Monday 26 August 2013

National Trust Scones on Countryfile!

I was so pleased to see the National Trust and its scones making an appearance on TV last night. Watersmeet in Devon was featured on Countryfile, who sent the main man himself, John Craven, along to bake scones with the Chief Baker, Fiona Pile.

National Trust scones on Countryfile

Fiona looked slightly worried whenever John was manhandling the scones but she explained that a lot of love goes into her creations to make sure they're light and fluffy - I just adored her. She rejected John's scone though, as it was misshapen (he described it as "almost like a souffle" but she wasn't having any of it):

National Trust Scone on Countryfile

Watersmeet sells 10,000 cream teas each year, which is an awful lot of scones. However, they also told us that the location has 80,000 customers each year, which begs the question; what do the other 70,000 people do there? I was also troubled to see a lot of customers loading up their scones JAM FIRST - and this was IN DEVON. I thought that was a criminal offence there?

It's also lovely to see that John Craven continues to be there for me throughout my life, telling me about mating pandas and space shuttles on Newsround when I was ten and thirty years later showing me how scones are made at National Trust properties. It was just what I needed after a hard day's scone reviewing at Bodiam Castle. Thanks John.

Sunday 25 August 2013

Bodiam Castle

I love a good castle, especially one that looks like it has been drawn by a 6 year-old. Bodiam Castle near Tunbridge Wells is a corker. Just look at it:

Bodiam Castle

Even the most unimaginative, PS2-obsessed kid in the world couldn’t fail to be inspired by it. And if there was an award for National Trust property that goes all out to inspire children, I think Bodiam might win it. But more of that later.

First, the scones. It was clear to me from the car park that Bodiam is very good at being a castle. But let me tell you now that Bodiam is very, very good at scones. In fact they were so good that I’m going to give them my first FIVE OUT OF FIVE. I may regret this once I’ve tried a few more (this is only my third visit after all) but my independent adjudicator (aka my other half) agreed with this score and he’s not a man that is easily impressed, unless he’s at a Cirque du Soleil performance and then he is unfathomably impressed by things I will never comprehend.

But I digress: the scones were lovely. My dream scone is a warm scone. And although the Bodiam scones weren’t warm they had that lovely soft, melt in the mouth texture that you get from a warm scone.

Even better, a pre-plated cream tea consisted of one fruit scone and one plain scone. I realised it is impossible to say that one is better than the other: they’re just different. And at Bodiam they’re both excellent. Bravo, Bodiam scone maker.

National Trust scones at Bodiam Castle

The castle itself is stupendous. I think it’s the moat that does it – you walk across a little bridge and into the ruined castle, where you have to really use your imagination to picture what it must have been like in the 1300s and 1400s. But from outside you can see how formidable it must have looked.

And that leads me to the big debate about Bodiam. Sir Edward Dalyngrigge was given permission to build it in 1385, when Richard II gave him ‘license to crenellate’. If you look up at a battlement on a castle and see the bits cut out like missing teeth (where they fired arrows and poured boiling tar from) they are known as crenels. By ‘crenellating’ his home, Edward was building a fortress that could help defend the realm, and it was a very real threat in those days, both from external forces like the pesky French or from internal insurgents, like the pesky peasants and their pesky revolt. However, a lot of people question Dalyngrigge’s motives and suggest that defensively Bodiam wasn’t all that; what he really wanted to do was make people think he was a bit special.

Well, I don’t really care – it’s still a beautiful castle in a stunning location. Inside the castle there are all sorts of exhibits, such as a man making arrows and another making armour, to help you imagine what life was like in those days. The man making armour was moaning about his bellows not working properly – I couldn’t work out if it was part of a performance or not.

But what I really loved about Bodiam was the effort they make in bringing the medieval era to life for children. They had archery and cannons and a really brilliant display of a trebuchet – a woman explained how the trebuchet worked and then fired it into the moat (“we just need to wait for the ducks to get out of the way” she said, matter-of-factly). I was seriously impressed, so for a little knight-obsessed kid it would have been off-the-scale exciting. I do now have one new ambition in life, though, and that is to see a little girl in a shop insisting on having a knight’s outfit instead of the usual pink frock and pointy cone hat thing. That would be really awesome.

