Saturday, 14 July 2018

Dyffryn Gardens

I love listening to people's conversations at the National Trust. If you believe the critics of the NT, you'd expect to hear one of two extremes: "Oh look, Andromeda, what a perfect example of the Hoity-Toit school of architecture - such fine joodlings and boodlings, wouldn't you say?" or at the other end of the scale: "What a load of boring old pictures - as soon as little Ronaldo has finished jumping on that antique sofa let's get a cup of tea, Barry, I'm parched".

But it's not like that at all. At Dyffryn Gardens today I overheard three different groups of people eagerly discussing the life and times of John Cory, the industrialist who bought the Dyffryn estate in 1891 and spent a considerable amount of his cash remodelling the house and gardens:

Dyffryn House

Let me try and share what I learned (from the guide book as well as the earwigging):

1. John Cory
  • He was born in Devon but his family moved to Cardiff in 1831
  • John expanded the family shipping business when his father retired - he established 80 coal depots around the world on major shipping lines, as well as running coal mines in the Rhondda and Neath valleys
  • He was a philanthropist, donating large funds to the Salvation Army and Dr. Barnardo's, among many others
  • He was a teetotaller and a big cheese in the local temperance movement
  • He bought Dyffryn in 1891 and employed Thomas Mawson to create the gardens

2. Reginald Cory 
  • John died in 1910 and his son Reginald continued the work in the gardens
  • He was a keen horticulturist and often went on plant hunting expeditions with Lawrence Johnston of Hidcote fame
  • He worked with Thomas Mawson and created the gardens we see today

3. The gardens
I'm not going to mention the heatwave in this post, because in two weeks' time it'll be pouring with rain and we'll all have forgotten the sensation of crunchy grass under our feet (it's true though, people of the future, it's all true). 

But I will say that I have NO CLUE how the staff at Dyffryn are managing to keep at least 25 different gardens alive without any rain (although judging by my eavesdropping, they are getting asked the question about 40 times a day).

The Pompeian Garden was one of my favourites:

Pompeii Dyffryn

As was the Reflecting Pool:

Reflecting Pool Dyffryn

And having finished with the smaller enclosed gardens, I wandered out onto the Great Lawn and was very impressed with the views: 

great lawn dyffryn

There's a lot more - lavender gardens, an arboretum, a rose garden, a rockery, a fernery - if you like your gardens, you're in for a treat at Dyffryn.

4. The house
The house was the big surprise for me today. I wasn't expecting it to be open to the public at all - it turned out I had an out-of-date guide book - but you are indeed allowed inside, and a lot of the rooms are accessible.

It's a work in progress, so some rooms are empty, but there's enough to give you a vague idea of how the Corys lived: 
Oak room Dyffryn
The Oak Room - I can confirm it contains a lot of oak
The house was sold in 1936 when John's daughter, Florence, died and it became a conference and training centre. Dyffryn House is like Croome, in that someone tried to turn the place into a hotel at some point and did a load of damage that the Trust is now having to fix. 

5. The scone
Let's move on, as I have bad news and I want to get it over with. The Dyffryn scone today was not the best. It felt squidgy when I picked it up, which usually means it has been stored in a container and/or microwaved. It managed to taste both damp and dry at the same time - I would be very surprised if it was fresh. But the tea room itself was very nice...

Dyffryn scone

..or so I thought. I've been caught out before by properties with multiple tea rooms, so I was extremely proud of myself for checking the map in advance of my visit. But the out-of-date guide book let me down again - I finished my scone and walked around to the back of the house, only to find another cafe allowing people to drink their tea on the terrace as if they owned the gaff - which is, let's face it, my most favourite thing in the world. 

So if you go to Dyffryn, hang fire until you get to the house and have your tea on the terrace like a teetotal toff:

Dyffryn south front

Dyffryn Gardens (and House): 5 out of 5
Scone: 3.5 out of 5
Location of tea room if you can be patient: 5 out of 5

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Brockhampton Estate

I honestly don't mind that some people think the National Trust is a bit boring. They'll change their minds eventually. I've realised that the NT is like Alcoholics Anonymous - you have to be ready for it but when the time is right for you, it's the path to a happier life.

Take Brockhampton in Worcestershire. I'd like to think that the 20-year old me would have appreciated the sight of a beautiful 14th century manor house with a gatehouse and moat. I can confirm that the 44-year old me was completely awestruck by it:

I didn't have to search for this shot, either - it was just there, the scene that greets you as you walk along the path. It was so pretty - worth every single penny that I pay for my NT membership.

