Sunday 17 November 2013

Bath Assembly Rooms

I had one of those days today. One of those days where every single thing goes wrong and you end up having to talk to yourself quietly on the train: "Don't worry, when you get home you can have a nice glass of wine. Except it's November and you've decided not to drink for a month rather than grow a moustache, as you're a girl. OK. Nice and calm now. How about a big bag of chips on the way back from the station? The chip shop has gone. OH WHAT'S THE POINT." etc.

I knew it was going to be a tough mission today. I had chosen Bath Assembly Rooms specifically because I'd had such a great time at Flatford earlier in the week. It was always going to be impossible for anywhere to follow that and so I needed to go somewhere that wouldn't care if I didn't rave about it. 

And I mean that in a nice way. Bath is a World Heritage Site, a magnet for lovers of Jane Austen, AND it has a branch of kitchenware crack-den Lakeland, which means it must get GAZILLIONS of visitors every day. They wouldn't mind if one little sconophile wasn't enjoying herself.

So what went wrong? Firstly, most of the Rooms were shut for a function. It was for a Mozart concert though and if you've read Persuasion by Jane Austen you'll know that that's what the Assembly Rooms were for - concerts. So I tried not to let it bother me. Who needs a tour after all? I could buy a guide book and read it myself. 

The Octagon room was open - this is where you could gamble away your baronetcy and then try to save yourself from penury by ensnaring an unsuspecting Austen heroine - so I wandered around there picking up a few factoids from my guide book:

Bath Assembly Rooms National Trust

1. Bath has had two major heydays - one during the Roman Empire and one during the Georgian era.

2. During its Georgian heyday, there were originally two Assembly Rooms in the lower part of town.

3. The Upper Assembly Rooms were built in 1769 because the Lower Assembly Rooms were too small to hold all of the people that came to Bath for social mingling during the season.

4. The upper part of town had also started to become more fashionable than the lower area - work had started on the Circus in 1754 and the first house on the very magnificent Royal Crescent was completed in 1769. 

5. The Upper Assembly Rooms, like all of the other buildings mentioned above, were created by John Wood the Elder and his son John Wood the Younger, who are responsible for the architectural style for which Bath is famous.

6. Fascinating factoid: John Wood the Younger financed the building of the Upper Assembly Rooms using a 'tontine' subscription. This way of raising funds asks all of the subscribers to pay a certain amount into the scheme and then receive an annuity every year. However, as each subscriber dies, their shares are added to the holdings of the survivors, who receive a larger annuity until the last shareholder is standing. Can you imagine that? Imagine walking through Bath every morning, tipping your hat to a fellow shareholder while thinking 'ooh he's looking a bit peaky today. The annuity is due next month, it'd be quite handy if were to shuffle off this mortal coil and bag me an extra hundred pounds.'? 

7. The Upper Assembly Rooms contained a ballroom for 800 dancers, a tea-room, a card room, and the Octagon for gambling.

8. Bath's social scene had been run for many years by Richard 'Beau' Nash. He died in 1761 but his influence was great - it was he who would meet new arrivals in Bath and decide whether they were suitable to join his 'Company' of ball-goers and gamblers.

9. As Nash's influence waned, people started going out less frequently and the Assembly Rooms fell in popularity, ending up as a cinema in 1921 and then being badly damaged during the Blitz before being restored.

10. Even more fascinating although not strictly relevant to the Assembly Rooms factoid: according to Wikipedia, Nash had a mistress called Juliana Popjoy and when he died she was so distraught that she spent the majority of her remaining days living in a large hollowed out tree. 

The Bath Assembly Rooms scone
So, having cheered myself up with some factoids about women mourning their boyfriends in trees, I trotted off to the tearoom where the second disaster of the day was waiting for me: no scones. None. At all. Not even a cheese scone. Again, I tried to channel my inner Anne Elliot and not her horrible sister Elizabeth and calmly asked for a piece of Victoria sponge cake. It was fine.

National Trust Cake Bath Assembly Rooms

And then I went into Lakeland and couldn't find any palette knives so I came out empty-handed (WHO EVER COMES OUT OF A LAKELAND SHOP EMPTY-HANDED? IT'S JUST NOT POSSIBLE). And then I had to wait for over an hour in the freezing cold for a train. But you know what, Bath remains one of my favourite places in the world and if you haven't been, you must go immediately, although avoid South West Trains.

Scones: 0 out of 5 (there weren't any)
Bath Assembly Rooms: 3 out of 5 (it was mostly shut)
Bath: 5 out of 5 (it's amazing)

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Flatford Bridge Cottage

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that today, at Flatford Bridge Cottage in Suffolk, I tasted the best National Trust scones EVER. The bad news is that this means I have accomplished my quest to find the best National Trust scones EVER and I should probably call it a day and end the blog.

However, I've decided that Flatford takes special status, because today's scone mission was a mission with a difference. Unlike my other scone trips, I didn't just turn up - Flatford INVITED ME. And not only that - THEY LET ME BAKE THE SCONES.  

Yes, that's right, today I ACTUALLY BAKED NATIONAL TRUST SCONES. It all came about after my visit to Houghton Mill in September. A very lovely lady called Jemma saw my blog post and contacted me to say that Flatford has its very own SCONE CLUB and would I like to visit? Would I? Readers, I couldn't get there fast enough. 

