Tuesday, 15 October 2019

The Christmas Pudding Scone Tour in York

If you're looking for an excellent National Trust day out in the run-up to Christmas, I have the answer for you and it's.....York.

To follow my suggested one day itinerary, you need to go Thursday-Sunday between 9 November and 15 December, as that's when you'll be able to pay homage to the eighth wonder of the modern world, the legendary Christmas Pudding Scone with Brandy Butter at Treasurer's House, AND fit in a trip to Goddards, home of the Terry's of York family and their all-conquering stocking filler, the Chocolate Orange.

However, if you want to take your time and fit in shops/the Christmas market as well (and I do recommend this strategy, because York is a beautiful and historic city), then you'll need the Premier Inn on Blossom Street for a night's sleep. 

If you only have eyes for the Christmas Pudding Scone with Brandy Butter, on the other hand, you can go pretty much every day between November 9 and 21 December as Treasurers House will be open and waiting for you (check the opening times though, just in case).

It's not National Trust and you have to pay to go inside but the good news is that a) it's right next door to Treasurer's House and b) you can join free guided tours, which come highly recommended by me. The Minster opens at 9am and the tours start at 10am so you can get an early start to your day.

York Minster

2. Head to Treasurer's House
Treasurer's House is five minutes' walk from the Minster and opens at 11am. I know for certain that they only serve freshly baked scones, so you don't have to worry that early visit = yesterday's leftovers. The tea room is in the basement and is very atmospheric, plus it's table service, so grab a nice table, order a Christmas Pudding Scone with Brandy Butter, and inform any travelling companions that you might need to eat in silence as words will fail you when it arrives. Remember the first rule of Scone Club: take a picture and send it to me BEFORE you eat it.

Treasurers House

3. Walk the City Walls
The Walls aren't National Trust either but they're really worth doing. Climb up the steps at Bootham Bar, which is right by the Minster, and walk along. There are a couple of stretches where you have to drop down to street level and pick up the wall again later on but it's never that far (although weirdly it's not that well signposted on the ground, so you will need your wits about you and/or Google Maps).

York Walls

4. Visit York Castle
There's actually not much left of York Castle - Clifford's Tower is pretty much the only remaining piece and it's run by another heritage organisation who shall remain nameless. However, when you come down from the Walls at Fishergate you walk past the Tower and it'd be a shame to ignore it. There's a museum and they're doing some Christmas stuff so keep an eye on their website. 

Cliffords Tower

If you get back up onto the Walls after the Castle Museum, follow the route to Micklegate. If you then disembark the Walls at Micklegate, it's a fairly straight 30 minute walk to Goddards on the Tadcaster Road. There you can marvel/weep at the history of the Terry's chocolate dynasty and have a second scone brought to you in their beautiful dining room cafe.


I need to point out that other good scone regions are available but York is just particularly good at Christmas. 

There's all to play for as the National Trust Scone Quest approaches its final year. York has admittedly delivered scone excellence but other contenders for Scone To Rule Them All have also emerged:
Remember to send me your pictures!

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Which National Trust properties serve the best scones?

This National Trust Scone project is nearly complete. I've visited 200+ properties, I have around 35 still to go, and I've given myself a deadline of December 2020 to bring the quest to its conclusion.

So it's time to start thinking about the big question: which National Trust properties serve the best scones? Please note that I'm not brave enough to face the biggest question - which is the scone to rule them all? - so we'll leave that one for now.

Almost 80 properties have delivered five star scones in the past six years. However, every Christmas I have shortlisted the real stand-out performers from the previous 12 months and named my scone of the year.

So here's a summary of those annual lists, giving you the Champions' League, the creme de la creme, the pantheon; basically, the scones that I still think about today.