Brockhampton had actually done a good job of staying off my sconedar over the past five years. I didn't know anything about it and nobody had ever told me it was fantastic. I think the reason for this is that Brockhampton doesn't have any really scandalous ancestors or celebrity connections.

Here's some history:
  • The manor house you see on the right above was built by John Domulton in the late 14th century
  • The lop-sided gatehouse (to the left above) was added in Tudor times by the Habington family, who had married the Domultons
  • It then passed to the Barneby family by marriage, who became the Lutleys
  • The gatehouse wasn't a defensive feature - it was built to show off the family wealth
  • The same for the moat - it's not known exactly when it was built but it was used to keep fish and impress people rather than defend the property
  • By 1871, the family had moved to a large Georgian mansion on the estate (now rented out privately) and Lower Brockhampton started to fall into disrepair
  • An architect called John Buckler saved the old manor house through renovations
  • John Talbot Lutley left the estate to the National Trust
  • The chapel next door to the manor was probably built in the 12th century:

Brockhampton chapel

The inside of the manor house was also impressive. The Great Hall was restored by John Buckler so we see it as it was in medieval times: 

The crucks in the Great Hall are moulded, with battlements carved at the angle, and the struts supporting the roof apex form quatrefoil openings. (Yes, I've been reading the guidebook. No, I don't have any idea what it means.)

If you are a regular reader, you will know that I am probably the world's worst scone critic, because I just want everything to be brilliant all the time. And so my heart sank a bit when I went into the tearoom and all I could see was a pile of what looked like flat rock buns. They turned out to be the scones. I was worried.

However, they were actually very tasty indeed. Very fresh and really light. My earlier scone (yes, I had two scones today - the sacrifices I make for this project, honestly) at Edward Elgar's Birthplace had been a little bit doughy, so Brockhampton was a light, fluffy treat. 
Brockhampton scone

I'll finish with a picture of the rear view of the manor house - such a beautiful place - if you haven't been then I recommend it:

Brockhampton: surprisingly, wonderfully beautiful: 5 out of 5
Scone: fresh and lovely, just a bit on the flat side: 4 out of 5 
Ability of NT guidebooks to make you feel like a thicko: 5 out of 5

The Firs - Edward Elgar Birthplace

What's the one thing that you would expect to find at Edward Elgar's birthplace in Worcestershire? I had actually packed some earphones before I set off for The Firs - I figured that if Nimrod was blaring in the car park, with more Nimrod in reception, and yet more Nimrod in the tea room then I could just block it out (if you're thinking 'what's Nimrod?', you'll recognise it - you can listen to it here).

But there was no music. There were a few little snippets in the introductory video but that was it. And I'm not necessarily complaining - the Elgars didn't have Land of Hope and Glory on repeat when he was growing up, so why disturb the quiet.

The Firs Edward Elgar Birthplace
If you're a regular reader, you won't be surprised to hear that I could have written everything I knew about Elgar on a postage stamp before today. In fact, you can fit 'Land of Hope and Glory and Nimrod' on half a postage stamp if you write small.

Luckily for me, there was a lot of education on offer at The Firs - an introductory video, two displays areas, and a human in the birthplace cottage itself explaining his life and times. I discovered that:

  • Elgar was born in 1857 on - wait for it - June 2nd. Happy Birthday Ed!
  • His dad was a piano tuner and had a shop selling musical instruments
  • Elgar had a true gift for music - his parents encouraged this through piano and violin lessons, but he was basically self-taught
  • His dad got him a job in a solicitor's office but he gave that up and began teaching music
  • He eventually married one of his pupils, a woman above him in age and social standing - Caroline saw him as a genius and encouraged him
  • The Enigma Variations (including Nimrod) were his real breakthrough - until then he'd struggled, but at the age of 42 he started to get recognition
  • He is probably best known for his Pomp and Circumstance marches, especially March No.1 (the one we/I know as Land of Hope and Glory) which was first played in 1901
  • It was literally an immediate hit - the first audience to hear it gave it two standing ovations - and Edward VII asked Elgar to put some words to it for his coronation
  • AC Benson wrote the words to Land of Hope and Glory and the rest is history - it has since become our back-up national anthem
  • He was knighted in 1904 and died in 1934