I was also very excited because Flatford Bridge Cottage was once the home of John Constable. He produced a lot of drawings and paintings but he is most famous for The Hay Wain, a picture my parents still have on their living room wall. Interesting factoid: Robbie Williams has had The Hay Wain painted onto one of the walls of his LA home, as it reminds him of his nan. 

Flatford National Trust The Hay Wain

Anyway - here is the story of my day at Flatford:

The Scones
I was late getting to Flatford, and although I didn't admit this to Jemma at the time, I was very worried. She had arranged for me to meet the chef and I know that sometimes they can be a little bit temperamental (I was once a terrible waitress in a hotel and the chef threw a cake tin at me). But Russell, the catering manager at Flatford, is quite possibly the nicest, most patient man in the world.

The daily scone bake was already well underway when I arrived. Below you will see plain scones and the walnut and honey Scone of the Month for November (try not to feel desperately hungry):

Flatford National Trust Scones

The Scone Club at Flatford was set up mainly for regular visitors, so that there would always be something new for them to try. Russell likes to use local produce and had intended that the walnuts for Scone of the Month would come from the tree by the cottage. However, he was cruelly outwitted by the squirrels, who nabbed all the nuts and left him with just five. 

My day then began in earnest with a scone masterclass. Russell explained that scone dough needs very little handling, so once you've rubbed in the butter it's a good idea to use a palette knife to bind the dough together with egg and milk. It's also important to move quickly once you get started, so the baking tray was ready and the oven was on (it needs to be at 190-200 on a domestic oven). 

Russell likes to use a 7cm cutter and he explained that you must never twist as you cut - if you do, the edges of the dough knit together, which stops it from rising. As you can see, Russell's scone on the baking sheet looks perfect, while mine looks a bit squidged, as if it's trying to fly off to safety: 

Making National Trust scones at Flatford

And here are our plain scones coming out of the oven:

National Trust scones out of the oven

Russell then proved himself to be an utter genius and possible reader of minds, by announcing that we were also going to make some MINCE PIE SCONES. I don't think there are three nicer words in the English language. I am probably ruining the surprise for Flatford's regulars but the December Scone of the Month will involve spice, fruit, and a dollop of mincemeat with crumble topping. If you are now salivating and eating the cushions, I'm sorry. 

Flatford mince pie scones

And once again, 16 minutes later, we had our mince pie scones:

Flatford scone of the month

I am rarely short for words but I actually cannot express how delicious those scones were. Somehow Russell had got the outside to be really crisp, while the inside was as fluffy as anything. 

Once Russell has cut all of his scones from the dough, he pulls the remnants together to form a scone that isn't cut but just goes onto the tray with the others. One lucky visitor then gets a scone that is bigger than the others. Unfortunately mine looked more like Ayers Rock, so if you picked that up today at Flatford, I'm sorry. You're probably still eating it.

I then joined Jemma and the two Sarahs on a tour of Flatford. Sarah, who works at the property, showed me The Hay Wain spot as it is today, with Willy Lott's cottage on the left:

The Hay Wain Now and Then

Sarah also told me about how much Constable changed the course of art history - until he came along, nobody had really painted ordinary people in rural settings. He also had quite a sad personal life - because he was an artist, he wasn't allowed to marry his sweetheart until he was 40 and had come into some money. His wife then died of TB only 12 years later. Very sad.

Bridge Cottage itself is very pretty:

Flatford Bridge Cottage

But the whole location is breath-takingly beautiful. The Granary along the road, which was once owned by John Constable's father, is now a B&B, and there are walks to other nearby towns. I can't wait to go back and I can't recommend it highly enough.

The Lunch
And then, as if Russell hadn't done enough for us, he offered to make us lunch. I'll be honest, I was expecting a baked potato. This is what he served:

Scone Lunch

It's a four course scone lunch, basically. I should have written down what was involved as it was so cleverly thought out but I was too amazed to think of it. They were all delicious but the drop scone with pea puree and ham, and the walnut scone with quince jelly and mulled apple were out of this world. I could happily eat this for lunch every day of my life.

Russell also gave me two bags of our scones to take home, so the Sconesky to my Hutch didn't feel left out. He's eating them now, as I type.

So Flatford goes right to the top of the National Trust scone leader board. I had such a fantastic day that I don't think it can ever be outdone. My massive thanks to Jemma, Sarah, Sarah and the very awesome Russell for their time and effort. 

I highly recommend you follow the East England account on Twitter - - and it goes without saying that if you haven't been to Flatford then GO, GO, GO. They're having a Christmas event on 30 November/1 December - as well as Russell's mince pie scones he's making mulled wine so you're frankly INSANE if you don't go along and try some.

Russell Flatford Scone Genius
Russell - scone genius

Jemma Finch National Trust
The lovely Jemma, Sarah, and Russell bravely eating one of my scones.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Guest sconer of the week!

I've completely failed to go on any scone missions for the past fortnight but luckily the very marvellous Sarah Smith who works for the National Trust sent me this photo of the scones she had at Stourhead near Glastonbury this weekend. 

She tells us that 2 scones and a pot of tea cost £4.95 and there was a choice of plain, fruit, or cheese. "Fab!" she concluded (this was on Twitter so she had to be fairly succinct). Thanks Sarah! Here's her snap:

I'll be making up for lost time this week with not one, but TWO scone excursions. One of them is a very special mission indeed so watch this space for more details, as it's going to be a corker.