Wednesday 26 February 2014

Quarry Bank Mill

I generally try to avoid misery in my life, although that can be a tall order when you work in Slough. But it explains why I didn't watch The Mill on Channel 4 last year - I read it was a bit grim, so I stuck with Call The Midwife instead.  

I wish I had watched it though, because it is based on Quarry Bank Mill near Wilmslow. If you've never been, I strongly urge you to go. Quarry Bank is a behemoth of a National Trust property. You could easily spend an entire day there, and you come away with your head spinning (a pun! I spoil you, I really do.)

So what did I learn about Quarry Bank Mill?

1. It's a working mill. I was walking down a path at one point on my visit and thought to myself 'God, it sounds like there's an elephant giving birth in that building' before I realised it was the mill machinery. And that was probably just one machine. The noise back in the 1860s must have been literally deafening. Thanks to the National Trust, the mill has been restored so you can see the various bits of cotton-making machinery at work and you can actually buy cloth that is produced in the mill. It's amazing.

Quarry Bank Mill

2. It was built in 1784. Samuel Greg was a cotton manufacturer who was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the Industrial Revolution. He built Quarry Bank Mill in a little village called Styal, which had the River Bollin to power his water wheels while also being close to Manchester. He had to bring in many workers to supplement those that were available locally - he wasn't short of volunteers by all accounts, because although a worker's wages out in Styal were lower than in the city, the families that worked for him had a cottage with their own toilet and garden, plus plenty of fresh air away from the dirt and grim of the town. The Greg family built a house right next-door to the Mill. 

3. The Gregs were interesting people. I read A Lady of a Cotton: Hannah Greg, Mistress of Quarry Bank Mill by David Sekers before I went. It covers the life and times of Samuel's wife, Hannah, a pious and studious person who fervently believed that the world could be a better place, while simultaneously living off the proceeds of the slave trade and making children work 12 hour days in a mill. I'm being facetious, because the Gregs were very enlightened mill owners; Hannah spent time and money on educating the apprentices, and the family doctor was kept on a retainer to look after the child workers' health. Everything is relative though and what's acceptable changes over time - one of the more poignant passages in the book details how their son Samuel went to great lengths to provide enviable facilities for his workers but they still turned on him in a dispute about money, which left him a broken man.

Hannah Greg Quarry Bank Mill

4. The Mill doctor was the uncle of Elizabeth Gaskell. The novel North and South by Mrs Gaskell (which costs £0.00 if you click that link and send it to your Kindle) provides a great overview of what life in Manchester was like in 1854. Or you could just buy the DVD of the TV series starring the divine Richard Armitage. Anyway, Elizabeth Gaskell's uncle was the Greg family doctor who also tended to the apprentices. 

5. However bad things get, you aren't a 10 year-old in a workhouse in 1840. A large proportion of Greg's employees were children from the workhouse. They came from all over the place and were indentured to Greg, working for him until they were 18 or 21 without pay - they received food, a bed, and some education in return for very long hours doing dangerous work that often resulted in them losing a limb, or worse. The Apprentice House at Quarry Bank is well worth seeing and there's a fascinating tour guide who explains everything from leeches to runaways.

6. The Mill on TV is part fact, part fiction. There are loads of fascinating exhibits at Quarry Bank Mill - you could be reading for hours without getting bored - and one exhibit is dedicated to the TV series. It explains what's fact and what's fiction - Samuel, Hannah, and their son Robert are all featured so I'll have to watch it.

The Quarry Bank scones
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE SCONES? National Trust scones sometimes really suit their locations and this was one of those occasions; the scone was big and bold and although I feared it might be a bit dry it was magnificent. It was perfectly chewy and didn't fall apart at all. Delicious. 

