Saturday 28 September 2013

Houghton Mill

I've wanted to visit Houghton Mill near Huntingdon for ages. When I started this blog I asked for suggestions on where I could find the best National Trust scones and Houghton got in touch to say "We do scones. We make them using flour that we mill ourselves."

I'm going to rewind right there and correct the good people of Houghton because what they should have said is; "We are a mill that has existed since the 900s. We used to be run by a man with the very awesome name of Potto Brown. We nearly got demolished in the 1930s but our local community saved us and gave us to the National Trust. We renovated the place and now every Sunday we start up the mill and WE MAKE ACTUAL PROPER FLOUR THAT YOU CAN ACTUALLY PROPERLY EAT."

Any Bagpuss fans may be thinking what I was thinking. There is a famous episode when the mice had a chocolate biscuit factory and paraded the chocolate digestives that they were making in front of bemused old Baggers. Except they weren't making anything - it was the same biscuit going round and round. They had me fooled, although in my defence I was only three at the time.

So I had this image of the mill selling bags of Tesco Value wholemeal that had been hastily emptied into something more rustic. 

But no - they really do mill their own flour at Houghton from locally grown wheat, and then they use it to make scones. How awesome is that? 

The problem is that I wanted to give them five out of five before I even got there, just for the sheer effort. What if the scone tasted like sawdust? 

The Houghton Mill scone
Luckily for me the scone was ruddy lovely. Chewy, moist, it was quite delicious. The photo doesn't do it justice I'm afraid - it looks flat whereas it reality it was quite tall: 

National Trust Scones Houghton Mill
My sconeing sidekick agreed. The Dr Wat-scone to my Holmes this week was my sister, who agreed to accompany me even though she finds my scone blogging a bit baffling. However, she was quickly converted to the cause and left with a bag of flour and an apron. She also fell in love with one of the exhibits - a thing called a rotary quern where you pour grain into a hole and then turn the handle on the millstones to see the flour emerge. She would still be there now going "look it's FLOUR!" if I had let her but she was driving and Strictly was on at 7. 

Houghton Mill Rotary Querry
So I encourage you to go and visit Houghton Mill and its lovely miller, who probably wins my award for most passionate National Trust staff member ever. And I leave you with a picture of Potto Brown who ran the mill in the 1800s, just because he looks so fab:
Potto Brown Houghton Mill

Scones: 5 out of 5!
Houghton Mill: 4 out of 5

Saturday 14 September 2013


It had to happen sometime I suppose. The scone blogger arrived at Hughenden near High Wycombe only to discover that there were NO SCONES.

That's not actually true. They had cheese scones. And I never said that this was a sweet scone-only blog. A correspondent from Nymans had already questioned me on my anti-savoury bias and I'd agreed to be more open-minded. But I won't lie; I was really disappointed.

It didn't help that a) it was raining and b) we'd got lost on the way, so relations were, let's say, a tad fraught before we even got to Hughenden. But I decided to change the habit of a lifetime and affect a cheery, worse-things-happen-at-sea! demeanour and so I plumped for the cheese scone:

Scones at Hughenden

I've never eaten a cheese scone and so I have nothing to compare it to but it was OK - they warmed it up for me and it had a nice spongy texture, plus the tea was lovely. My accomplice forked his way miserably through a slice of Victoria sponge as if he was heading to the gallows but maybe he was just regretting his choice of girlfriend and her lack of map-reading skills.

ANYWAY. Things were not going well and then we went into the manor house itself and it was FANTASTIC. Hughenden is a real little delight of a place. There are so many National Trust properties that are lovely but you'd never want to live there in a million years - too big, too draughty, too forbidding. Hughenden - I'd move in tomorrow: 

Hughenden Entrance Hall

I wanted to visit Hughenden because it had been the home of Benjamin Disraeli. If you sent me on Mastermind, the one subject I would not want to face (along with anything to do with cricket, science, cooking, films, or the Kardashians) is British Prime Ministers. I couldn't even tell you who was Prime Minister when I was born (I just looked it up and it was Ted Heath). 

I have to say that I didn't learn that much about Disraeli while I was in the house itself - we'd just missed the guided tour about him. However, I bought a really good guide book for £4.50 in the shop, although I didn't realise it was a really good guide book until I got home. BUT ANYWAY, here are some things I learned about 'Dizzy' from the really good guide book:

1. Disraeli was born Jewish but his father converted to Christianity when Benjamin was 12. However, for his whole life and career he was caricatured as Jewish.

2. He married for money but then fell in love with his wife. He was known for spending way beyond his means so when he got the chance to marry a rich widow, Mary-Anne Wyndham Lewis, he took it. He subsequently went on to describe her as "the most cheerful and the most courageous woman I ever knew". Which was pretty fortunate for them both when you think about it.

3. Queen Victoria loved him. The more I read about Queen Victoria, the more she sounds like a really unappealing old curmudgeon. Anyway, at first she didn't like Dizzy and then she did and then she loved him until he died (mostly because he was so good at flattery it seems to me). 

