Friday, 20 March 2020

Scones in the Time of Coronavirus

'The best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley'.

So said Robert Burns. And it's true, my schemes have indeed ganged agley. Although I'm not sure if Rabbie was referring specifically to a global pandemic.

Anyway. Back in January, I made my list of the final 30 properties that I needed to visit to complete the National Trust Scone Odyssey. Several people said "you'll never do it by December" and I said "yes I will" because I am a bit naive and over-optimistic. But surely even the world's biggest pessimist didn't foresee the coronavirus. And now, like everyone else, I wait to see when we might be allowed out again.

But the Scone Blogger's motto is 'NEVER MIND'. If I can't share pictures of National Trust scones on National Trust Scone Twitter, I will share pictures of your home bakes instead. Thanks to everyone that has sent in photos so far:

April 3: Sconepal Sue breaks out the Carrot & Coriander for these delights:

Carrot and Coriander Scones

April 2: Sconepal Ali chalks up her third Lockdown Homebake with these Apple & Raisin beauties:
Apple and Raisin scones

April 2: Stunning work on the Lemon Scones from Sconepal Emma:

Lemon Scones

April 2: Beautiful Lemon & Stem Ginger Scones from Sconepal Jo:

April 1: Some truly magnificent Cheese and Herb Scones from Sconepal Caroline:

March 30: Sconepal Sarah was the latest member of our troupe to open her home up for #notthenationaltrust and serve a very elegant scone:

March 30: Chocolate Orange Scones from Sconepal Milly:

Chocolate Orange Scones

March 29: Sconepal Ole (Canine Division) was the last man standing when it came to finding scones in the outside world. Now he's king of the home-bake with these Singin' Hinnies. We love you Ole.

Singin Hinnies

March 29: Sconepal Catherine delivered quite possibly the most unexpected scone of all time - the Moomin scone.

March 29: Sconepal Kath bravely opened her home to National Trust members, serving Apple Scones. Obviously nobody turned up, apart from two pigeons who ignored the social distancing rules and forced her to close the gardens:

Apple scones

March 29: Sconepal Dot also opened her house up for #notthenationaltrust and served up these Red Pepper, Onion, and Cheese delights:

March 29: Sconepal Andy took things to a new level with Gouda Scones and Fig Compote:

Gouda scones

March 29: Scones galore at Sconepal Liz's house:

Scones with jam

March 29: Sconepal Nathalie broke out the Cheese & Olive scone:

Cheese and olive scone

March 28: Sconepal Laura ingeniously invented the 'visit your own home as if it's a National Trust property' and enjoyed this in the gardens #notthenationaltrust  

March 28: Sconepal Clare also did a #notthenationaltrust visit of her own home and found these in the tea room:


March 27: Sconepal Ali took on the Earl Grey scone AND WON:

Earl Grey scone

March 27: Sconepal BeingAParent produced some Red Pepper, Onion, & Cheese scones - GLUTEN-FREE:

March 25: Sconepal Mammoth took things up a level with Chocolate & Marshmallow:


March 24: Sconepal Paula baked up another cheese scone storm:

March 24: Sconepal James was also on the cheese:

March 22: Sconepal Emily took some scones to Avebury (just before LOCKDOWN): 

March 21: Sconepal Karis produced a fruit number:

March 19: Sconepal Alison delivered this Blackberry & Apple bonanza:

Blackberry and Apple

March 19: Sconepal Catherine served us up this divine scene of cheese scones:

Cheese scones

Please do send me your photos if you are fortunate enough to find any flour/other ingredients in your local shops.

I'll end with this glimmer of hope: when I went to check out the Rabbie Burns' Birthplace Museum website, I was greatly cheered to see that the cafe was represented with a pile of scones. So I make that commitment; not only will I finish the National Trust Scone Odyssey, not only will I visit the final 28 places in England and Wales, but I will go to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway and I will enjoy a National Trust of Scotland scone. 