Land of Hope and Glory original music
The original music to Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 -
Elgar said "I've got a tune that will knock 'em - knock 'em flat"
There wasn't a guide book at The Firs, which is a massive shame because I later found two brilliant factoids that would surely have made the edit:
  • Fascinating factoid #1 of the day: Elgar was an early supporter of recorded music and he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra for the first recording made at Abbey Road Studios when they opened in 1931. 
  • Fascinating factoid #2 of the day: Pomp & Circumstance March No. 1 (ie Land of Hope and Glory) is played at high school and university graduations in the US. You can read more about that here.
Elgar's study - I presume he didn't have a statue of himself
in there when he was actually using it.
But on to the scone. Elgar's views on scones aren't known, but the tea room at The Firs is lovely - it was a beautiful day and I sat outside listening to the birds singing (this probably answers my question as to why they don't play music everywhere). 

My scone was hefty and absolutely FULL of fruit, which made me think of the comedian Laura Lexx. I have co-opted Laura into my band of Sconepals and she sent me a picture today of an 'excavated' scone as she put it - she hates fruit so she picks out all the currants, leaving a scone that looks like a Swiss cheese. She'd have had her work cut out at The Firs, that's all I can say.

Anyway, the scone was very fresh and tasty - it wasn't massively sweet and it was a bit doughy but I really enjoyed it.

The Firs Edward Elgar scone

So there you have it - scone mission number 167 completed. And the day didn't end there - after I left The Firs, I journeyed on to nearby Brockhampton, so watch this space for more about that.

The Firs: 4.5 out of 5
Scone: 4.5 out of 5
Likelihood of wanting to come out and listen to Elgar's music, having not been blasted with it for two hours: 5 out of 5

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Guest post: Emma becomes a National Trust scone baker

My name is Emma and I am a National Trust volunteer. I also love scones.

I have been a volunteer at Lanhydrock in Cornwall for 7 years. I work every other Sunday to fit in with my full time job. I volunteer in the shop, which suits me because I am surrounded by cookery books and jam. Both of which are useful when you love a good scone.

Quite often I have a good old chin-wag with my customers about my favourite bakes and I'm pretty good at recommending a National Trust jam or curd to go in it. One of my favourite recommendations is a citrus scone with the National Trust passion fruit curd and clotted cream. My tummy is rumbling just thinking about it.

Last year, I discovered NT Scones on Twitter. Shortly after, the National Trust Book of Scones was launched. This simply fuelled my passion for all things scone related. I am currently working my way through the book (present favourite is chocolate and hazelnut served with Nutella and clotted cream) and I will tell anyone who will listen about it.

One day, back in March, I attended a preseason meeting with the rest of the retail team. The catering manager popped along to say hello and give a bit of insight into what the catering team were getting up to. This devolved into a rather lengthy (and possibly over enthusiastic on my part) conversation about my love of NT Scones and The National Trust Book of Scones. I think I may have scared her a little - I am rather passionate about the subject.

A few days later I received an email; would I like to do some job shadowing in the kitchen and do some baking? It was arranged. Emma the Scone Lady gets to bake the scones for Lanhydrock!

On the day arranged I eagerly turned up to the kitchens to bake and met Lisa who would be supervising me for the day. Donning my white coat and hat, I had a brief tour of the kitchen and then I was set to work.

First on the list were the scones. 48 fruit scones were needed for afternoon tea in the restaurant. For anyone who hasn't been in a restaurant kitchen, it's just like baking at home but on a much larger scale. I am perfectly happy baking a dozen scones at my home for my friends or to take into work, but suddenly I was making 48 for the National Trust where scones are literally part of a visitor's experience. Assured by my mentor I was doing fine, the scones were put in the oven. 

All I could think about was what would happen if the scones didn't turn out right. 
There would be no scones for afternoon tea and it would be all my fault. 
No one would come to Lanhydrock ever again because they would tell the whole of the Internet that there were no scones. 

Ok, maybe I can be a little over dramatic but I was feeling the pressure! 23 minutes later the buzzer went on the the oven. The scones were perfect. There were set to cool and a couple hours later they went into the restaurant for service. I was so relieved I felt like I had won the Great British Bake Off.

