The Osmington White Horse Restoration

An Osmington Society Project
Various technical problems delayed the official opening ceremony until the Spring of 2013, which to most would suggest a cool but pleasant day with plants and trees bursting into life after the long cold days of winter. Indeed, the first couple of weeks of March were dry and mild and most of us thought that, at last, the cold and wet was behind us. As we all now know mid March saw a dramatic change as the winds from Arctic Russia dominated our weather. On the preceeding day some speculated that the opening ceremony could be marred by a covering of snow on White Horse Hill as snowfalls were widespread across the country on 11th March.

The morning of 12th March dawned and the day was bright and sunny. But as the attendees opened their car doors on arrival they were rudely reminded of just how exposed the site of the viewing point is. The wind was biting cold and without shelter it was almost too difficult to stand up straight. Geoff had pre-empted the conditions by comandeering three mini buses to shelter the  participants while awaiting the arrival of the Guest of Honour, Mrs Anthony Pitt Rivers, The Lord Lieutenant of Dorset, who would perform the ceremony.

Mercifully, Geoff curtailed his speech, made inaudible to most by the wind, and Mrs Pitt Rivers gamely performed her duties before everybody hurriedly made their way back to Geoff and Christine’s house for refreshments and warmth.

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About 40 frozen souls stepped thankfully into the warmth of Geoff and Christine’s beautiful home and gratefully devoured champagne and canapes, all of which had been lovingly crafted by Christine. Geoff provided a winding up speech which summarised the task undertaken and thanked all of those who had been instrumental in its successful culmination, particularly Jan and Paul Critchell who donated the land. A c ongratulatory response followed from Mrs Pitt Rivers.

Pictorial mugs commemorating the White Horse project, were presented to Geoff and Christine for all their hard work and persistence. There was also one for Chris Bird for his brilliant photo journalism and John Hayes, County Council Ranger. Finally mug was presented to Paul Critchell, in his absense,  for his hard work and donation of the land.

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Well it is official – as the Dorset Echo has reported, some 204 years after it was created to honour King George III, the Osmington White Horse has finally received the “Royal seal of approval” from HRH The Princess Royal.

When Geoff and Christine Codd had been organizing the Princess’ visit to celebrate the creation and restoration of the White Horse, they had tried to cover every eventuality. Tents were kindly loaned by St Mary’s school, Puddletown and the Army Cadet Force to give protection from wind and rain, but there remained the one thing that could call a halt to the proceedings – fog. And what did we look out on as we opened the curtains on the 12th March? FOG!

We are an optimistic bunch though, so even as we set up the equipment, and guests and spectators arrived in the chilly damp field, we just thought it would ‘burn off’ in plenty of time.  Things at the Royal end were a little more stressed however, as the helicopter was fogged in and couldn’t even collect them.  So the timetable got pushed back – eventually by an hour and a half – but it really didn’t matter at all.

I had the TV and DVD player set up to show a three-minute video of the project and quite a few folk were able to watch that. The BBC and ITV had teams there as well as the Echo and Western Daily Press, so there were quite a few photos and interviews and the ITV reporter even had time to be taken up to the foot of the Horse to get a new angle (about 30 degrees) on the proceedings. The rest of us just talked amongst ourselves until we got word that she was due in a few minutes, at 1.00pm.

If you have difficulty viewing this video, please click here.

I have to say that it was a genuine thrill as the Royal helicopter appeared over the Horse and even more so as it landed with its polished maroon livery glinting in the sun.  Then Princess Anne emerged to be greeted by Mrs Anthony Pitt-Rivers, Lord-Lieutenant of Dorset and to be introduced first to various local dignitaries, and then to Geoff Codd, her host for the visit.

My video slideshow (which you can see here) set the ball rolling with a brief overview of the restoration on the hill featuring just some of the enthusiastic volunteers who had made it possible.  The Princess, followed by Mrs Anthony Pitt-Rivers, then went on to meet members of the Restoration Group, The Osmington Society, The Dorset Countryside Rangers, Ordnance Survey, Natural England, English Heritage and Aggregate Industries – all of whom had been crucial to the project.

Next Geoff introduced her to our other guests including Mary Kempe, a direct descendent of the original landowner, and the parents of the late Elliot Green, who had worked so hard on the restoration. Then it was time to meet representatives of the Army Cadet Force, The Royal Engineers, The Royal Navy, PGL Holiday Camps, Thomas Hardye School and finally the Weymouth east Scouts and Houldings Explorers.

