set another small generator to run off the water wheel just to keep the Mighty Reindeer lit over the Yuletide period.  Mrs Crafty Dog reckons they can see it from space – like the Great Wall of China.

Later that week with Grout’s assistance he made this more manageable reindeer with some of the wood left over from Goliath.

People ask me how old Crafty Dog Towers actually is.  On the far end of the croquet lawn is a small mound of earth; it is the base of a motte and bailey castle built by one of the local Welsh lords, possibly one of our distant ancestors.  The first Crafty d’Og was Geoffrey who first appears in the 1300’s after the fall of the last Welsh Princes.  It is said that he married one of the Welsh noble families or maybe was one of the Welsh lords who’d reinvented himself.  He built the first stone castle – or a tower house really – which he named after himself Crafty d’Og tower.   His ancestors despite siding with Owain Glyndwr survived and even built a proper fortified manor house with towers at each corner and a moat.  The thick stone walls were punched full of nice big windows in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when the family lived a more relaxed lifestyle, and then during the English Civil War the Parliamentary forces knocked it about a bit and we lost most of the battlements and towers.  When Dafydd Jones (Inigo’s cousin) came to see Major Cuthbert Crafty-Dog in the 1690’s to redesign the house he had pretty much of a blank canvas.  He kept parts of the ancient house deep inside the east and west wings.

We laugh when people occasionally ask us whether we live in a castle – of course not!  It can’t be a castle if it hasn’t any battlements!  The gardens were redesigned by Cedric Crafty-Dog in the 1890’s when he tried to apply some of Gertrude Jekyll’s ideas.  We have kept the walled garden with its orangery and greenhouses, and 3 compost heaps (well, Grout has to have somewhere to grow his exotic plants). 

Mrs Crafty Dog and I waiting for the Christmas tree

The croquet lawn was where in the past the local yeomanry used to practice their drill.  They were quite a famous regiment – the 1st Crafty Dog Foot and Lancer.  Why lancer?  This was because General James “Mad-Dog” Crafty-Dog liked the idea of a brigade of lancers but they could only find one in the old armoury in the East wing so it was a Foot and Lance regiment (just as well, as they only had one horse anyway). They were very different times, and the regiment fought in the zulu wars (fought is a bit of an exaggeration as they got lost on their way to Rorke’s Drift and spent six weeks in a large hotel outside Port Elizabeth until they were thrown out for running up a huge drinks bill), then the Boer War, and finally the regiment went to France in 1915.  Under Colonel Mervyn Crafty-Dog, VC, MC, DSO and Order of the Golden Teaspoon, they fought at the Somme, and Paschendaale.  The regiment was wound up after WW I and the banners now hang forlornly in the Great Hall.  Mrs Grainger hates them as once a year we have to get a set of long ladders and a trapeze in order for her to be able to give the banners a shake and a dust. 

The Great Hall – that’s a bit of a misnomer as its not that grand these days.  The hammer-beam roof sags a bit (more of a mallet-beam!), and when there’s a sou’wester the wind blows the rain through some loose stone setts which makes a puddle on the flagstone floor below.  There was a bit of a fuss last year when the tatty old vase we used to collect the drips in turned out to be something Chinese from the twelfth century.  It got broken during the annual Boxing Day staff vs family football game last year when Mrs Crafty Dog sliced her penalty kick and the ball careered of a Carravaggio on the wall and hit the vase clean over.  Smashed it to bits.  It took Higgins, Grainger and six tubes of copydex to stick it back together.  As Lady Penelope said, thank Dog we handn’t smashed a new one!  The game is another old tradition, a mixture of soccer/rugby/lacrosse, shinty and highland wrestling and is usually played on the croquet lawn but in wet weather we play the game in the Great Hall.  The football sticks we use must be over a hundred years old, made of very hard bog oak but  surprisingly light.  The ball is made from the bladder of a small mountain goat (well, not these days but it was in times past).  Outside, the goal is an elm tree on one end of the pitch, and the gate post to the paddock on the other end, and the ball has to touch it, by stick, kick, or touch, scoring 4, 3 or 1 point.  When played indoors, the goal is the newel post to the main stair at one end of the hall, and the left-hand of the door to the downstairs privy on the other.  The hazards are of course different indoors to outdoors; we don’t often get sheep in the hall, and outside we’ve never got the ball stuck in a chandelier.  Back when the estate had loads of staff it was up to 20 per side but due to cutbacks since the 1950’s its usually 4 or 5 per side.  We had Higgins on our team last year, with Pendle and me up front and Mrs Crafty Dog in goal.   Well, we think it was her, under the cricket pads, elbow pads, shoulder pads, face mask and helmet (like some sort of over-cautious Hannibal Lector!).  Last year, like this year, the game was held indoor, with Lady Penelope as referee.  It was a 4 – all draw.  In spite of Pendle being incredibly fast for a gangly bean-pole, and very handy with his stick, the sight of Cook growling away in their goal was somewhat off-putting.  Lady Penelope did ensure that Cook didn’t have her false teeth in as that would have proved a bridge too far (hah – dental joke there!).  Higgins was accused of tripping Grout up when he was nearly at our goal (tripping not allowed) but fortunately he had followed that up with a full body-smash and a half-Nelson (which is within the rules).  That missed goal gave us the draw which we thought was fair (though Cook didn’t speak to us until the end of January).  Kick off is after Boxing Day lunch, with after-match refreshments in the scullery and infirmary as required. (This year’s match  had to be called off after the Great Hall floor was deemed to be unplayable – Mrs Grainger slid in some of Cook’s spilt custard and she nearly took out the Christmas Tree.  To be honest, we were most relieved and all retired to the lounge for drinks, canapés and carols).