Now, I know this a blog post about scones but I would like to bring your attention to shortbread. Shortbread, the tearoom treat I always ignore for being boring. Never again. I can assure you that the most fiddly bake in the tearoom is the shortbread. Have you ever stopped to think about how the National Trust logo of the oak leaves gets onto it? The biscuit circles are cut out and then a round stencil with the oak leaves cut out in the middle is pressed hard onto it. Then by hand, very carefully, the biscuit it prized from the stencil. It's a skill I would like to see Mary Berry herself try. Too hard and the biscuit gets squished. Not hard enough and the leaves don't come out. Now, I don't know if Lisa was being nice to me, or whether I am some sort of shortbread whisperer, but out of 48 shortbread only 2 didn't come out right. Several weeks later and I am still feeling some proud of myself.

After 6 hours, I had baked 48 fruit scones, 2 trays of gluten free chocolate brownies, 48 shortbread and 5 carrot cakes. All of which were edible. If you ever wondered where the recipes come from, they are in The National Trust Cookbook (available from National Trust shops).

Finally, I'd just like to say a massive thank you to all National Trust catering staff. You work incredibly hard to provide some of the tastiest creations around and thank you for taking me in as one of your own for the day.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

The Workhouse

I was very excited when I found out that the National Trust owns a workhouse. I was very excited because it gave me the opportunity to go there and say "please, sir, can I have a scone?" and then laugh uproariously at my own great joke. 

The Workhouse

But I probably don't need to tell you that the workhouse was no laughing matter. I read a joyless tome called The Workhouse before I went, which explains that the national workhouse system was set up in the 1830s to stop poor people from seeking state support for themselves or their children - you'd basically have to be utterly desperate to go anywhere near the place.

So I turned up in Southwell today expecting to find a huge Scooby Doo-esque house with lightning bolts and creaking doors and general misery. But it's not like that at all - it's clean and bright and free of rats and general misery, which makes it quite hard to imagine what it must have been like for the poor souls that ended up stuck in there grinding bones or breaking rocks.

I've tried to condense everything I learned from the book into 6 key facts:

1. Who used the workhouse?
In the TV series Who Do You Think You Are, nearly every celebrity ends up in an archive at some point reading out a census form: "Frederick Jones...the workhouse!? He ended up in the workhouse?!" followed by sobs.

But according to the book, only between 0.5-2% of the population of England & Wales was in a workhouse in 1898. That's still a lot of people - anything between 165,000-660,000 - but it was a smaller percentage of the population than I expected.

2. Why were workhouses built?
  • In the days pre-Elizabeth I, people who were down on their luck had to turn to their families or the monasteries for shelter and food
  • The closure of the monasteries led to the Poor Law of 1601, which made each parish responsible for taking care of its own poor people
  • A lot of this care took the form of 'out-relief' - giving fuel and clothes to poor people in their own homes (often nothing more than a hovel)
  • But parishes couldn't cope as times got tougher - industrialisation and the joblessness and urbanisation that went with it led to a big increase in the cost of caring for the poor 
  • The government looked into the options and were impressed by the work of a Reverend Beecher who had written a pamphlet with the charming title of 'The Anti-Pauper System'
  • He based his theories on a small workhouse he had built in Southwell - he had seen good results, and so expanded it to a large institution funded by a number of parishes (the workhouse we can now visit today)
  • The New Poor Law of 1834 took his ideas and put them into practice across the country
3. How did they work?
  • Each workhouse had a master and a matron and a school teacher - the master reported to a group of local Guardians, who were usually District councillors or similar
  • The inmates were divided into categories: able-bodied men and able-bodied women (also known as the 'undeserving poor'), old and infirm men and old and infirm women (the 'blameless' poor), boys aged 7-15 and girls aged 7-15, and children under 7. 
4. What happened to the 'undeserving poor'?
  • The workhouse was designed to stop the able-bodied looking for support, but if they did need to enter its walls they were forced to work - either breaking rocks or grinding bones
The work yard for the able-bodied (aka 'undeserving') poor
  • Another task was picking oakum - basically old ropes that were tarred and knotted and had to be unpicked:

5. What about the children?

This is the surprising thing about workhouses - they were basically orphanages (as Oliver Twist attests). In 1889, of 192,000 people in the workhouse, a whopping 54,000 were children and 33,000 of those were orphans.

I was amazed to read that the explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley (of "Doctor Livingstone, I presume?" fame) had been a workhouse orphan. He wrote an incredibly sad account of his time there, which included a sadistic teacher who seems to have treated his charges very cruelly indeed, even beating one of the boys to death. One day the young Stanley retaliated and "determined to die before submitting again" he apparently scaled the workhouse walls and made his escape.  