Stay safe, everyone, and look after each other.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Wentworth Castle Gardens

I openly admit that I love reading bad reviews of National Trust properties on TripAdvisor. In most cases, the reviewer has gone for a day out somewhere and then come home to vent their anger online about things that were totally beyond the control of the staff: "1 out of 5 - it was raining!" "1 out of 5 - it was closed!" "1 out of 5 - they wouldn't let my dog in!" etc. etc. etc.

So I took a quick look at the very small number (only three in fact) of Terrible reviews of Wentworth Castle Gardens before I set off for Barnsley, fully expecting to take absolutely zero notice of them. But there it was: 1 out of 5 - "There was nothing of any interest to see. Scones in the cafe were good though." 

Wentworth Castle
"Nothing of any interest to see" apparently. Apart from the outside of this massive house, loads of gardens, a conservatory, and several follies.
This stopped me in my tracks. My initial response was outrage - if the scones were good then it's a cast iron five out of five! Even if the rest of the property was a cabbage patch! Who are these people?

But outrage quickly gave way to great hope. Here was someone with standards beyond the reasonable admitting that the Wentworth Castle Garden scones were good. I could be in for a real treat.

Anyway. Before we get to the big reveal re the scones, here's a bit of history about Wentworth Castle Gardens. There was no guide book so I had to glean what I could:
  • Wentworth Castle was basically built out of rage. Thomas Wentworth, a successful army officer, had expected to inherit the family fortune and Wentworth Woodhouse estate from his cousin, the Earl of Strafford.
  • However, when the Earl of Strafford died he left the lot to another cousin, Thomas Watson, instead.
  • Thomas Wentworth was not happy about this. He bought nearby Stainborough Hall in 1708 and set about building an estate to rival that of his "vermin" cousin (as he charmingly referred to Thomas Watson).
  • He built a folly in 1730 that he called Stainborough Castle, at which point he changed the name of the inhabited hall itself to 'Wentworth Castle'.
Stainborough Castle
The Stainborough Castle folly built by Angry Thomas and referred to as a 'sham ruin' on Wikipedia,
which seems a bit harsh. Although that is indeed what it is.
  • Thomas Wentworth was very successful as a soldier and diplomat. Queen Anne made him Earl of Strafford and a Knight of the Garter.
  • But everything went wrong when Queen Anne died in 1714. His achievements were questioned and he ended up retired and humiliated. 
  • So he did what you'd expect an angry, grudge-bearing man to do at the time; he secretly joined the Jacobite cause to restore the Stuart king (James III) to the throne. He couldn't risk doing so publicly though, so he built symbols into the follies around the estate.
  • The estate was passed down, with generations adding their own touches - a later Thomas Vernon-Wentworth added the Conservatory for example - before Bruce Vernon-Wentworth sold the house and gardens to Barnsley Corporation in 1948.

Wentworth Castle Conservatory
The Conservatory - an enormous amount of effort went into fund-raising for its restoration.
  • Today the main house is home to the Northern College for Residential and Community Adult Education - it's not generally open to the public.
  • What you still get is access to all of the follies and monuments around the estate, as well as the gardens themselves.

Wentworth Fernery
The ferns in the fernery still in their winter coats - and who can blame them?
But let's move on to the all-important scone. Have you seen the film Super Size Me? It's about a man (documentary maker Morgan Spurlock) who only eats McDonalds food for 30 days. One of his rules is that every time he is offered a Super Size meal, he has to accept and eat the larger portion.

I'm now exactly like that, only with Scones of the Month instead of Big Macs. If a National Trust property offers a fruit scone AND a temporary guest scone then I have to try both. It's the rule. The first time I did this (at Nostell and then at Erddig), I felt like a terrible Bruce Bogtrotter-style glutton and literally cringed myself into muscle spasms as I proffered my tray at the woman on the till - "so you want one cup of tea...and TWO scones?" - but I'm glad to report that I now don't care a single jam-covered jot. I've eaten 200 scones on this odyssey - what's another 350 calories? 