4. He was a Byron fan-boy. When I read this, I assumed that Byron was long dead but no - he was only 16 years older than our hero and they knew each other. As you can imagine, Byron wasn't much of a role model - basically what Disraeli learned from him was how to dress extravagantly and spend excessively.

BUT! The history of Hughenden doesn't end there. It is also famous for its contribution to WWII. It was commandeered by the Air Ministry in 1941 and it became the secret centre of map production, creating all of the maps that were used for night-time bombing raids in Germany. 

BUT! What is really amazing is that nobody knew about Hughenden's role in WWII until 2004! Yes indeed, for almost 60 years the story was hidden, until a National Trust guide overhead a visitor telling his grandson about how he'd sat at a desk in front of a window in one of the rooms drawing maps. The story was then declassified and more people came forwards with tales, helping to create an exhibition that is fascinating in every way. 

And I LOVE that about Hughenden. You have to remember that most properties hitch their wagons to a certain era - so at Hughenden it's the Victorian era when Disraeli lived there. But go downstairs and there's a 1940s sitting room, complete with radio and sewing machine on the sideboard. It was fascinating to suddenly see the house in a completely different timespan. 

So, in conclusion, we loved Hughenden. I overheard the very lovely guide in the Entrance Hall telling someone that they decorate the place at Christmas in Victorian stylee - I hope I make it back there for that because it would be something pretty special. 

Scones at Hughenden National Trust

Sweet scones: 0 out of 5 (there weren't any)
Cheese scones: 3 out of 5 (not my thing really)
Hughenden: 5 out of 5 (when can I move in?)

Saturday 7 September 2013

Lyme Park

I went to Lyme Park in the Peak District on a solo mission today. My usual partner in cream decided watching the rugby was a more attractive proposition than eating scones (I know, I should sack him).

It has to be said that I usually make a point of not mentioning if the National Trust properties that I visit have appeared in any films or TV programmes. It just seems wrong; history, history, Tudors, Stuarts, history, history, owned by 85 generations of Boggingtons, history, history...oh and they filmed Bargain Hunt there once. It just feels wrong, so I don't mention it (and I know that sounds rich coming from someone who is basically going around judging places by their scones).

So I set off this morning promising myself that I wouldn't mention Jane Austen, Mr Darcy, or the fact that Lyme House stood in for Pemberley in the BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, aka where Colin Firth walked out of a lake in a soggy shirt, causing a tidal swoon across the country.

And then I got there and saw this:

Mr Darcy National Trust Lyme Park

Yes, it's a giant Colin Firth standing in the lake. To give you an idea of the scale of it, here's another view:

Colin Firth Lyme Park National Trust

I can see why some people might not like it because it is, well, unavoidable. If you want to walk out a la Elizabeth Bennet and survey the gardens in all their natural wonder then you're scuppered. But it's a temporary fixture and it's MASSIVELY popular - it had a gaggle of people photographing it at all times when I was there (at one point I thought the man walking along in front of me was about to go down on one knee to his girlfriend and I developed a sudden desire to stare at the Dutch garden for 20 minutes so I wasn't there for any negative fall-out). I've read a few things recently about the 'Disneyfication' of the National Trust and it annoys me. In the parlance du jour, everybody's National Trust 'journey' has to start somewhere and if it's a woman dragging her other half to Lyme because she saw it on TV and fancies Colin Firth, what's wrong with that?  

The Lyme Park scone
But onto more pressing matters, namely the scones. Readers, please be kind to this scone. It's not the prettiest I've reviewed but usually I pick my own scone - the restaurant at Lyme is table service and so this was chosen for me:

Lyme Park National Trust Scones

And I'm not knocking Tiptree jam (which is what usually appears in those little jars) but the jam at Lyme was different and absolutely DELICIOUS. I looked like a demented woman, scraping at every little last pip - it was just amazing. The scone itself was a tiny bit on the dry side for me but it was so big that one mouthful was a little dry, the next was chewy and lovely.

The staff at Lyme House itself should win awards for their friendliness. They really care about the property and if people are enjoying the experience. And I have to say that I struggled a bit with Lyme House. It's an incredible place - it was owned by the Legh family from 1398 to 1946 when it was handed over to the National Trust. I also love that, like kings and queens or the Pope, they all had the name Piers or Peter and would call themselves Sir Piers Legh IX etc. And like kings or the Pope, there were nice Piers and nasty Piers and they seemed to always be right there next to royalty, from the Battle of Agincourt right through to being the Queen Mum's equerry.

You get a map of the house and in every room there are books listing the artefacts and describing the portraits of Nell Gwyn or the tapestries but it just didn't come alive for me like at Ham House or Petworth

And then, in the very last room, something genuinely magical happened. There was a short film being projected onto the wall that showed the final Legh boys to be brought up at Lyme making a home movie in the 1930s. They'd written a Sherlock Holmes story and had filmed it in various rooms in the house, getting family members involved. It was lovely. Even though I watched it thinking of my own family living in massive poverty in 1930s, it didn't matter - they were young boys, born during or after the Great War and about to go through WWII and into a world where the house they'd owned for 550 years had to be given up. It was incredibly poignant and brought the whole thing to life in a way that the tapestries and galleries had not.