6. What happened to the old and infirm?
The aged and infirm were supposed to be treated well in the workhouse (as they were the 'deserving' poor) but the book catalogues a long list of cases where elderly people were subjected to cruelty and neglect. 

infirm bedroom
Bedroom for old and infirm men
The guidebook at The Workhouse paints a less depressing picture than the book by Norman Longmate did - the guidebook points out that children got an education that they wouldn't have got otherwise and so on - but I'm sticking with the book.

In fact, one of the depressingly recognisable things in my workhouse reading was the Guardians turning up for their annual visit and enjoying a big sumptuous lunch on expenses, while the inmates were denied any such thing (it didn't mention the Guardians getting their moats cleaned or having a duck house built at taxpayer's expense, so clearly our elected officials have got a bit more brass-necked over the years). Anyway - I felt a bit self-conscious tucking into a scone in a place where destitute people had once made do with the barest of rations, but I soldiered on.

The Workhouse scone had me worried at first glance, as it looked a little bit flat. But it turned out to be delicious - a really, really tasty fresh scone that I enjoyed immensely. 

Workhouse Scone

I'll leave you with a passage from the book, written by an MP in the East End who was also a Guardian at the Poplar workhouse:

"On one visit I inspected the supper of oatmeal porridge...served up with pieces of black stuff floating around. On examination we discovered it to rat and mice manure. I called for the chief officer, who immediately argued against me, saying the porridge was good and wholesome. 'Very good, madam', said I, taking up a basinful and spoon, 'here you are, eat one mouthful and I will acknowledge I am wrong'. 'Oh dear no,' said the fine lady, 'the food is not for me, and is good and wholesome for those who want it'. I stamped and shouted until both doctor and master arrived, both of whom pleaded it was a mistake, and promptly served both cocoa and bread and margarine."

The Workhouse: 4 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Realism of rat-themed light show in cellar: 5 out of 5 

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Shugborough Estate

I'd been hearing great things about Shugborough near Stafford. However, the tipping point for me actually beetling up there as fast as I could wasn't the scones or the impressive mansion. It was this photo:

I will explain it to you, just in case your eyes are going wibbly with the whole AMAZINGNESS of it - it's basically Lord Lichfield (aka Patrick Lichfield, fashion and society photographer) with his weather-defying bouffant hair, aviator sunglasses, jaunty scarf, and leather jacket, on a motorbike. And Britt Ekland.

There is a connection, just in case you think I have finally taken leave of my senses: Lord Lichfield's family owned the Shugborough Estate until it was given to the National Trust after his grandfather died in 1960. Our debonair friend above actually had apartments in the house until his own death in 2005.

Shugborough mansion

In fact, Pat's apartments were the highlight of my visit today, so without further ado let me tell you about Shugborough:

1. Patrick Lichfield's apartments
Top tip: make sure you go and get a timed ticket for Patrick's rooms as early as you can. I had been tipped off by one of my tribe of National Trust scone fans, Natalie Randall, that I would need to look lively, and she was right - I was nearly thwarted by a COACH PARTY. I ask you.

Anyway. You can't take pictures in the family apartments but you can see where he lived and worked (including a kitchen that is straight outta 1986). The walls are covered in pictures - of Princess Margaret and her friends on holiday (she is lying on a chaise longue while they all stand around her - I'm going to try that with my own friends at the soonest opportunity), Princess Anne on a motorbike, Patrick himself, other royals, Mick Jagger, Patrick himself etc. It's fascinating that he was just at home in front of the camera.