The White Horse had certainly risen to the occasion and was positively glowing in the sunshine as Princess Anne and Geoff Codd headed for the engraved stone plaque. Although it will eventually be mounted on a stone plinth in the planned viewing point on White horse Hill, for this event the plaque was on an impressive wooden plinth made by Mark ‘Scratch’ Scotchmer, our resident cabinet maker. And for the unveiling, it was covered by a wonderful piece of fabric that my wife Liz had bought many years ago, thinking it would come in handy. It did – especially with some tassels that she had borrowed from a cushion.  The Princess said that she approved!

It was a proud moment for Geoff Codd when, with the White Horse as a backdrop, he formally welcomed Princess Anne and invited her to unveil the plaque to celebrate the occasion on behalf of her great, great, great, great Grandfather (to which she replied “Ancester will do!”).  I am pleased to report that this process went very smoothly – the fabric slid off (with a little help from Geoff) and the plaque on its fine plinth was revealed! Princess Anne was clearly very impressed and said so. She paid tribute to the achievement by the many volunteers and remarked that even in our world of technology, some things just need hard work. She was also delighted that this superb landmark would be ready in time for the Olympics.

Then it was time to go and as her helicopter took off and the crowd waved, no one was in any doubt that the Osmington White Horse did indeed have  the “Royal seal of approval”. And for those lucky enough to meet her, it was an occasion they would never forget.

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GeoffWhen preparing the agenda for our Restoration Group meeting last week, I could not help but reflect on how much our ambitions for our project had changed over the two and a half years since the project started. Apart from Steve Wallis’ archaeological input and John Hayes’ experience on the hill, we were a motley bunch of amateurs with little realisation of the extent of the challenge that was facing us.

Since that early beginning, our journey has been eventful and inspirational. We had to  become better informed and more focused, our hazy aspirations gradually became clearly specified objectives, and the figure on the hill started to look so much better relative to the tired old nag and its Royal rider that we had got so used to seeing but not seeing – if you see what I mean.

We all heaved a sigh of relief as each stage was completed. First there was research by Steve White and Sarah Harbige, and then the careful removal of 160 tonnes of offending limestone scalpings without damaging the surrounding SSSI. Then the identification and cutting out of the figure to accurately restore it to its original 1808 outline. Quite a challenge where specialist assistance from our friends at English Heritage and Ordnance Survey was absolutely key.

Natural England funding was clearly a life saver to kick start the process, but personal dedication and hard work by a small number of key individuals lies at the very core of our success. John Hayes’ organisation and supervision of volunteer teams – assisted by Nick Tarrier – often in awful weather conditions, and Chris Bird’s continuous flow of colourful and perceptive reports and photographs of daily events.

Also Michael Seall’s behind-the-scenes work on our dedicated website (and up on the hill, where he broke his ankle!), and Paul and Jan Critchell’s constant constructive support and encouragement of all our efforts. Of course, at the front line were all the young people and servicemen volunteers whose enthusiasm and good humour gave us all a great feeling of faith in our future generations.

So far so good, but while we have certainly come to the end of a particularly demanding stage in our restoration project, this is not by any means the end of the journey. Apart from some remaining titivation around the edges, we have to design a maintenance regime, and set arrangements in place, so that this process does not have to be repeated in the future.

We are also highly conscious that this ‘White Horse’ is in fact unique amongst its kind across the UK, and we should be proud of that and encourage others to enjoy its story. Consequently we hope to provide a viewing point off the A353 where visitors to Dorset are able to admire the monument’s artistic lines and learn about its fascinating history.

We have a good story to tell – an on-going tale.

I have to admit that I felt a bit sad this afternoon as I walked home across the fields. It was only about fifteen months ago that Geoff Codd asked me to take some progress photos on the White Horse project, but it somehow seems to have been far longer that we have been working on the hillside to restore this superb Dorset landmark. And now the main part of the project is over – the Portland scalpings are gone, the outline is established with the help of the best brains and technology, and the Horse has been cut out and restored to its 1808 glory.