In many parts of Wales there was the New Year’s Eve custom of the Mari Lwyd, where a sort of hobby horse (a man covered with a white sheet and holding a horse’s skull decorated with ribbons and bells) would go from door to door, singing little songs or rhymes that had to be answered by the householder behind their closed door, or sometimes they were riddles.  If they won the exchange they were allowed inside with their entourage for drinks and treats.  This custom dates back many centuries and is probably pagan in origin, from the murky mists of our Celtic ancestry.  As you can imagine, when this was revived here at Crafty Dog Towers in the 1960’s there were a few changes; there were no horses in the stables here by the 1960’s, and they couldn’t find a horse’s skull for the Mari Lwyd.  The (then) Butler, who happened to be the present Higgins’ uncle, had a brainwave.  Back in the 1890’s, Major Cuthbert Crafty-Dog had been in the Sudan with Lord Kitchener in the relief of Khartoum, where he had served with a branch of the colonial camel corps.  He got rather attached to his camel, Florence (he said she had such beautiful eyes, and those eyelashes…..) and he brought her back here after the war, and she lived out the rest of her days with the horses and park cattle in the lower meadow.   She passed away at the age of 42, and the now rather elderly Major Cuthbert had her immortalised, so for the next 50 years she stood in the entrance hall terrifying the post man or any unwary visitors.  Mind you, the taxidermist in the village was no great shakes, and because of him poor Florence appeared to be cross-eyed and knock-knee’d.   By 1960 her stuffing was falling out, her hump collapsing and she was generally the worse for wear.  She was retired to the stables when the hallway was redecorated but due to the great snow of 63, when the stable roof collapsed poor Florence’s figure was damaged beyond repair.  The stables were demolished a couple of years later, just at the time the then Lady Crafty Dog was intent on reviving the Mari Lwyd.  When the builders were clearing the rubble, they found a perfectly preserved skull of a very large horse with buck-teeth, which turned out to be Florence!  Since then, every year Florence grins her huge toothy grin as she goes from door to door round the cottages, scaring, singing or riddling the staff on the estate, finishing at the front door of the Towers, the very same hallway where she stood guard for over half a century.  When she arrives at our door, we forego the songs and riddles and instead offer her a bowl of dried dates – which were her favourite food in life!  We are sure that Florence and Major Cuthbert would approve!

We are now clearing away (the staff that is, not us!)  the Yuletide and New Year decorations, all boxed up and off to the attic for another year.  A section of the tree has been kept to burn as next year’s Yule log, and the rest will be shredded and composted as part of the continuous circle of life.  Grout and Pendle have been seen heading towards the potting shed (I could hear the bottles rattling in the wheelbarrow), Cook and her kitchen maid are trying to find another way of serving up goose to make it interesting, and Mrs Grainger is whipping the hoover round the Great Hall as Higgins polishes up his nick-nacks.  Just like the supermarkets, they are already talking about Easter!

[1] He was up on deck waving round his cutlass and despite Nelson warning him he could take someone’s eye out – and that’s why Nelson had an eye patch

[2] During World War 2, in order to divert enemy bombers away from Swansea after the Blitz, one of the cakes was placed in the hills towards Brecon and was lit by a very long taper.  The Luftwaffe reckoned they could see it from the French coast!  It saved many lives though the diverted bombers did upset quite a few angry sheep.  They even sent a stiff memo to German High Command.