The Champions' League of National Trust Scones (so far, and in no particular order):

Boscastle (Cornwall)
Croft Castle (Herefordshire)
Dunwich Heath (Suffolk)
Felbrigg Hall (Norfolk)
Fell Foot (Cumbria)
Flatford (Suffolk)
Longshaw, Burbage, and Eastern Moors (Derbyshire)
Nostell Priory (West Yorkshire)
Scotney Castle (Kent)
Shugborough (Staffordshire)
South Foreland Lighthouse (Kent)
The Argory (Northern Ireland)
The Needles Old Battery (Isle of Wight)
Treasurer's House (York)
Trerice (Cornwall)
Trelissick (Cornwall)
Trengwainton (Cornwall)
Watersmeet (Devon)
White Cliffs of Dover (Kent)
Wicken Fen (Cambridgeshire)
Winkworth Arboretum (Surrey)

Stay tuned for the final season of National Trust Scones: make sure you never miss a new review by following on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or signing up to the email on this blog. And remember to send me your National Trust scone pictures on social media too! We're all in this together.

Monday, 23 September 2019

Podcast of the National Trust Scone Blog

I ate 21 National Trust scones in August. It must be a world record, or qualify me for an OBE or something. But there's only one prize that I have my eyes on and it's the completion of this National Trust Scone quest. I want to be finished by December 2020.

But everytime I think of the end of this scone quest, I have a very uneasy feeling that it'll be like the running scene in Forrest Gump. He runs for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours (a mere trifle compared to my 7.5 years but let's not quibble) and then suddenly he just stops in the road and says to his co-runners; "I'm pretty tired. I think I'll go home now," and he slowly limps off, leaving them abandoned.

I've gained a lot from this project - weight, mainly - but the most important thing I've acquired is access to a community of funny, interesting people that have supported the quest on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and have become a huge part of the entire thing.

So I'm creating a podcast where I'll interview some of the Sconepals that have been following this National Trust Scone Odyssey. I'll be asking you about your top five National Trust properties - think of it as your Desert Island Discs of NT places (although I agree it would be a bit weird to try and take Hadrian's Wall to a desert island, but you get the general idea).

If you're interested in taking part, let me know. I probably won't be able to make it round to everyone but if I happen to be in your neck of the woods and you're available, I would LOVE to find out more about why you love the National Trust, which are your top five properties, and - most important of all - where you had your very best NT scone. Then I'll release them over the next 12 months as I prepare for that final scone - hopefully a nice way to finish off.

I'm looking forward to meeting you!

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Carlyle's House

SPOILER: There are no scones at Carlyle's House in Chelsea, as there's no space for a tea room. The building is almost Harry Potter-esque, in that you leave the King's Road, head down a leafy London side street, and probably walk straight past the house if you weren't paying attention.

And if you do manage to spot the neat little sign and go inside, you find yourself immediately in the 19th century. It genuinely feels as if you're paying a visit to Thomas Carlyle and his wife, Jane. It's very different to other National Trust properties and quite an odd experience to be having in 21st century London.

But let me share some highlights as it's a lovely, fascinating house:

Thomas Carlyle - influencer of the 1830s and 1840s
Carlyle was a Scottish author, historian, and social commentator who influenced Dickens, Ruskin, William Morris, and many others. His most celebrated book, The French Revolution, almost didn't make it into print - he lent the only copy of the manuscript to John Stuart Mill, who appeared at the front door one night in 1835 with the unenviable task of telling Carlyle that a servant had accidentally thrown it on the fire. Carlyle had to start all over again from scratch.

Thomas Carlyle bust
One of the many busts and portraits of Carlyle in the house
- I'm surprised he got any work done with so many artists turning up.
Jane Carlyle - the witty one 
Jane and Thomas married in Scotland in 1826, although her mother wasn't happy about it as she had higher hopes for her daughter. Jane and Thomas seem to have become a bit of a Carlyle double act - she was witty and sociable, and was well-liked by many of Carlyle's friends.  

The house - never actually owned by the Carlyles
The Carlyles always rented the house on Cheyne Row. I might not know much about his books, but I do know that Thomas deserves a lifetime achievement award for being the only person in the history of mankind that has managed to live in London for longer than two weeks without ever seeing a rent increase; for the 47 years that he lived in the house, the rent was £35 a year. 

Cheyne Row - not the stylish part of town
Chelsea wasn't an attractive part of London in the 1830s and 40s. Thomas himself described the house as "unfashionable in the highest degree but in the highest degree comfortable and serviceable." However, lots of illustrious people lived on Cheyne Row, including the artists Turner and Whistler and the authors George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell.