So what were we doing up there today? Well it was what can be best described as the finishing touches. The Weymouth East Scouts and Houlding explorer Unit had finished the main work in style on Saturday, but there were some final measurements to be checked on the tail, some of gravel to be shifted and the odd tweak to the top of the tail. And, more important, we were expecting Chris MacMillan and assistant Abbi from a TV production company making a programme entitled “Britain at Risk” to be screened next year on BBC2

Workers on the hill this afternoon included many who have been so crucial to this project: Geoff Codd, Christine Codd, Teresa Seall and Bill Norman from the Osmington Society; six of the Royal Navy lads from RNAS Yeovilton; John Hayes and Nick Tarrier from the Dorset Countryside Rangers; Stewart Ainsworth from English Heritage; Jon Horgan from Ordnance Survey; Steve Wallis, the County Archeologist and last but by no means least, Paul Critchell,  the land owner.

The weather was perfect and we were all up there in plenty of time.  Chris and Abbi arrived with surprisingly little gear and there followed lots of discussion about potential shots and camera angles. Leading Hand Michael “Soapy” Watson of the RNAS gallantly offered to guide Abbi down the tail to be introduced to his lads – and gave an excellent demonstration of just what a slippery slope it is. Luckily he had had plenty of practice and kept at least one leg on the ground as he accelerated out of control towards the bottom!

Regular readers will know that taking dumpy bags of gravel down is the norm, but Producer/Cameraman Chris decided that if the Navy lads could manhandle one UP to the quarry it would make for good TV. It worked, but lets just say it was VERY hard work – as you will see from the photos!

There followed various interviews and a bit of hanging about, but the time wasn’t wasted as Paul Critchell and the Osmington Society team tackled a nasty lump on the top of the tail. And Rangers john and Nick were already planning the ongoing maintenance of the Horse – spraying the weeds and ensuring that the Horse and rider do not start shrinking again.

I left them to it then, as other duties called. They were still filming as I walked home and thought how I would miss the challenges of the restoration. I have had the pleasure of working with a huge number of volunteers whose enthusiasm and good humour has always made the climb up the Horse worthwhile.  And whose hard work has restored to a state that we can all be very proud of for the Olympics and beyond.  Somehow I think that I will be up there again – even if only to enjoy the magnificent view…….

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“Did you doubt us?” asked Nikki Jenkins, deputy scout leader for the Weymouth East Scouts and ‘Houlding’ Explorers, fixing me with a steely glare.  “No, of course not!” I lied as I looked in astonishment at the progress they had made on the Horse’s tail since I had left barely a couple of hours earlier. But to be honest, at the start of the day, I really did doubt that they could achieve what they had.

This morning, as I walked across the fields, I thought how appropriate it was that Paul and Jan Critchell’s “White Horse Farm” should be hosting a horse show on the very day we made the final push to complete the cutting out of their own White Horse.  But rain was threatened and I knew that this was the steepest part of the hill. And I knew, only too well, that what looks from a distance like an elegant tail, is more like a road up a mountain when you are on it!

Because of the show, I took a different route across the fields and was thinking that the Scouts may well need reinforcements to do this huge job. Then I heard a sound behind me and turned to find that I had some enthusiastic followers in the form of about fifty cattle following me in single file up the slope. I felt a bit like the Pied piper! Sadly they were more interested in food than helping, so I left them at the gate and went on to meet the scouts and Explorers who were arriving from above.

Rangers John Hayes and Nick Tarrier gave the safety briefing to the team, and then they set to work. With a couple of Explorers joining us from across the fields, we ended up with seven Explorers, ten Scouts, Scout Leaders Chris and Nikki Jenkins plus three volunteer parents. And one of those parents was John’s wife Ruth, so watch out for her story in the Echo. Reinforcements did come from the Osmington Society in the form of Teresa and Michael Seall. Teresa is our District Councillor, who has been a champion of the project from the start, and Michael is our Web-master who puts all of my ramblings on the site.

There was no shortage of enthusiasm, but the task was huge. They tried trugs to take the turf and soil down, both by hand and on the ‘fish wagon’ used earlier in the project, and I even tried taking it up to the quarry (a bad idea!), but it came back to the dumpy bag routine. With strict supervision, this proved to be highly effective and so I left them to it as I headed home to process the morning’s photos.