2. The mansion
The Shugborough Estate was bought by the Anson family in 1625 (Patrick Lichfield's surname was actually Anson) but it wasn't always so grand. Two brothers really established the estate we see today; 
  • George Anson (aka Admiral Lord Anson) was a hugely courageous and successful sailor - he was the second British person to circumnavigate the globe (after Francis Drake) on a treacherous journey that took almost four years and ended in 1744. He had 961 men when he set off but his crew was decimated by scurvy and dysentery and all sorts of other disasters. He made a huge amount of money from attacking Spanish ships, however, and it was that money that was used to extend Shugborough.
  • Thomas Anson, brother of George, was the elder son and heir of Shugborough. He spent George's money building and landscaping Shugborough to create an estate fit for a successful family.
Library Shugborough
The Library was one of the rooms built by Thomas Anson - you'll
just have to pretend you can't see the tool box or the table.
  • Thomas was eventally succeeded by his great-nephew in 1789, who worked with the architect Samuel Wyatt to make further improvements to Shugborough
  • But then along came his son, another Thomas, who was made Earl of Lichfield in 1831. He frittered away the family fortune (there's always one), ended up in financial ruin, and had to sell off a lot of Shugborough's furniture, artworks, and books.
  • Subsequent earls tried to manage the debts and keep the estate going, but it was offered to the National Trust in 1960. Staffordshire County Council maintained it for many years until the NT took control in 2016.

4. Highlights of the gardens
Thomas Anson also installed a number of buildings and monuments within the gardens. The Chinese House was probably my favourite - it was built to house Admiral Anson's collection of artefacts that he brought back from China. 

I also liked The Ruins - especially the sign explaining that the Ruins were almost ruined when the National Trust took over and had to be rescued.

It's also customary on this blog that there is always a feature of the estate that I don't actually see and today it was Hadrian's Arch - I did mean to walk up there but somehow the day ran away with me:

Hadrians Arch Shugborough

5. The Cat Monument
The cat momument was slightly disappointing, if I'm truly honest. It's not known if the monument celebrates a cat that circumnavigated the globe with Admiral Anson, or a different cat who just stayed at home. If one cat really did survive four years on a boat, when hundreds of sailors didn't, it deserved more than just a monument.

Cat monument Shugborough

And that's just part of what Shugborough has to offer - it's a big, varied estate that could keep you entertained for hours. I would go as far as to say that it's one of the best National Trust properties that I've ever been to.

But did they deliver on the all-important scone front? Shugborough had been getting RAVE reviews from my fellow scone aficionados - a honey scone that had been on offer last weekend had sent everyone WILD (well, two people). 

So I'm very pleased to report that the Shugborough fruit scone was indeed absolutely superb. Fresh, fluffy on the inside, crisp on the outside, and served with Rodda's that didn't need a pick-axe. Perfect. 

Shugborough scone

BUT! In the words of be-wellied Irish comic Jimmy Kricket, THERE WAS MORE: Lemon & Cranberry scones were also available (next to a copy of the Book of Scones - they know the way to a girl's heart at Shuggers). There was nothing else for it - I had to risk looking like a glutton and try one. It was delicious - light, very lemony, and fresh. They know how to bake scones at Shugborough.

Shugborough lemon scone
I am aware that Patrick Lichfield would NOT approve of this horrendous photo
but I was so keen to start eating that all composition went out of the window
I will close with a mention of Patrick Lichfield's autobiography. I am only on page two but it already promises to be a ripping yarn. Sample line: "Officially he was the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, Viscount Lyon and Baron Glamis, Tannadyce, Sidlaw and Strathdichtie, Baron Bowes, of Streatlam Castle, County Durham and Lunedale, County York. We called him Big Grandpa."

By the way - the book is called 'Not The Whole Truth'. It says a lot about me that when one of the volunteer guides mentioned the book's title today I conspiratorially asked "do you think he made a lot of it up then?" to which he replied, patiently and courteously while probably inwardly asking himself why they let people like me in to stately homes, "I think more likely he left a lot out?" 

Anyway - I'll update late with any fascinating factoids. Stand by!

Shugborough: a resounding 5 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Derring-do of Admiral Anson's cat that sailed around Cape Horn and went to China while mine lies on the spare bed all day: 5 out of 5

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Chirk Castle

Chirk Castle near Wrexham was built by Roger Mortimer in 1295. To prepare for my visit I read a book about Roger Mortimer, but unfortunately for me the book turned out to be about a different Roger Mortimer. It didn't really matter, however, because a) the book was quite good and b) the Rog in the book was the nephew of the Chirk Rog and they got into all sorts of bother together, so it wasn't a totally wasted read.