So I was overjoyed today to see a display of Cherry & Vanilla Scones of the Month. They looked utterly delicious and they smelt delicious too; so delicious in fact that I broke with tradition and tried the C&V first. It was divine. So full of cherries that it had turned pink.

Wentworth Castle Gardens Cherry Scone

BUT. In the spirit of full disclosure, I need to tell you that the display for the Cherry & Vanilla scone also featured a copy of the Book of Scones. You'd probably expect me to be delighted by this, and I am indeed always enormously grateful and happy to see it. But it puts me under huge pressure to love the scones, and that is one thing I cannot do. I cannot cheat you, readers. If the scone is not worth a 5 out of 5, it is not getting one.

So I turned to the fruit scone with some trepidation. I cut into it and it looked dry. I was almost glad. And then I ate it and it was utterly perfect. Just the right side of chewy and full of fruit. An indisputable 5 out of 5.  

Wentworth Castle Gardens scone

If you've seen any really good 'Terrible' reviews of NT properties on TripAdvisor, let me know. Let's see if we can top the review that complained that the walls between the toilet cubicles at West Green House Garden were too thin.

Wentworth Castle Gardens: 4.5 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Bonus of the Cherry & Vanilla scone: 5 out of 5

Yorkshire has been a very happy hunting ground for the National Trust Scone Blogger. Other Yorkshire properties scoring 5 out of 5 were Nostell PrioryNunnington Hall, Fountains Abbey, Goddards, Beningbrough Hall, and Treasurer's House. Only Hardcastle Crags came in under 5 in Yorkshire but it was still a great place to visit.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Lavenham Guildhall

It is admittedly a bit of a stretch to compare this National Trust Scone Blog to Game of Thrones. In its last season, each GoT episode cost $15m to produce. This blog post about Lavenham Guildhall cost a bit less than that, although I nearly had a heart attack when the bus driver asked for £7.40 to take me seven miles. I'm not sure what was worse - parting with the cash or the fact that I can remember bus fares costing 25p and am therefore officially of 'nan age'.

BUT ANYWAY. This is the final year of the National Trust Scone Quest and I live in mortal fear that it'll end up like GoT; a massive damp squib with all of you feeling let down. I can't let you down. I just can't.

So I've upped the ante a bit. I've gone into "the cloud" and got some "big data" to help me not fail. 

My first task: make the first scone mission of the year a non-disaster. They're always a disaster. Usually it's because I'm wearing inappropriate shoes and the weather is bad, but I've also turned up to properties that were shut or partially shut and it's always horrendous.

So I did the maths. Last summer, I ran a survey asking you all to tell me which properties I should prioritise. The runaway winner was Lavenham Guildhall in Suffolk, so I checked the details; open in January, located in a village offering tarmac and limited mud, weather didn't look discouraging. So off I went.

Lavenham Guildhall

Here's a bit of history for you:

Lavenham Guildhall: for religion, not trade
I had assumed that a guild was an association for people belonging to a trade, for example weavers or masons, but not in this case - trade guilds were found in large towns and cities, whereas guilds in smaller locations tended to be religious. There were five religious guilds in Lavenham and this one belonged to Corpus Christi. Lavenham Guildhall was quite small, suggesting that membership was limited to a few eminent merchants.

Lavenham: very wealthy from 1460 to 1530
In 1525, Lavenham was the 14th richest town in England, paying more tax than Lincoln or York. This boomtime had come about because of cloth - Lavenham was famous for producing a blue broadcloth called Lavenham Blews, using woad as a dye.

The Guildhall: built to impress
The Guildhall was built along with two adjacent properties in 1529-30. They were all constructed using timber plus wattle and daub, as East Anglia lacks natural stone. The Guildhall was a bit more elaborate than the other buildings, again suggesting it was a meeting place for high status folks.