It was while I was away that Web-master Michael came to grief.  Now Michael assures me that he is a man who never puts a foot wrong (I’m not sure if Teresa agrees…!), but on this occasion he did and with a ‘twisted’ ankle, had to retire hurt. Not wishing to be a bother, he insisted on walking the ¾ mile down to their car and then was whisked to A&E by Teresa. There he was officially told that he couldn’t walk with a broken ankle and so got plastered. But White Horse folk are made of stern stuff and the fact that you are reading this means he is already back at his post!

So it was when I returned to the Horse after lunch that Nikki tackled me with her question, and I confess that I was very impressed indeed – and even more so by what happened next. They were down to the bottom of the tail, which was now groomed to Royal Navy standard, but the pile of soil was much bigger than it looks in the photos. It included turf and roots too, just to make it a little more difficult, and they would have been forgiven for losing the will to dig – especially as a particularly nasty squall of rain came sweeping in from Portland. But, if anything, they worked even harder as the dust turned to mud and the full trugs stacked up.

Regular readers of this blog will know that these Scouts and explorers can shrug off a little driving, horizontal rain, especially when they have the honour of shaping this historic monument. So they soldiered on with a final effort and then the sun came out, and the job was done – much to the relief of all. After a rapid tidy up, we gathered the team together for a group photo that I think gives some idea of the scale of their achievement. And then they went their various ways – some up the hill and some down and across the fields to home to a well-earned rest.

As I walked home I felt very proud to look back on the completed figure that has been worked on by so many wonderful young folk over the past fourteen months.  Among the many who have helped, the Weymouth East Scouts and Houlding Explorers’ name is certainly ‘writ large’ in this history of the Osmington White Horse and I now know that the true answer to Nikki Jenkins’ question at the beginning of my blog is: “Well for a short while I did doubt them – but I never will again!”

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“I didn’t realize it was this steep!” said Royal Navy photographer Chris Mumby as I met him on the hillside.  And that sums up just about everyone’s reaction when they first climb it. I later learned from his co-photographer, Tony Scott, that the Royal Navy are well used to steep hills as there has been a long tradition that the crew of every Navy ship that docks in Gibralter has to run up the Rock! But for today, everyone was in agreement – that our Horse is officially STEEP.

Earlier this morning, John Hayes, had phoned to tell me that the Navy helicopter was due at about 10.20am so I had crossed the fields in plenty of time. The Royal Navy ensign was already spread out in the sunshine and made a colourful addition to the landscape for a few photos.

I positioned myself below the ensign and yelled up to the lads for a quick “Magnificent Seven” pose, before climbing to meet Chris and Tony. They were soon in action taking some posed shots, but time was getting on, so I rushed back down into the lower field in the hope of getting some long shots of the lads holding the ensign under the helicopter.

The Lynx turned up bang on time, but what I did not realise was that with cattle in the next field, it could not fly low and so could only take photos from high level. Ah well – the Lynx is in a photo of the Horse, but only for those with good eyesight!

Up on the Horse again, there were many more posed shots and some spectacular gravel ‘runs’ with repeated ‘180’s’ (see yesterday’s blog for the explanation).  I had a bit of fun photographing the photographers and then they got they own back by insisting that I joined the line up (static!), complete with hat and stick. I’m not looking forward to seeing those….

Eventually the photographers went on and the lads got back to work, picking gravel and improving the definition of the Horse’s belly. I headed home to process more photos and try to remember what happened yesterday!

Now the sharp eyed will spot that there were only five of the 702 Squadron lads with us today, as three were on other important duties. But because they all did such a fantastic job, and were such a credit to their Service, I will give a roll call here. Leading the team was Leading Aircraft Engineering Technician, Michael Watson, and with him at various times over the last week were Aircraft Engineering Technicians Colin Stevenson, David Gorst, James Godden, Matt Shaw, Matthew Munro , Rob Harrop and Glen Rogers.

They were, of course, working closely with Dorset Countryside Rangers Nick Tarrier and Elliott Green who have both contributed a huge amount to this project. In fact it was Elliott’s last day of his year Apprenticeship so the Navy/Ranger ‘liaison’ in a Weymouth pub (or two) this evening will double as his send off.

