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Thursday, 30 July 2009

U3A outing

What is the U3A?, I hear you ask. You did, didn't you? It's the University of the Third Age. Not a real bricks and mortar university or even an Open University, as it's all for interest's sake, for those of us oldies who are not in full time employment any more. No essays, no assessments, no exams, just pure enjoyment of learning about things you are interested in.

The website for the U3A says this:
U3As are self-help, self-managed lifelong learning co-operatives for older people no longer in full time work, providing opportunities for their members to share learning experiences in a wide range of interest groups and to pursue learning not for qualifications, but for fun."

Basically, you can join the group and simply attend the monthly meetings where there is a speaker on some generally interesting topic, but you can also join any of the sub-groups which are organised by the members themselves. Most involve some sort of learning curve, but there are the fun ones too, like the Lunch Group who meet at a different location on the second Wednesday of the month. I like that one!

I have also been a member of a Learn Spanish group - I learned some at school and thought I'd revive it, but it's so similar in many respects to Italian which I started to learn a few years ago that I was always mixing them up, so I decided to stick with Italian. Unfortunately there isn't an Italian group in our U3A though. Maybe I could do a beginners' group and teach what I already know! I also belonged to the Gardening Group, who usually meet on a Friday, a day I can't always get free - at the moment! Just another month to go till I retire altogether! I wanted also to be part of the Scenic Strollers too, but it actually never materialised this year! Anyway you can see that there is a wide range of interests offered. You could do poetry or pottery, Scottish Country Dancing, philosophy, Scottish History - I might try that if it's offered next session - or go to the theatre with the Theatre Group. You might learn about Famous Border Characters (famous people from our region of the Scottish Borders like Sir Walter Scott and the Chambers dictionary brothers - they came from Peebles and my great grandfather worked for them at one point in his career - or Hugh Macdiarmid, or James Hogg.......) Lots to choose from, and all offered by members of the local U3A from their own interests.

Today however was the group summer outing!!!!! There were 34 of us, taking the coach trip over to Ayrshire to visit a very new visitor attraction, Dumfries House. It took about an hour and a half to get there, during which time I fell asleep (the reason being that my friend Colin from Yorkshire, visiting overnight on his way home from a climbing expedition on Skye, replaced my smoke alarm yesterday and the old one kept on bleeping as it continued to run out of battery power. Before I went to bed last night I put it in the fridge to try and dull the sound, but every so often I woke to hear Bleep!... bleep!... bleep!... every 30 seconds. I can tell you what I thought of the bleeping thing! Bleep bleep bleep!!).

It was a short walk from the coach park to the house but a courtesy mini bus shuttled back and forwards too. Most of us walked as we were early for our appointed guided tour. The house from the exterior was magnificent. Redesigned by John, Robert and James Adams from a design done by their father William some years before, it had been commissioned by the 5th Earl of Dumfries to replace the 14th century tower house he had been living in till then. (It was demolished in 1771) He had been awarded the Order of the Thistle (the highest order in Scotland) by George II, and was so proud of the honour that he chose to have as many reminders of that fact in view in the ornamentation of his new house.
This photo is actually a composite picture made up by the wonders of technology from three photos, thus the not quite straight effect of all the bits!

Work began in 1754, and in 1759, on time and on budget, he moved in. When he began to commission furniture, Thomas Chippendale's work obviously impressed him greatly as he bought a great many chairs, sofas, tables, cabinets, buroes (sic), four poster beds, rococo mirrors, steel grates and fenders.....the list goes on..... from the Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director, a catalogue of "Elegant and Useful Designs of Household Furniture", all Chippendale's work. The work of other furniture makers was also commissioned, and what is amazing is that almost everything in the house has been documented over the last 250 years and invoices and notes are still in existence to give everything a provenance.

The rooms have been splendidly decorated with rococo plasterwork ceilings, cornices and niches, even picture frames to house specific paintings I presume. Unfortunately, photography was not permitted inside the house, but I can refer you to the website here. The first row of pictures is obviously of the exterior, and the next of the entrance hall with its painted and gilded plasterwork on the ceiling and walls. This is where you see most of the thistle ornamentation on the frieze above the pillars, on the chair backs, in the plaster ceiling design.... He would leave no-one in any doubt that he was proud of his achievement. It's such a shame that the photos on the website cannot be enlarged.

The cupolas to left and right of the main building and the wings behind them were not on the original plan but were added towards the end of the 19th century,

from the design of the leading Arts&Crafts architect Robert Weir Shultz.

In the picture of the house taken between 1890 and 1900 you can see that one wing has been completed, the other not begun. Photo from Detroit Photographic Company, 1905.

The drawing rooms and dining room are beautiful, the tapestry room amazing, with Shultz's Arts & Crafts decor to show off the huge tapestries, but it is the blue bed - the Best Bed -
on the right at the bottom that is quite stunning! Again it is by Chippendale, and wonderfully designed and constructed. Apparently it is quite unique as the only other one like it known to exist at one time has now completely vanished! No-one knows what happened to it.

The whole story of Dumfries House can be found on the internet, here for example, so I won't take up too much more time with that, only to say that after the death in 1993 of Eileen, Dowager Duchess of Bute - the Butes and the Dumfrieses had united the family by marriage - the house lay empty and was eventually to be sold, by Johnny Dumfries so he could concentrate on work on his other home, Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute.

It was only by the intervention of the Prince of Wales at almost literally the very last minute that it was saved, and a trust formed to restore it, so that it can be, for the first time in its history, open to the public. It still needs a lot of work done on it and it will be interesting to maybe return in a few years to see the difference.

Sorry only a few pictures this time, but do click on the links to see more of the house.

Talk again soon.

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