National Trust Scone at Quarry Bank Mill

Quarry Bank Mill: 5/5
Scones: 5/5
Lovely taxi driver that told me almost as much about Quarry Bank Mill as the tour guide did: 5/5

Saturday 22 February 2014


I love the National Trust. Cherryburn near Newcastle-upon-Tyne reminded me why:

1. I now know about Thomas Bewick
You know when you read about a stately home or monument and it says "the house was home to Sir Humphrey Bumphrey, the statesman" and you think 'who??'. That was me and Thomas Bewick, who was born in the little cottage at Cherryburn in 1753. And you start off being a bit arrogant and thinking 'well he can't be that famous' and then by the time you leave you're wearing a 'H-Bumph Is My Homeboy' t-shirt and saying things like 'I can't believe he invented the pedal bin! Can you believe he invented the pedal bin? Amazing!' That was me and Thomas Bewick (although he didn't invent the pedal bin and they didn't sell t-shirts).

Cherryburn National Trust

2. I now know the difference between a wood engraving and a woodcut
I know zero about art but after my visit to Cherryburn I can now tell you that Thomas Bewick basically invented wood engraving. Until then a woodcut involved taking a block of wood, cutting the soft side of it to create shapes, and then applying ink before pressing that onto paper to create a print. Wood engraving on the other hand uses the hard grain end of a block of wood instead of the soft side. By cutting into this hard grain with tools that were meant for engraving on metal, Bewick could cut much finer lines to create hugely detailed illustrations. These blocks of wood would then be placed alongside type on a printing press so that pages featuring images and text could be printed in one go. Genius!

3. I love other National Trust visitors
I was staring cluelessly at an enormous printing press when a woman beside me said "I'd kill for one of those." I looked at the huge metal contraption and thought 'what, more than a pink Magimix?' before she elaborated on how she was also an artist and how Bewick was a complete genius in what he had achieved. It's such a lovely thing to encounter people like this and it happened to me twice on my 2014 National Trust Scone Tour of the Northeast™ - at Souter Lighthouse there was a woman in our tour group whose husband had grown up in one of the cottages (her father-in-law was a keeper there). She was showing her tiny grand-daughter around and it was a truly heart-warming sight. I just love it.

4. I love National Trust volunteers
On Sundays, a volunteer comes along to Cherryburn and actually uses the printing press to show visitors how Bewick worked. We were there on a Saturday so didn't see it but even so - it's just lovely to think of someone giving up their time to demonstrate Bewick's processes and help people understand what he created.

5. The National Trust - often doing a lot with not very much since 1895
The cottage at Cherryburn is set out as in Bewick's time. Next-door is a lovely little museum showing his books, pictures, his family tree, and some portraits of him. I read on one of the displays that it once won an award for 'Best Museum With Limited Resources' or something like that. I'd visited the Roman Army Museum on Hadrian's Wall earlier in the week - it's not National Trust but it's absolutely worth a visit for its 3D film of life as a Roman legionaire in 122AD. That museum must have cost many hundreds of thousands of pounds to set up and it was great. But the little museum dedicated to Bewick was just as informative in its own way.

Thomas Bewick

There were no scones at Cherryburn but I didn't mind. The visitor centre is tiny but they have a coffee machine and cakes and they sell prints produced from Bewick's wooden blocks, which I thought was wonderful.

Cherryburn: 5/5
Scones: no scones but it didn't matter at all


I've been writing this blog for 6 months now and in that time I've realised that my relationship with National Trust properties follows four key development stages:
  • Stage 1 - I've never heard of the property
  • Stage 2 - I've heard of the property but I've never been
  • Stage 3 - I've been to the property 
  • Stage 4 - I have developed an all-encompassing fascination with the property, usually because I've read a book about it.
Gibside near Newcastle-upon-Tyne is a prime example of Stage 4. I went from total ignorance of its existence to being completely absorbed by it, all thanks to a book I picked up in the shop.

Wedlock: How Georgian Britain's Worst Husband Met His Match by Wendy Moore is impossible to put down. I read it as fast as I could, but annoying things like work and sleep kept getting in the way. 

