When the south of England suffered a devastating hurricane in the 1980s, I spent a couple of months repairing and replacing some of the 4 ton, ornamental stone curlicews that had been blown through the roofs of a famous country house in Somerset, the name of which I will keep secret. I will give you a clue though - it's got a lot of lions in the back yard. Oh all right, it was Longleat.
At the time, the old Lord Bath was still alive, and was often mistaken for a deranged gardener as he peered out through the hedges at the tourists, wearing shabby corduroys which were covered in mud, trowel in hand.
The estate was run by his younger son, Lord Christopher, who did not exactly see eye to eye with his older brother who hid himself away in a flat in the house, painting obscene murals on the walls and entertaining his 'wifelets'. The Old Marquis had a vast library in the house, and he proudly told everyone who would listen that he had not read one single one of the books contained within it, though he had probably read the autograph on a signed copy of 'Mein Kampf' in the collection.
With the constant friction between Christopher and Alexander, the spectral figure of the old Marquis wandering around, the barking of orders over a walkie-talkie held in the hand of the old retainer and the roaring, braying and screaming of various animals on the acres of undulating grassland, the place resembled nothing so much as a version of 'Gormanghast' made real.
Some of the less dangerous animals came precariously close to the house. Parrots performed mathematical equations in the walled garden. Peacocks screamed at you from the top of 17th century brickwork. Standing on a small bridge over a stream near the Orangery, you would be startled as three or four sea-lions would rush up towards you and carry on under at breath-taking speeds. There was a small island at the end of that stream, and on it was built a little house which contained one solitary gorilla. After a few months, the fools who put the gorilla there realised that there was something wrong, and it took them weeks to work out what it was that was troubling the poor creature. It was lonely. So what did they do? They installed a television in it's little house.
One of the keepers had his arm torn off at the shoulder by a baboon, but went back to work after the wound had healed.
At spring-time, the old retainer would go into the courtyard with a long pole, and smash up all the swift's nests that had just been built by the creatures after their long journey from Africa. What a welcome.
I could have been there for life, repairing all the intricate pieces of stonework which were crumbling away at the roof tops, but for one mistake. The old Marquis had a personal pet's graveyard in one corner of the garden, and one of his beloved dogs had died. He was particularly fond of Rottweilers, and the old retainer asked me to price for making a tiny, Portland stone marker for the grave with a simple inscription to match the others there. He warned me that Lord Bath cared more about these little memorials than all of the rest of the house put together, so I was to be careful about the pricing for it.
I think I quoted £25 for the whole thing, but in retrospect, I should have done it for nothing and saved the thousands of pounds worth of work by doing so. The winning quote was about £10, and the mason who gave it is probably still there now. Rather him than me.