Jane Carlyle - the demanding one? 
Until Jane died in 1866, the couple managed with one live-in maid-servant who had to do pretty much everything. The fact that Jane got through 34 of those maid-servants in 32 years says a lot. One was fired for being "mortal drunk", while another one gave birth in a closet without Thomas knowing, even though he was sitting in the next room at the time. The mind boggles.

The Parlour 
There's a lovely picture from 1857 on the wall of the Parlour that shows Thomas and Jane actually in the very same Parlour. It's a strange experience, as the furniture and decoration are exactly the same, so it's almost like a mirror - you half expect to turn around and see Jane sitting at the table (probably writing out another P45).

Carlyles House Parlour

A shrine since 1895 
Thomas died in 1881. A Carlyle devotee called George Lumsden visited the place in 1894 and was shocked to see that it had been taken over by stray cats and dogs. He launched a campaign to buy the house and it was opened to the public in 1895. The National Trust took over in 1936.

The National Trust Scone Blog podcast
I live about 9 miles from Carlyle's House, so it's unforgiveable that I hadn't visited before, scones or no scones.

But I had an extra reason for my visit today; the brilliant staff at the house had very kindly agreed to let me record an episode of the upcoming National Trust Scone Blog podcast. I got to hang out in the kitchen that would once have been presided over by Jane Carlyle and her endless stream of skivvies.

My interviewee was Helen Wood, the comedy performer who took her one-woman show, the National Trust Fanclub, to the Edinburgh Festival last month. She's going on tour in the spring and I recommend getting yourself a ticket if she comes to a town near you - there's a whole section devoted to scones. Anyway, watch out for the release of this podcast episode in the next few weeks. And a heartfelt thank you to the wonderful Linda and the team for accommodating us.

The weighing scales belong to the kitchen and are not part of my recording equipment,
just in case Colin the podcast tutor is reading this and thinking "HUH?"

Carlyle's House: 5 out of 5
Scone: there's no tea room
Staff: A million out of 5. The loveliest people ever.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Hardcastle Crags

Hardcastle Crags is home to the northern hairy wood ant. I didn't actually realise this until I got home and I was quite pleased about that, as they don't sound like my cup of tea at all. But after five minutes of reading, I found out that the National Trust has managed to catch some of the ants and put 1 millimetre radio transmitters on them. As you do. The National Trust will never not surprise me.

ANYWAY. Let's put the tagged-hairy-ants-that-aren't-actually-hairy to one side and I can tell you more about what I DID see at Hardcastle Crags, which is just outside Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire.

Gibson Mill

There are five highlights at Hardcastle Crags (six if you count the ants):

Gibson Mill - one of the first cotton mills!
Gibson Mill was built in 1800 and was one of the very first cotton mills to be built during the Industrial Revolution. It continued to produce cloth until 1890.

Gibson Mill and Millpond

It then became an 'entertainment emporium' for local people. I will admit that when I first heard this I immediately assumed it was a euphemism for something dodgy; the West Yorkshire mob running an illegal gambling joint or hairy ant racing or something. But no, it contained a dance hall and a roller-skating rink as well as restaurants.

The roller-skating rink is a story all in itself. A man called Arnold Binns from Hebden Bridge was a world record holder for roller-skating; in 1930 at the age of 47 he skated for 40 hours non-stop and then apparently skated from Land's End to John O'Groats. He gave skating lessons at the mill:

If Gibson Mill started life as a pioneer of modern energy use, it's quite fitting that today it is the National Trust's flagship sustainable building. It isn't on the national grid - the place is entirely self-sufficient for gas, electricity, water, and waste treatment. 

The actual Hardcastle crags
I'm afraid I can't tell you much about the actual crags themselves. They're quite imposing even though they're a bit off the beaten track:

Hardcastle Crags

15 miles of footpaths!
I was slightly apprehensive about going to Hardcastle Crags with my friends Sarah-Jane and Steph. They're both excellent walkers and cyclists - they think nothing of getting on their bikes and covering loads of miles, whereas I would think very carefully about doing that (and then I wouldn't do it). 