I walked back just as they were finishing and managed to snap a passing Navy Sea King helicopter over the Horse and then, as I approached across the field, I also captured the final gravel ‘run’. They were ready for off when I met Nick and Michael by the hoof and Nick asked me if I would mind climbing up to photograph them as a group by the Land Rover. I agreed and can honestly say that on this occasion it really didn’t feel steep at all. And, most important, it gave me the chance to say a big thank you to a great bunch of guys before they headed for some well-earned refreshment.

The hillside was quiet then, with just a para-glider cruising past on the thermals – before depositing its pilot and passenger rather heavily in some gorse and brambles (I knew there was a reason I haven’t tried it!). And then, as I walked back across the fields I met Paul Critchell, the farmer without whose help and co-operation, none of this could have happened. I asked him what he thought of the progress. “Fantastic” he said, and I have to agree!

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Am I getting fitter? When I am on the Horse I can convince myself that I am – but that climb up the 30 degree slope always gets me. Maybe it’s the amount of time I spend at the computer, processing photos……..

Anyway, it was nearly eleven when I joined the seven man R.N.A.S team from 702 Squadron on the Horse. The drizzle has stopped and I found that they had already put in a couple of hours stone picking and weeding round the Horse’s neck, as well as fitting the revetment on the Horse’s hoof.  Matt, yesterday’s fever victim, was back in action, but today we were without Colin who had other important duties – playing rugby.

After they finished a short break, three of the lads carried on with the reins, which had seen some rapid re-growth, and the other four joined Rangers Nick and Elliott to tackle the turf and weeds on the Horse’s flank.

Of course the weeding is the easy bit, as when the trugs are full, they must be carried up the steep slope to the quarry.  I decided to join in for a while and cleared some from the King’s arm which is just an easy level walk to the quarry. I’m learning!

I also learned something else about the gravel ‘running’. I had heard them shouting ‘180’ as they rapidly conveyed the dumpy bag down the hill, but had no idea what it meant. It appears that, due to the slope, the gravel makes a bid for freedom out of the leading edge of the bag.  At the shout of ‘180’ they run it round 180 degrees so that the leading edge is now trailing and the gravel is contained. Simple!

I left them to it then and headed home to process photos and to write the blog. By the time I returned about mid afternoon, they had moved on to the rump and the back of the King’s neck, where a build up of soil was already forming a green turf. These areas were soon dealt with and before finishing they did a little clearing at the very top of the tail. Here Leading Hand Michael Watson demonstrated the art of sliding down to a very rocky landing at the bottom.  Days of practice meant that he just bounced and I was relieved to see that nothing was broken or bent. Well nothing visible anyway……

As I headed home, the lads all went off to reconnoiter Weymouth hostelries for a planned celebration meeting to take place after their stint is completed tomorrow. And if I may say so – it will be a very well earned celebration!

Oh yes – and when I got home, I knew the answer to my question at the start. And the answer is no!

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I didn’t envy the lads from 702 Squadron on Monday. I was in London and so didn’t have the pleasure of joining them on the windswept hillside. At least the sun did shine for them for most of the day and the winds didn’t quite reach ‘hurricane’ force.

With Dorset Countryside Rangers Nick and Elliott they tackled the back front leg first and shifted many a tonne of soil and stone down to the bottom of the hill with the dumpy bag method. I gather they perfected the arts of slipping, sliding and soft landing during the course of the day – and they assured me that I had missed all the best photos!

Geoff and Christine Codd, who have been so fundamental to this project, walked up to see them and admire at first hand the extraordinary level of finish that this team had achieved. The leg was already nicely groomed and the hoof just needed some revetting with green oak to resist the invading rabbits. Indeed by the end of the day they had moved on to make a start on the very front leg.

Tuesday was another day of great progress – with mostly sunshine and just one heavy shower to help lay the dust that was becoming a serious problem.  In fact the lads looked rather unusual in a very individual selection of scarves and goggles which must have surprised Lt. Jason Douglas, the deputy Aircraft Engineering Officer, when he came down to review progress.  I have no doubt that he was seriously impressed by the work done – and also by the high level of initiative and improvisation in their kit. Indeed I am told that he soon joined in the action and quickly mastered the art of the soft, and not quite so soft, landing…….!

I arrived back from London after lunch, but it was already mid afternoon by the time I headed for the Horse.  I found just seven of the lads ready to set off back to base, as one had been stricken with a nasty fever bug and signed off.  And I really appreciated the fact that they had waited when they saw me heading across the fields.  I have to say that the transformation in the front legs was fantastic. The very front leg was already completed and now showed the nicely defined hoof that had been part of the original figure – and all was finished to the Royal Navy’s highest standard.