The end of the boom...
Sadly for Lavenham, a recession hit the cloth industry in the 1520s and 30s and many merchants moved into other industries, leaving a lot of unemployment. By 1568, Lavenham had fallen behind other towns in the area and never regained the levels of wealth and success that it had achieved.

...and the end of the guild - the Guildhall becomes a prison
Religious guilds also came to an inglorious end, being dissolved from 1547 during the Reformation. By 1655, we know that a portion of the Guildhall was being used to house paupers charged with petty crime in what was then called a 'bridewell'. The museum contains some brutal stories of children being incarcerated there before being transported to Australia.

The Guildhall becomes a workhouse
In 1655 the Guildhall also became a workhouse. This was in pre-Victorian days, when being poor was considered to be a fact of life and inhabitants were reasonably treated. It was only later that the idea of the 'undeserving poor' came about and the workhouse became a terrifying place of absolute last resort. Lavenham's workhouse closed in 1836.

The rescue of the Guildhall
Thomas Patrick Hitchcock owned the properties after 1836. He divided the place up and rented it out to tenants, also using space for a granary and a woolstore. A rich man called Sir William Cuthbert Quilter then bought the buildings in 1886 and set about restoring them. He was ahead of his time, as 30 years later the realisation dawned that Lavenham's buildings needed to be preserved and a wider effort began.

Lavenham loom

The Lavenham Scone
But let's move on to the all-important business of the scone. I've had excellent reports about Lavenham scones over the years but I didn't want to get too excited - see above for first-scone-of-the-year-disaster precedents.

However, there was nothing to fear. The scone was sublime. It was fresh and warm and tasty and I gobbled it down in about 10 seconds, much to the alarm of the nice ladies at the next table who must have wondered where the Cookie Monster had suddenly come from.

Lavenham scone

I'll end with this picture of Lavenham village. I took it as I was standing at the bus stop - by the way, I'm pleased to report that they had provided a nice bench for my tired old grandma legs, although presumably not out of bus profits. 

It was only afterwards did I notice that the picture looks like something from 'Postcard from the Past'. Lavenham didn't feel stuck in time though - most of the old buildings have been turned into useful things like pubs and there's a buzz to the place that definitely wasn't tourist-dependent. It just looks very classic.

Lavenham village

So there you have it: the first scone mission of the year completed and it was a roaring success. I'm going to take this as an omen that 2020 is going to be our year, scone fans, and we will be victorious in completing the National Trust scone quest!

Lavenham Guildhall: 4 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Stories of misery: 5 out of 5 (if you like misery)

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Top National Trust Properties for Scone Sightings in 2019

Last year, you sent in nearly 500 pictures of National Trust scones that you encountered on your visits (an increase of 20% on 2018, for any advanced stat fiends).

It fascinates me to see which properties get regular mentions (and also which ones don't), so I'm sharing the numbers with you.

Top 10 National Trust Properties for Scone Sightings in 2019:

Top 10 National Trust Properties for Scones

The scones that you shared the most were Ickworth, Blicking, Tyntesfield, Lavenham, Hardwick Hall, Scotney Castle, Anglesey Abbey, Sutton Hoo, Dunwich Heath and Flatford. East Anglia VERY well represented!

Top 11-20 National Trust Properties for Scone Sightings in 2019:

Not far behind were Fountains Abbey, Packwood, Standen, Avebury, Nymans, Stourhead, Cliveden, Oxburgh, Sissinghurst, and A La Ronde.

Top 21-30 National Trust Properties for Scone Sightings in 2019:

And then came Chartwell, Cragside, Greenway, Lyveden, Mount Stewart, Nostell, Sizergh, Treasurers House York, Charlecote, and Clumber Park.

It's the final year of the National Trust Scone Odyssey, so keep sending in your photos. Tweet them to @nt_scones or tag me on your Insta shots @nt_scones! 