But we covered a lot of footpath - maybe not all 15 miles of it, but certainly about 1000% more than I'd usually cover - following the trail along Hebden Water. It's a truly beautiful place for a walk.

Hebden Bridge is a must-visit town
I had been to Hebden Bridge once before, when I was 18. I had turned up at university in Nottingham and had the spectacular good fortune to immediately make friends with a girl who invited me to tag along when she went back home there for the weekend. It's the folly of youth; at the time I thought it was a brilliant place because it provided me with a pubful of interesting strangers-who-weren't-really-strangers-because-they-were-exactly-like-my-own-friends.

This time I could truly appreciate what a unique and characterful place it really is. It prides itself on having no chain stores on the high street, but it's a very practical Yorkshire town that has a very creative edge to it. I highly recommend a visit.

The Hardcastle Crags scone
The Weaving Shed Cafe by the mill is a nice little place. The scone itself wasn't home-made - I'm not sure if this was a temporary thing or if the kitchen isn't equipped to provide them (either in space or power) but anyway; it gave me the energy to keep up with SJ and Steph on our walk.

Hardcastle Crags scone

We'll overlook the fact that one of us isn't eating a scone
Hardcastle Crags provided the fourth scone of the weekend, following our trip to the Lake District for visits to Fell Foot, where we had a world-class scone, Wray Castle, and Sticklebarn. All great places but if it's woodland walks, roller-skates and ants you're after, Hardcastle is the place for you.

Hardcastle Crags: 5 out of 5
Scone: 3 out of 5
Roller-skating in a flat-cap: 5 out of 5

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Sticklebarn and The Langdales

I suggested recently that if anyone wanted to start their own National Trust blog you could do worse than to choose National Trust Beaches. Well, here's an even better idea for you: National Trust Pubs. It turns out that there are around 40 of them, Sticklebarn in the Lake District being one. What a pub crawl that would be.

Anyway. Sticklebarn and The Langdales might sound like the band at Worzel Gummidge's wedding but it's actually a pub and a very scenic area:
  • Great Landgale is a U-shaped valley containing the Langdale Pikes (a group of mountains) and two villages. It was the centre of the Lake District's slate industry and there are still slate works there today.
  • Little Langdale is a valley containing a hamlet, as well as two tarns (mountain lakes created by glaciers); Little Langdale Tarn and Blea Tarn
  • Sticklebarn is a pub (a place serving alcohol), providing food and drinks to weary walkers
Sticklebarn - a National Trust pub
I'm not sure why I took a picture featuring a drain-pipe, rather than the cosy interior
of the pub. You'll just have to imagine that part. 
You really do need a special dictionary in the Lake District - I only just discovered that a stickle is "a hill with a prominent rocky top." What with ghylls, fells, tarns, forces, thwaites, and meres, you really do need to pay attention to what you're agreeing to.

The Stickle Tarn Trail

Anyway. If you like walking, cycling, and camping then you'll love this beautiful area of the country. There's a real buzz - people setting off on walks, or returning from walks, or walking into the pub having completed a walk.
Blea Tarn in Little Langdale
Blea Tarn - surely one of the world's most beautiful spots
The Sticklebarn scone
But let's move on to the scone. This was the third (yes, third) scone of the day (after Fell Foot and Wray Castle) and it was still only 2pm. We decided to go crazy and have some lunch as well, so what with sausage rolls and baked potatoes thrown in to the mix it was all turning into a highly unusual scone mission. 

The scone itself was a lot smaller than the Fell Foot and Wray Castle ones, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing - if most people drop in to Sticklebarn for hearty meals to get them up the fells, then a scone-as-dessert might be appropriate. And it was definitely fresher than the one we'd just had at Wray. It just wasn't quite up to the standards of the legendary scone we'd had at Fell Foot.

Sticklebarn National Trust scone

Sticklebarn was my second National Trust pub, as I had been to The George Inn in Southwark in my previous life as a London pub expert*. If you'd like to see the list of all NT hostelries, you can find it here.

*I wasn't a certified or qualified London pub expert. I just went to a lot of London pubs.