They took a few minutes to update me before they headed up the hill for their mile hike back to their transport.  I headed home and for a while, as I stood in the field at the bottom, the sun came out and the sky was blue so I quickly snapped a new photo for the banner of this website.  It is just about fourteen months since the original one was taken – and what a difference!

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Well I guess it was inevitable really.  I mean when John Hayes looked at the two back legs yesterday – one pristine and ‘ship shape’ and the other littered with stones washed down by the recent rains, he was just going to have to make the ‘front back leg’ a priority. And by the time I joined the Rangers and the lads of 702 Squadron R.N.A.S on the hill it was sorted – the legs were already matching and probably as ‘groomed’ as they have ever looked in their 203 year history!The lads were, in fact, relaxing by picking stones from the hillside below the horse when I arrived, before the gruelling hard work on the back front leg started. And when it did start, it was as tough as anything we have tackled so far on this project. The reasons for this was that soil and turf had to go up – to cover the rather too-visible material that had been spread in the quarry behind the King’s back – and the stone had to go a long way down to the bottom of the hill.

Now the Royal Navy is world renowned for their gun team displays at the at the Royal Military Tattoo, but I think that ‘Hauling the Turf’ might just qualify as a future spectacle. Their task was to haul about a quarter of a tonne of turf and soil, in a dumpy bag, diagonally up a 30 degree slope and I think the photos will give you an idea of the effort involved by the combined Royal Navy/Countryside Ranger team. And then there was ‘Hauling the Gravel’ – where even heavier dumpy bags were pulled down the hill for spreading, followed by the weary climb back.

I had left them to it after the first turf haul (I had to check my photos was my excuse!) but I gather there were three more turf hauls, and countless gravel runs before mid afternoon when I got back. To say that they looked pretty exhausted would be an understatement, but they didn’t let up. I did join in for a bit of shoveling, but I know my limitations, and didn’t volunteer to take a handle on the bag!

So as they headed back to base at the end of two days, we have two superbly groomed and shaped back legs, a ‘polished’ boot and major progress on the back front leg. The lads of 702 Squadron will be back on Monday but were due for a well-earned rest on Friday – fixing helicopters back at their Yeovilton base!

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Well it is about seven weeks since I was last on the Horse, and as I looked out to see the rain had cleared, I wondered what had happened to my resolution to be fit and ready for the “final push” ………

The good news though, was that the day’s work was to be on the lower back leg (fetlock?) so less climbing would be involved. The even better news was that we had eight volunteers from the 702 Squadron of the Royal Naval Air Service, based at Yeovilton – and they really would be fit!

Nick Tarrier and Eliott Green , from the Dorset Countryside Ranger Service had set up early so the lads were already in action when I arrived and were rapidly adjusting to the different challenges. After all, being a helicopter mechanic working to the finest tolerances is just a bit different from wielding a mattock on a hillside in a high wind! But adjust they did – and with a lot of banter and good humour they were soon shifting gravel, soil and turf.

I learned from the lads that 702 Squadron is a training squadron and that where possible, community projects form a part of the basic training. We were very lucky that one of Yeovilton staff had read about the project in the Register (our local free magazine) and had offered the lads for up to six days. With another day from the scouts, this will complete the “final push” and our Horse will be back in shape.

One of the main tasks of their first day was to fill the revetment under the hind leg with the turf, so that we could finally eliminate the white scar on the hillside that has been there for so long. After a nervous few weeks, when the turf on the front back leg had appeared to die, it is now showing good signs of re-growth, so we are pretty confident the plan is working. I certainly hope so as I did a fair bit of the turfing!

The lads had pretty well finished the hind leg as I headed home for lunch and they took a well-earned rest in the drizzle that had just set in. Luckily it was short lived and by the time I returned they had moved on to complete a makeover on the King’s boot before hauling all the tools up the hill and heading back to base.

As John Hayes and I surveyed the results of the day’s work, it was difficult to visualize how it had been just a few hours ago. And it was easy to see that these guys are used to precision and absolute cleanliness – as the leg was groomed to perfection and certainly ready for parade!

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