Saturday, 28 December 2019

National Trust Scone of the Year 2019

I visited 36 National Trust properties this year and nearly all of them were able to provide me with a scone. In itself that's not wildly impressive - I managed 48 in 2014. But this year I made it to 26 NT places IN AUGUST. One single month of careering around the country eating jam. I truly lived the dream in 2019.

I have committed to finishing this National Trust Odyssey by December 2020. This means I have just 12 months left to career around the country again and visit the remaining 40 or so National Trust properties that have an NT-run cafeteria serving scones. That's the criteria for inclusion, by the way - I'm always overjoyed to stop off at lovely places that don't have a tea room, or have one run by tenants, but they're very much an optional extra as I have to draw the line somewhere.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. This post is all about the highlights of 2019 and the big question that I now have to face; which of the 36 properties provided my favourite scones over the past 12 months?

It's been very difficult to narrow it down but narrow it down I must. So here we go with my Top 10 National Trust Scones of 2019:   

10. Cotehele
"COTEHELE IS WONDERFUL AND YOU HAVE TO GO THERE IMMEDIATELY" is basically what I've been told, about 100 times, since I started this blog (turns out Cotehele has a very large and ardent fanbase). And so this year I DID make it to Cotehele in Cornwall and it IS a wonderful place - it's just very dark and it threw me somewhat as I wasn't expecting it. The restaurant on the other hand is light, bright, and airy and the scones were delicious.

9. Antony

My sister and I arrived in Plymouth for our 2019 Summer Tour of Devon, all revved up and ready to atone for years of neglect; until this year I'd only managed about four visits to Devonshire. We picked up the car, set the sat nav for Antony...and within minutes found ourselves on a ferry sailing across the Tamar into enemy territory. And so the first National Trust scone of our Grand Tour of Devon Cornwall. It was a wonderful scone though.

8. Dudmaston
I know that the Dudmaston scone was exceptional because I can still remember it, despite the fact that the entire West Midlands wasp population decided to join me while I was trying to eat it. The scone was light, fresh, and a good size. "Jammy, with jammy undertones," added A Wasp.

7. Kinver Edge & The Rock Houses
If there was an award for Most Bizarre National Trust Property, the Rock Houses at Kinver in Staffordshire would walk it. To quote Danny Dyer, they still do my nut in to this day. People actually used to live in the rocks, doing them up like a country cottage and just digging out a bit more sandstone whenever they needed another room. Truly remarkable. The tea room was tiny and I had zero expectations of the scone, but it was stunning.

6. Erddig
I had been reading up on the sad story of Ellen Penketh, housekeeper at Erddig from 1902-1907, before my visit to Wrexham. This meant that I was unusually focused on the kitchens and staff quarters where she once lived before she was prosecuted for stealing. But luckily I remembered to visit the restaurant where I found an unexpectedly delicious fruit scone AND a Hot Cross Scone. 

5. Arlington
I loved Arlington in North Devon. I loved its peaceful location, and its rooms, and the fact that the National Trust Carriage Museum is located in the stables and one of the carriages was powered by a goat. But most of all I loved its scones. There are some scones that you never forget and the Arlington scone is one of them.

4. Croft Castle
It's scone blog tradition that the first scone mission of the year is usually a total disaster. Croft Castle in Herefordshire refused to play along with that. It was open in January (a good start) and homely, and the tea room served a big, fresh, wondrous scone that had us all impressed.  

3. The Argory
My summer tour of Northern Ireland was surprising for many reasons, but most memorable of all was the universal love for a cherry scone that I found across the province. I never got bored of them, either - turns out that cherries can perk up a scone like nobody's business and the one that I had at The Argory in County Armagh will never be forgotten.

2. Watersmeet
Picture the scene: it's August 2013 and I have started a new blog about National Trust scones. I'm riddled with doubts about the whole idea and my mouse cursor is hovering over the 'delete it all' button. 