Wedlock tells the amazing story of Mary Eleanor Bowes:
  • Mary's beloved father, George, was a wealthy coal baron who inherited the Gibside estate in 1722.
  • George didn't do much to Gibside Hall itself but he did a lot to the estate, building a Column to Liberty and a Palladian chapel among other things.
  • He ensured that Mary got an education - she was a keen botanist and very good at languages.
  • George died when Mary was 11 but he had stipulated that her future husband must take the names Bowes so it didn't die out.
  • Mary's first husband was John Lyon, the 9th Earl of Strathmore.
  • This formed the name Bowes-Lyon - Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who became the Queen Mother, was Mary's great-great-great granddaughter (making Mary great-great-great-great grandmother to the Queen).
  • She had 5 children with Lord Strathmore but it wasn't a happy marriage.
  • When Lord Strathmore died in 1776 she had a couple of dalliances, one of which resulted in her next marriage to Andrew Robinson Stoney, while pregnant by somebody else. 
  • To say her second marriage was a disaster is the understatement of the century. Stoney, who became Bowes, tricked her into marriage and then horrifically abused her both physically and mentally for the next 8 years.
  • She spent time at Gibside throughout her life, with Stoney selling its woodland to pay off his gambling debts and to cover the cost of the innumerable children that he fathered by unfortunate young women all over the place.
The book is not just a ripping yarn about an unfortunate Countess, however. It details the struggle of women to claim legal rights against domestic abuse in the 1700s when they really had no rights at all. It's a great book and I only wish I'd read it before I went to Gibside.

Gibside Hall is now a ruin. I felt very sad about this while I was there, as it was clearly a magnificent building in its day. I feel even sadder now, though, thinking of poor Mary Eleanor, who started her life there with such privilege and promise and ended up so unfulfilled.

Gibside Hall

You can still see the Column to Liberty, which must have been laughably ironic to Mary during her second marriage. There's also a Long Walk leading back to the Palladian Chapel, a Banqueting House, and a Greenhouse built for Mary that I'm really annoyed I didn't see.

Gibside Column to Liberty

The Gibside scones
Gibside also has one other major advantage: THE SCONES. I've never seen a scone so tall in all my career as National Trust scone blogger. My photography skills have let the side down as usual, though, so you can't marvel at its towering height. It was very tasty too.

Gibside National Trust Scone

Gibside: 4/5
Scones: 4/5
Wedlock by Wendy Moore: 5/5. READ IT, READ IT, READ IT.

Friday 21 February 2014

Hadrian's Wall & Housesteads Fort

I have ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS wanted to go to Hadrian's Wall. As there's a chance that Alex Salmond will be rebuilding it soon, I thought I'd get a move on. 

Hadrian's Wall stretches 84 miles from the Tyne to the Solway Firth. It was built in AD122 - that's a staggering 1,878 years ago. If, like me, you've just turned 40 and are feeling a bit old then it's a great place to remind yourself that you're not.

As it's very old and very long, there's a lot to tell you:

1. Who was Hadrian and why did he build a wall across northern Britain?

Hadrian was Roman emperor between 117 and 138. Rome had expanded into Britain to varying degrees in previous years, but Hadrian decided it was time to draw a line signifying where the Empire ended. He ordered the construction of a wall that would stop the 'barbarians' to the north from marauding into Roman territory.

2. What did the Wall look like?

Hadrian's Wall must have been utterly, utterly awe-inspiring. If I'd been a northern barbarian, I'd have taken one look at it and gone home. It was FIFTEEN FEET HIGH in places, and eight feet deep. There was a milecastle (basically a small fort) every mile and a turret every third of a mile, as well as thirteen forts along its length. And it took JUST 6 YEARS to build. Below is a photo of Hadrian's Wall today. Once the Romans went home, it was dismantled over time by people nicking the stones to build castles, houses, even churches. In places there's nothing left at all now but where it's visible, it's still impressive:

Hadrian's Wall

3. Who built it?

The Wall was built by Roman legionaires, the elite soliders who had the specialist skills required. They didn't live on the Wall, however; once they'd finished, they returned to York or Chester or wherever they were stationed and it was the auxiliaries that actually manned the Wall - recruited in Germany and the Low Countries, auxiliaries served for 25 years and were rewarded with Roman citizenship. 