Sticklebarn: 5 out of 5
Scone: 4 out of 5
Ticking second National Trust pub off the list: 5 out of 5

Other National Trust properties we've visited in the Lake District: Acorn Bank, Allan Bank, Fell FootHill Top, Sizergh CastleWordsworth House, Wray Castle

Wray Castle

If I went to IKEA tomorrow and bought a flat-packed fortress, it would probably look just like Wray Castle. Or it would do if I got someone else to build it for me, as my efforts at flat-pack unfortunately tend to look like Dennis the Menace's tree house until they just fall apart completely.

Wray Castle

Anyway. Wray is not an ancient castle. It was built in 1840 as a Gothic Revival place, so the turrets and arrow slits were never actually used for firing projectiles at Roundheads or invaders during a siege. It's also a very squat building when you see it up close, but the exterior is very impressive nonetheless.

It's very different inside. I mean this with the greatest of affection, but it reminded me of a cross between a town hall and the set of Why Don't You?, that iconic 80s TV show that was presented entirely by kids making Rice Krispie cakes and marauding around the place like a televisual Lord of the Flies.
Wray Castle Interior
Someone messaged me to say it reminded her of Byker Grove
rather than Why Don't You. She's right.
But before we get further into that, here's a bit of history for you:
  • Wray Castle was built in 1840 for James and Margaret Dawson from Liverpool - he was a retired surgeon and she came from a wealthy background.
  • Hardwicke Rawnsley, one of the founders of the National Trust, came to visit his cousin Edward who had inherited Wray Castle from the Dawsons. Hardwicke loved the place and became vicar in Wray church.
  • In 1882, Hardwicke bumped into a young Beatrix Potter in the grounds at Wray Castle - her parents had rented the place for the summer and she and Hardwicke became good friends. She went on to buy nearby Hill Top.
  • The castle was left to the National Trust in 1929 and had many uses subsequently.
  • It was originally a youth hostel and then from 1931 it contained the offices of the Freshwater Biological Association. You probably won't be surprised to hear that the FBA is concerned with freshwater science and research.
  • Bizarrely, Wray Castle was classified as a ship from 1958 and 1998. RMS Wray Castle was a training ship for radio officers. There was even a student bar in the room that had been used as an eel reservoir by the FBA.
  • In 2011 it was opened to the public - apparently the National Trust had looked at other options for its use but it attracted so many visitors that they decided to keep it as a tourist destination.
And that's the thing about Wray; its location in the Lake District makes it a hugely attractive attraction for families. We arrived on a wet Saturday lunchtime and the very cheerful receptionist said "we have LOTS of children in today" in a way that left it very much open to our own interpretation. We could either take that piece of information and run a mile, or we could return to our people carrier and unleash 8 kids of our own into the melee.

As it was, we just stuck to having an enjoyable time wandering around the place. There's no original furniture in any of the rooms, which does make it ideal for children who want to run around a bit. However, for the first time in the six year history of my National Trust membership I did find myself questioning whether there's enough at Wray to really justify the £11 entry fee (or £27.50 for a family). It's undoubtedly a great property with a huge amount of potential, so hopefully they'll persevere with their events and continue to find good use for the space.

The estate includes lovely shoreline onto Lake Windermere:
Wray Castle on Windermere

And the view of the fells from the castle are beautiful, especially with a bit of sunshine:
Wray Castle view across the fells

The Wray Castle scone
But on to the scone. I was very impressed by the size of the Wray Castle scone but I think its size may have worked against it. It was very dry and it didn't taste very fresh. It had also followed hot on the heels of a sublime scone that we'd had earlier at Fell Foot - although each scone is taken on its own merits, it was a bit like when someone on Strictly does a show-stopping, jaw-dropping jive as the penultimate dance of the night and then the final couple have to come on and do a waltz to Three Times a Lady - it's just an extra challenge that they could have done without.

Wray Castle scone

But Wray Castle is well worth a visit if you're already an NT member - it's impressive with very friendly staff.

Wray Castle: 4 out of 5
Scone: 3.5 out of 5
Surely the only room in the whole of the National Trust that was used as an eel reservoir and then turned into a student bar: 5 out of 5

Other National Trust properties we've visited in the Lake District: Acorn BankAllan BankFell FootHill TopSizergh CastleSticklebarnWordsworth House