Chirk Castle

In fact, neither of the Roger Mortimers was what you'd call 'nice' - here's a quick summary of Chirk's various owners and associated types:

1. Roger Mortimer of Chirk
  • Roger was a Marcher Lord - that is, one of the noblemen appointed by Edward I to protect the border with Wales, which was a pretty lively place at the time
  • When Llywelyn ap Gruffydd ap Madoc, Lord of North Powys, died, he left two small boys as heirs - they were put under Roger's guardianship
  • However, both boys were killed - they were pulled from the River Dee in 1281. Was Roger involved? Well, their deaths certainly worked in the king's favour and Roger was granted their lands, so my money is on yes.
  • Roger also helped to kill Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the first and last Prince of Wales, in 1282 in an ambush 
  • In the 1320s, Uncle Roger joined his nephew and other noblemen in a revolt against Edward II because of the king's relationship with Hugh Despenser the Younger. This didn't end well...
2. Roger Mortimer, the nephew
  • ...because the revolt failed and the two Rogers were imprisoned in the Tower of London
  • Nephew Roger escaped and made it to France where he eventually joined forces with Queen Isabella, wife of Edward II
  • Isabella had had enough of her husband and Hugh Despenser and had returned to her homeland 
  • Once she got her son, the future Edward III, to France as well then it was game on for her to raise an army with Roger (who she was now in a relationship with) and invade to overthrow her husband
  • They succeeded in their mission - Edward II was deposed in 1327 and Hugh Despenser met a predictably grisly end
  • However, his grisly end, being hung, drawn and quartered, was out-grisled by the reputed death of Edward II, who was apparently murdered at Berkeley Castle through the use of a red hot poker...I'll spare you the detail as this is a family publication
  • Roger the nephew then basically ruled England with Isabella until Edward III came of age - by all accounts the power went to Roger's head and he turned into a ruthless, paranoid despot
  • Ed came of age and did exactly what presumably everyone except Roger expected him to do - he had Roger executed.

3. Subsequent owners
Chirk then passed through many hands, back and forth as the turbulent times changed people's fortunes. The Fitzalans, Sir William Stanley, Robert Dudley, the Crown all owned Chirk at some point, until it was sold to a Thomas Myddleton in 1595.

The Myddletons were very good at two things; 1) making money and 2) staying on the right side of the political fence. Thanks to this, they managed to hang on to Chirk until it was passed to the National Trust in 1981. Guy Myddleton moved out in 2004, although he still has rooms in the castle.

4. Chirk Castle itself
Chirk Castle is great, because it offers a bit of everything:
  • The West Range is the only medieval part to survive and the various rooms look very medieval indeed - you can really imagine how cold castle life must have been
  • The North Range is very unusual - The Cromwell Hall looks ancient but it was actually created in the 1840s by Augustus Pugin, the Gothic Revival enthusiast better known for designing the tower that we all mistakenly call Big Ben
Cromwell Hall at Chirk Castle
  • You then walk through to the Grand Staircase designed by Joseph Turner in the 1770s - it's neoclassical in style so it looks much newer than the Cromwell Hall even though it pre-dates it
The only problem I had today was that I arrived on foot, so missed the ticket office and didn't get a guide book until afterwards. It was only on my way home that I realised I may have missed a few rooms - not sure where I went wrong or if they were just closed. 

The gardens were also lovely:

Chirk Castle rear

5. The Chirk Scone
But I know you're all wanting me to move on from grisly deaths and adulterous affairs and get on with the all-important Chirk scone. It had been three months since my last scone mission (to the Longshaw Estate) and I desperately needed a corker to get myself back on track with this National Trust Scone Odyssey. Chirk was mission number 164 and I still have around 80 properties to go - send positive thoughts.

The Chirk scone was like the castle itself - hefty. And that's always a slight concern to me, as I've had a couple of dry scones where I've eaten half, looked down at my plate, and realised with something approaching horror that I still have half to go. 

But fear not, readers, as the Chirk scone was excellent - it was fresh as anything with a slighly crunchy exterior and fluffiness within. Top marks. 

Chirk Castle Scone

The tea room at Chirk should also get a mention in dispatches - it's in the actual castle and so you can sit outside in the courtyard with your scone and reminisce about Chirk Roger galloping home having successfully murdered a few people. 

Chirk tearoom

I will end by advising caution if you do decide to read The Greatest Traitor - The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer Ruler of England 1327-1330. Avoid Chapter 12 before bedtime, or at all if you are very squeamish. It goes into great detail about Edward II's death by red hot poker - great, great detail, in fact; detail that you didn't think possible. It's a good read though and always good to know a bit of background before you visit the NT! Even if it's not about the right person.

Chirk Castle: 5 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Utter derangedness of medieval Roger Mortimers: 5 out of 5