4. What's the relationship between Hadrian's Wall and the National Trust?

The National Trust owns a six-mile stretch of the Wall, from Housesteads Fort to Cawfields. We started at the NT Information Centre at Housesteads where, to my initial distress, there was no tea-room and therefore no scones. But who needs scones when there's a 1,878 year-old wall to see? 

Hadrian's Wall Housesteads Fort

5. What happened at the fort?

Housesteads, like most forts, is shaped like a playing card. Two huge gates would have been built into the ramparts, with other towers along the walls. Inside the fort were streets separating the various buildings, including the commander's house and admin offices. Outside the fort was a 'vicus', a civilian settlement that provided services to the fort.  

6. What else is there to see?

There's LOADS to see. You might want to wander along to Sycamore Gap, where Kevin Costner first met nasty Alan Rickman's men in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Or head to Vindolanda, which has an awe-inspiring range of artefacts that were dug from the mud. The best find was the Vindolanda Tablets, an amazing set of letters written by Roman people living in the fort, which contain fascinatingly mundane stuff like news of underpants and dinner parties. The dinner set below on the left was also uncovered - it looks like it was made yesterday, not 1,900 years ago. And the shoes on the right are not quite so pristine but still amazing:

Vindolanda Artefacts

7. Is the Roman Armey Museum worth a visit? 

YES. It's not National Trust but it's a brilliant museum with an exceptionally good 3D film that shows you what a legion of marching Roman soldiers would have looked like (formidable) and how the forts would have worked. 

8. How can you learn more about the Wall?

I highly recommend that you read The Wall by Alistair Moffat - it's a great book about the Roman invasion of Britain, covering Boadicea and Cartimandua as well as the Wall itself. Very entertaining and easy to read.

Hadrian's Wall & Housesteads Fort: 5/5
Scones: 0/5 - there's no tea-room but you really don't need one

Thursday 20 February 2014

Souter Lighthouse

I often wonder what happened to my Science teacher, Mr Goodwin. He did his best, poor man, but I must have driven him mad. To this day, I remain totally and shamefully clueless about all things scientific, electricity being the biggest mystery of all. My brain just isn't wired that way (it is good at puns though).

So I was a bit worried that I wouldn't like Souter Lighthouse near South Shields. Built in 1871 by those science loving Victorians, it was the first lighthouse in the world to be powered by electricity. I was concerned that there would be loads of machinery and people talking about watts, and my mind would start thinking about other things, like should I get my hair cut, or was it the same man that played Catweazle and the Crowman in Worzel Gummidge.

They have fantastic volunteers at Souter who explain everything, from the workings of the apparatus through to the day-to-day lives of the lighthouse keepers that looked after the place, from its opening through to its closure in 1988. And I will admit that some of the technicalities went over my head. But Souter has much to recommend it:
  • It's very pretty - it's like a picture postcard of a lighthouse.
  • It has a foghorn - the building on the right. They sound it on Sundays.
  • You can see an example of a cottage where the lighthouse keepers lived.
  • The lovely passionate volunteers don't appear to mind if you start thinking about hair-cuts.

Souter Lighthouse

The Souter Lighthouse scone
There were a few things on the menu in the tea-room that I had never heard of (panackelty and stottie anyone?) but they had heard of scones so that's what we had. And they were lovely and warm and went down a treat on a chilly day.