I'm not sure we'll make the hat-trick this Bank Holiday weekend - yesterday's visit to Ham House and today have proved a tad exhausting. But keep tweeting your suggestions for my next visit.  

Scones: 5 out of 5!  

Bodiam Castle: 4 out of 5. Loved the trebuchet. 

Saturday 24 August 2013

Ham House

It’s August Bank Holiday weekend and so I am bravely going for a scone hat-trick, starting with the very lovely Ham House near Richmond.

But before I get to the critical business of scones, I must say that this blog may only be a week old but it’s already achieving its purpose. This week I have spent hours poring over the National Trust handbook, biroing big asterisks onto pages, deciding where I’d like to go next on my quest for the perfect scone. This is not normal. Usually we wake up on Sunday mornings and say “Where shall we go today? Get the book.” and then we argue for about twenty minutes before someone says “Oh I can’t be bothered if you’re going to be miserable.” Now I am on a mission and I must PLAN.

The four or five hours this week that weren’t spent scrawling in the handbook were devoted to mulling over the potentially devastating possibility that all National Trust scones are made centrally, maybe in some huge warehouse in Solihull. It would kind of defeat the purpose of this blog and, more worrying, make me look completely stupid. I had this vivid image of people at National Trust HQ laughing their heads off going “WHAT AN IDIOT!!” as I claimed that the scones at one place were far superior to those of another.

Well, thanks to Ham House I can find something else to get paranoid about, because the scones at Ham were completely different to those in Petworth Park last week. For a start off they were FRUIT SCONES and not plain ones. I used to hate sultanas when I was young so my heart sank a bit when I saw them but I’d actually forgotten that fruit adds a lovely sweetness to scones. The scones themselves were a little bit dry to be honest but the fruit was definitely good. Two scones with jam, clotted cream and a pot of tea was £4.95. The tea came in one of those little teapot-sitting-on-the-cup combo things, which my other half thought was the greatest thing he’d ever seen in his life, so I’ll definitely be getting one for Christmas. 

Apart from that, I really loved Ham House. Here are some of the reasons why:

1. Ham House has an awesome history
It was built during the Stuart era and its inhabitants eventually became embroiled in the Civil War. Its one-time resident, William Murray, was a close friend of the king, which was not an enviable position to hold in 1649 when Charles I was beheaded. However, William’s wife Catherine and then his daughter Elizabeth managed to keep the house – Elizabeth remained a Royalist throughout and was rewarded by Charles II after the Restoration. As I walked around, I was wracking my brains trying to remember the name of a book that we read at school about the Civil War. It was about some children that lived in the New Forest but I just could not think of its name. I got home and Googled it and it’s called The Children of the New Forest. (I just looked it up on Amazon and the front cover suggests that it’s a book for a 2 year old – we read this in my COMPREHENSIVE SCHOOL. Either we were illiterate or today’s toddlers are able to follow a narrative about Roundheads and Cavaliers.)

2. I now know what a whipping boy is
William Murray had been Charles I’s whipping boy, hence Charles leasing Ham House to him. Nobody was allowed to physically punish a king when he was young and misbehaving, as you would a normal child, so another kid was brought in and if the king was naughty, the other kid copped the whipping. Obviously for this to work the king had to be vaguely bothered about the other kid and Charles and William were indeed close.

3. Ham House is the most haunted Trust property 
Ham House has three ghosts we were told; Elizabeth Murray, a valet, and a dog. I have to say that it’s a stroke of genius having a ghost dog – as we left the house we saw a dog in the grounds. Was it the ghost? Who knows. 

4. The Stuarts had the best hair ever 
Just check out this picture of William Murray (I think Jon Bon Jovi probably did):

You get given a free room guide at Ham, which tells you a little bit about each room, but I would have liked an audio guide – last week’s visit to Petworth was definitely a lot more interesting with some commentary. They do have lots of people on hand to explain the history though, which is very good. 

And so to tomorrow’s exciting scone destination.