And then I turn on Countryfile and His Royal Majesty Sir John of Craven is baking National Trust scones at Watersmeet in Devon. I take it as a sign from the gods and I persevere with the blog (and the scones). Watersmeet has been a place of pilgrimage in my mind ever since and I finally made it there this year. The scones were beyond my wildest imaginings - fresh, crumbly, warm and eaten in beautiful surroundings on a sunny day. Perfection.

1. Fell Foot
If I've learned one thing from this National Trust scone project it is that the most unassuming of properties can sometimes deliver the loveliest rewards. 

Fell Foot, on the banks of Lake Windermere in Cumbria, has no grand house - it was knocked down. The cafe is not what you'd describe as cosy - it's large and wooden and basic to accommodate all the walkers and watersporters. And yet the scone was sublime. I'm so glad that my great friend Sarah-Jane was there with me to witness it, otherwise I'd be questioning myself that a scone could be that good. But we both knew we were in the presence of something very special. 

So well done to Fell Foot for winning my National Trust Scone of the Year for 2019. They join the previous champions in the pantheon of the greats: Shugborough (2018), The Needles Old Battery (2017), Cornwall Properties (2016), South Foreland Lighthouse & White Cliffs of Dover (2015), Dunwich Heath (2014), Flatford (2013). 

And that's a wrap for 2019. A huge, huge thank you to everyone that has supported the scone odyssey this year, either by reading the blog, buying the Book of Scones, or sending me photos of your National Trust tea-room adventures. Every single photo, comment, and like is appreciated, I promise you.

My attention now turns to completing my quest by 31 December 2020. The good news is that it's a Leap Year, which means I get an extra 24 hours, but I'm still going to need a fair wind and positive thoughts. Wish me luck and meet you back here next year for the big one: who will be the Scone To Rule Them All?

Sunday, 22 December 2019

National Trust Sconepals' Choice Award 2019

There's only one short week to go until I announce my top National Trust Scone of 2019. I visited a whopping 36 NT properties this year so it's going to be a very difficult decision. But before I declare my own winner, I asked you all to vote for your favourites of the past 12 months. 

So without further ado, let's get the big golden envelopes out and ask our adjudicators to stand at the side of the stage with their briefcases but not mess things up, a la the Oscars in 2017.  

53 properties got at least one vote this year, so bravo to all of those expert scone bakers who wowed us throughout the year. 

However, there can only be one winner.

So eyes down as we reveal, in reverse order:

In third place! It's Fountains Abbey!

In second place, our runner-up! It's Treasurer's House in York!

And in first place, the Sconepals' Choice of 2019 is...

It's Ickworth! 

Congratulations to the team at Ickworth. It's a few years since I went there, so it's clearly time to go back. You can read about my scone mission to Ickworth here.

A huge well done and thank you to all of the National Trust baking teams across the land. Among the honourable mentions this year were: 

Buckland Abbey
Hardwick Hall
Sizergh Castle
Attingham Park
Lavenham Guildhall
Quarry Bank
Acorn Bank
Basildon Park
Calke Abbey
Castle Drogo
Clumber Park
Coleton Fishacre
Dunham Massey
Fell Foot
Gunby Hall
Houghton Mill
Kinver Edge
Lyme Park
Lytes Cary Manor
Oxburgh Hall
Penrhyn Castle
Powis Castle
Scotney Castle
Sutton Hoo
Waddesdon Manor
Wentworth Castle Gardens
Wightwick Manor

Finally, a huge THANK YOU to everyone that voted and to everyone that has continued to send in scone pictures this year. 

With a fair wind, 2020 will be the final year of this National Trust Scone Quest, so keep your photos coming - I love to see where you've been (and what you've eaten). 

Look out for the National Trust Scone Blogger's Scone of 2019 - I'll be announcing my honours list next week!