Sunday 19 January 2014

Wakehurst Place

Wakehurst Place is the National Trust's most visited property, which I found really surprising as I'd never heard of it (sorry Wakehurst). 

I would have guessed Bath Assembly Rooms or Chartwell or somewhere like that, but it turns out that Wakehurst is the country estate of Kew Gardens. Why Kew Gardens needs a country estate is another question but it no doubt sends swarms of visitors in Wakehurst's direction. 

And that's the thing: the estate at Wakehurst might belong to the National Trust but it's very much run by Kew Gardens. And the scones are neither Kew or NT - they're provided by a third party. 

So I don't feel too bad telling you that the Wakehurst scone could have been better. Well, actually I do feel bad saying it, but it's true. It was very dry and it seemed to take a long time to eat. And that's that. 

Wakehurst Place National Trust Scone

Wakehurst, on the other hand, was a revelation and I highly recommend it. It really does feel like a miniature Kew Gardens, complete with areas dedicated to plants from all over the world, such as the Himalayan Glade and the areas signposted as 'AFRICA' where you marvel that anything at all has managed to stay alive. 

And I'm no botanist but the sight of a few snowdrops pushing their way through the mud made me happier on a cold January day than I can tell you and I wasn't alone, judging by the amount of people just staring at them with 'happy!' on their faces.

The Elizabethan mansion at Wakehurst is stunning. It was built in 1590 and had been handed down through various families over the years, before being given to the Trust in 1963. Inside the house was an exhibition asking 'what should we do with the mansion?' At first I was a bit nonplussed by this (it's obvious, isn't it; do it up a bit, let people come and look round it?) until I read the options and realised that even venerable old buildings have to earn their keep. The thought of it being turned into flats makes me want to cry so I would gladly - GLADLY - let them stick a lift in there to accommodate functions. Even turning it into a hotel is better than turning it into private dwellings. 

But what do I know? It really brought it home to me that preserving buildings is about a lot more than just buying them, filling them with furniture and opening the doors to the public. Once again I found myself loving the National Trust for everything they do. 

So definitely go to Wakehurst but maybe avoid the scones. 

Wakehurst Place National Trust

Scones: 3 out of 5
Wakehurst: 4 out of 5

Saturday 11 January 2014

The Vyne

I've decided that I want to donate myself to the National Trust. The 'winter clean' was underway at The Vyne today and it's an idea that really appeals to me. Everything gets covered up and then each piece of furniture or wall or ceiling is checked to see if it survived the summer season without a load of woodworm moving in or someone spilling a Fruit Shoot on it. I could definitely do with three months under a dust sheet and someone restoring me lovingly with a hog's hair brush to get me ready for Spring. 

But never mind that. Let's start at the beginning. THE VYNE. It really does have the best name of any National Trust property if you ask me, apart from Horsey Windpump, which sounds like the Kenneth Williams character had there been a Carry On Farming. The Vyne sounds mysterious, like the title of a Virginia Andrews novel, or, for any younger readers who haven't heard of Virginia and her books about children being locked in attics by their mothers, a Twilight sequel (note to self; write Twilight sequel called The Vyne, make squillions).

The Vyne is actually an estate near Basingstoke. This is a rubbish photo of it:

The Vyne National Trust

However, it does have an ABSOLUTE CORKER of a literary connection. If you're sitting comfortably, I'll begin.

The story goes that in 1785 a farmer ploughing his field up the road in Silchester found a gold Roman ring with an inscription on it. Later, a 'curse tablet' was found on the site of a Roman temple in Gloucestershire - apparently if you did something to irritate a Roman, they would get their revenge on you by writing a curse on a piece of lead and offering it to the various gods asking them to send terrible misfortunes your way. The curse tablet found in this story seemed to invoke misery on a man who had stolen the gold ring found in the Silchester field from its owner. 

The archaeologist who was researching the tablet and ring took his findings to the Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, as you do. That professor was one J.R.R. Tolkien, who later wrote a book called The Hobbit and then a trilogy that you might have heard of called Lord of the Rings. Both feature a ring. You do the math.

The ring is kept in a little exhibition area within the house and it is quite literally awesome:

Ring at The Vyne National Trust

It's definitely one of the best things I've ever seen in a National Trust property. The rest of the house was under wraps for winter, although the Tudor chapel was open and well worth seeing.

The Vyne scone
The Vyne reputedly got its name from being the site of the first vineyards planted by the Romans when they got here and realised there was nothing decent to drink. Sadly, they didn't leave any record of their views on the scones and my opinions were also nearly lost when we realised it was cash only in the restaurant due to a broken PDQ machine. I had about 47p on me so we ended up sharing a cream tea. It was worth it though - a lovely soft, light, well-baked scone:

The Vyne National Trust Scone

I'll definitely be going back to The Vyne in the summer months - it's a beautiful estate with stunning lakes and woodland walks. Just look out for the orcs.

Scones: 4.5 out of 5 
The Ring: 5 out of 5
The PDQ machine: 0 out of 5

Sunday 5 January 2014

Morden Hall Park

I had a vision of my National Trust scone outings in January being full of snow-covered turrets, hoar frost-coated lawns and cheery tea-rooms serving hot beverages and warm scones. And then I woke up on the first weekend of the year to a biblical deluge, which just goes to show that the British weather is not to be trusted under any circumstances. 

We initially set out yesterday for The Vyne, which surely has the best name of all National Trust properties*. We got there and it was closed due to flooding. I can honestly say that I wasn't in the least bit annoyed - I pressed one boot toe into the murk and felt nothing but sympathy for all NT employees trying to protect properties at this time of year. No wonder most of them are shut.

The Morden Hall Park scone
I decided to put my wellies on and head to Morden Hall Park in South London. And boy am I glad we did, because I am pleased to report that the first scones of 2014 were amazing. They were warm, they were soft, and they were glazed, which was a first. In fact they were probably the prettiest scones I have ever seen. A complete triumph:

National Trust Scones at Morden Hall Park

From the tea-room, it's easy to imagine that you're in the middle of the country but step outside and the sirens and sounds of buses whooshing past remind you that you're actually in London. However, the park itself is pleasant enough, even in the depths of January, and it's unusual, for several reasons:

1. It's open 365 days a year and it's free. This was stipulated by Gilliat Edward Hatfeild who donated the estate to the Trust in 1941.
2. The Hatfeild family owned a snuff-milling business within the estate. This was powered by the River Wandle, which runs through the park.
3. When snuff became unfashionable, Gilliat Edward closed down the mills at Morden but very unusually kept the staff on, giving them new jobs on the estate.
4. He was indeed known for his generosity, throwing parties for local children and setting up a hospital in the Hall itself while he lived in the cottage.

River Wandle National Trust Morden Hall Park
The River Wandle, which runs through the park and used to power the snuff mills
So if you're looking for terrific scones and you want to know the history of snuff, then Morden Hall Park is for you.

Scones: 5 out of 5 
Morden Hall Park: 3 out of 5