Scones: 3.5 out of 5. 
Ham House: 4.5 out of 5. Amazing history, amazing hair.

Sunday 18 August 2013

Petworth House

I think it says a lot about me that on the day I decide to start a new blog called National Trust Scones I go to a National Trust property that doesn’t do scones. 

I sat in the coffee shop at Petworth House miserably eating a piece of perfectly nice lemon drizzle cake while my other half said unhelpful things like “just call it National Trust Cakes instead”, which is completely stupid because who wants to read a blog about National Trust cakes? I wondered if it was a sign that I shouldn’t bother with this idea because no-one’s ever going to read it and let’s face it I could spend my time doing other stuff, such as cleaning out our fridge so that I don’t ruin another holiday fretting that the cat-sitter is going to find the bag of wizened carrots with a sell by date of February 2013 that I keep forgetting to throw away because they’re under the onions. 

But then I remembered my reasons for writing about National Trust scones (see the intro to your right) and reminded myself for the 2,000,000th time in my life that I shouldn’t give up so easily and lo and behold I saw a sign for cream teas being served in the restaurant. 

So that’s the first thing you need to know about Petworth House – the scones are in the restaurant. And don’t be put off; the restaurant is just a bigger version of the coffee shop and not a formal place with waiters or menus or anything that involves you having to walk out £40 poorer.

The second thing you need to know about Petworth is that the scones are ruddy excellent. One serving contains two nicely sized scones, jam, clotted cream and a pot of tea for £4.95. But being in a hurry and full of lemon drizzle, I didn’t realise this and so we ended up sharing one portion. The tea was proper loose stuff so it tasted like the tea my nan used to make (with a strainy thing in the spout of the pot so you don’t have to ingest insect-textured tealeaves) and the scones were great – just a tiny bit too much sugar in them, which I love because it reminds you you’re eating a cake and not bread.

Picture of scone at Petworth House

The third thing you need to know about Petworth is that it’s really very good indeed. It reminded me of Blenheim Palace in some ways, although it lacks the vista that BP offers. To see the full glory of Petworth you have to walk up to the house and then walk away from it through the grounds so you can turn back to marvel at its frontage (or at least we did, there may be a better approach).

There has been a house at Petworth since the 13th century (although only the very impressive chapel dates from that era) and it was once owned by the Percy family (the Dukes of Northumberland). The estate has been passed down through the family and for the last couple of hundred years has been owned by the Wyndhams. It was given to the National Trust in 1947, although the current Lord and Lady Egremont still live there. I do find that really bizarre – even if your private quarters are quite spacious, it must be like living in The Borrowers: you get up off the sofa, open the living room door and there are 100 people wandering round your house peering at your tapestries. You get used to it, I imagine.

They’re very fond of Turner at Petworth, which is a shame because I am really not very fond of him at all. I blame the Tate: I once went to an exhibition of his and there were about 5000 pictures of ships negotiating wearily similar stormy situations and I was bored out of my brain. Today I learned that he did other things so I’ll have to revisit him. The third Earl of Egremont was Turner’s patron, hence the connection. Other works of art can also be found – Titians, Van Dycks, and carvings by the very marvellously named Grinling Gibbons.

I definitely recommend paying £2 for the audio/video tour. Petworth has a lot of volunteers on hand to explain things - I was particularly encouraged that the woman manning the pantry seemed to think that I’d know how to make ice cream - but as my other half always reminds me, I am incapable of asking anyone for any help of any sort at any time in any place so the audio guide was ideal. 

If I hadn’t done the audio tour I would have been oblivious to the fact that the huge book in the glass case in one of the rooms is a hand-written manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, dating from 1400. The second Earl of Northumberland was married to Chaucer’s grand-niece apparently. Anyway, once the shudder that comes with being forced to remember your English A’ Level had subsided, I marvelled at the fact that such an important relic was not worthy of any kind of mention at all until you actually walked into the room. They’d have built an entire museum around it in the States.

Scones: 4.5 out of 5. I may have to revise this once I’ve got more to compare against.
Petworth: 4.5 out of 5. It’s got a bit of everything.