So well done to the National Trust. If a massive statue of Mr Darcy plonked in a lake attracts more members that pay for the upkeep of beautiful buildings and allow people to think of lovely ideas like the video I saw today, then it's all good.  

Scones: 4 out of 5 (0.5 for the scrumptious jam)
Lyme Park: 4 out of 5 (lovely staff and a beautiful video)

Monday 2 September 2013

Brownsea Island

You know how Spiderman has a Spidey-sense? Well, I think that the scone blogger is developing a Sconey-sense, because I had absolutely no idea that there was a Sconefest at Brownsea Island yesterday and yet that was the fourth destination on my scone odyssey.

Brownsea Island Sconefest

I could lie and say that I had chosen Brownsea Island for its wildlife and historical connections but really I just love a bargain and I especially love very good bargains from South West Trains as they drive me mad most of the time. Over the summer they’ve been offering a £15 return to pretty much anywhere – it usually costs £45 for me to get to Poole in Dorset by train, so £15 was a proper steal.

Of course, this resulted in the inevitable “sorry ladies and gentlemen, we’re stuck behind a slow-moving train” delay so by the time we got to Poole Quay and got on the boat that takes you across to Brownsea, I had serious concerns that it couldn’t possibly be worth the effort.

Well, I was wrong. Brownsea Island is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. GO. GO NOW.

But before you do, let’s talk scones. Sconefest meant that there was a big selection on offer: blueberry, plum, cheddar cheese and chive, goat’s cheese and caramelised onion…I should really have tried a bit of all of them but that might have ruined this important and highly scientific study.

Instead, to be consistent, I had the standard cream tea: plain scone, cream, jam and tea for £3.75. The other half had a fruit scone and then we shared an apple and cinnamon from the Sconefest counter.

It was scone perfection, people. SCONE PERFECTION. The plain one was slightly warm, lovely and chewy and I could have eaten four of them. The apple and cinnamon scone was similar in texture with subtle flavours – with a dab of cream, they were delicious. FIVE OUT OF FIVE ALL ROUND.

Brownsea Island National Trust Scones

Of course, the view as we ate the scones may have contributed to the experience:

Brownsea Island

And that’s the thing about Brownsea  – it’s an absolute beaut of an island with a castle and a church and woodland and lovely views of the sea and Sandbanks and Harry Redknapp, well no I didn’t actually see Harry, but there was plenty else to marvel at. I thought I’d try and summarise Brownsea by mentioning four of its celebrity connections:

1. Lord Baden-Powell
Did you know that the very first ever scout camp was held on Brownsea Island in 1907, when Robert Baden-Powell and 20 boys pitched their tents there? I cannot imagine anything worse than camping and my career as a Brownie was undistinguished (I resigned in a fit of pique when they wouldn’t let me do my Jester badge – two weeks later the whole pack (or whatever we were called) did their bloody Jester badges) but I seriously cannot think of a lovelier place to camp. It has woodland, beaches, lagoons – everything. A real paradise. I can’t finish this paragraph without mentioning my friend Jane (not her real name) whose Brownie career was startlingly different to mine – she tragically lost her sister to cancer at a very young age and one of the ways she dealt with her grief was to unpick the badges off her sister’s Brownie tunic and sew them on her own. I often wonder what she’s doing now. Banking, probably.

2. Guglielmo Marconi
Yes indeed, the man known for inventing the radio was a frequent visitor to Brownsea when his friends, the van Raalte family, owned it as their country retreat. Apparently he conducted many of his experiments with wireless telegraphy at the Haven Hotel opposite Brownsea. It's quite strange to think that the man responsible for me having to listen to Magic FM every morning spent so much time in such a tranquil and peaceful place.

3. Squirrel Nutkin
I appreciate that Beatrix Potter probably didn’t get her inspiration from Brownsea but I can’t think of any other celebrity squirrels (was Tufty a squirrel?) There are 200 rare red squirrels on the island and we saw not a one of them. October is the best time to spot them, apparently. The nearest we came was a fridge magnet in the shop. We did see some baby peacocks though.

4. John Lewis
I know he’s not a person (was he a person?) but I thought it was fascinating that the John Lewis Partnership leases the castle on Brownsea. According to the man on the boat, they rent out 5 star accommodation at 2 star prices to their staff but there’s a 4 year waiting list. It’s worth waiting for, is all I can say to that. I can’t think of a nicer place to wake up in the morning. Where’s their recruitment page.

So I think I’ve made it fairly plain that Brownsea Island is awesome and you must go there. We were lucky with the weather – it started off quite cool but the island is a little sun trap so I came home looking like a lobster.

Scones: 5/5

Brownsea Island: 4.5/5