Scones at Souter Lighthouse

Souter Lighthouse: 5 out of 5
Scones: 4.5 out of 5

Friday 7 February 2014

Sutton House

Hackney. Famous for its Marshes full of talent-free footballers and for spawning Ray Winstone and Martine McCutcheon. I didn't fancy it that much to be honest but I needed a scone destination that was close to home and Sutton House fitted the bill. 

So I started reading up on how Sutton House is the oldest residential building in East London and was built in 1535 by a Tudor courtier called Ralph Sadleir when my brain suddenly said, in Winstone-esque way, HOLD UP. For I recognised the name Ralph Sadleir and after some investigation I realised he was one of the characters in the Booker prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies

Now, someone wibbling on about a book you haven't read is monumentally tedious so I am not going to mention how brilliant Wolf Hall is (it is though). All you need to know is that the subject is Thomas Cromwell, who was a right-hand man of Henry VIII until he went the way of so many of Henry's favourites and became a no-head man. Ralph Sadleir worked for Cromwell from the age of 14 and went on to become a trusted member of Henry's court. His final task before he died at the age of 80 was to act as a judge at Mary Queen of Scots' trial during the reign of Elizabeth I. 

You learn all this (and a great deal more) at Sutton House because they have an absolutely brilliant exhibition explaining the history of the house from the 1500s to the present day. It's the most comprehensive history of any National Trust property I've ever seen - Sutton House was home to Ralph and his wife and seven kids, then it was owned by various people (who all seemed to end up bankrupt) before it was a school, then a church. At one point in the 1980s it was inhabited by a community of squatters, something that is fully embraced as an important moment in the history of the house. 

Sutton House Exterior

They also have the best guide book and leaflet directing you through the property - you leave the house feeling like you really understand not only how the house has changed over time but how Hackney has changed as well.

The Sutton House scones
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE SCONES, I hear you cry. Well, since you asked, they were EXCELLENT. They were warm, perfectly sized, soft and full of fruit. I'd snaffled them down before I'd even looked at them. I was also given a choice of tea, which was served in a lovely dinky little china cup, a choice of jam (this NEVER happens) AND it was the cheapest cream tea in National Trust Scone Blog history (£3.95). So it's a big fat five out of five for the Sutton House scones (applause). 

Sutton House National Trust Scones

I'm going to finish with this nice portrait of Sir Ralph Sadleir. He actually looks a bit like David Tennant if you squint and take away the beard - hey, maybe that's who'll play him in the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall next year! *runs down to Ladbrokes*.  

Scones: 5 out of 5!
Sutton House: 4.5 out of 5
Crockery: 5 out of 5

Saturday 1 February 2014

Lyveden New Bield

I was looking through the National Trust handbook one day and I came across a picture of Lyveden New Bield in Northamptonshire. I was completely taken aback, not by its lack of roof, but because I knew instantly that it was the work of Thomas Tresham.

This was shocking, because me being able to tell you who designed a building just by looking at it is akin to Miley Cyrus being able to recite The Ancient Mariner or tell you about the finer nuances in the works of Proust. I know NOTHING about architecture. 

I recognised it because I grew up in a town with a Thomas Tresham building - it was the town library when I was little. The Treshams were fascinating people:
  • The Tresham family was recusant, which means that they were Catholics that refused to attend Anglican church services during Elizabethan times and were forced to pay massive fines as a result. (William Shakespeare was also born into a recusant family, fact fans.)
  • Thomas's son, Francis Tresham, died in the Tower of London having been involved in the Gunpowder Plot. It's claimed that Francis wrote the famous letter that gave the game away - the letter was written anonymously warning a family member to stay out of Parliament but it made its way into official hands, which led to Guy Fawkes being caught skulking about with unexplained bits of explosive. Francis did indeed have two brothers-in-law that would have been blown to bits had the plot succeeded but he always denied writing the letter.
  • Francis died of a gruesome-sounding urine-related illness while awaiting trial. They cut off his head anyway, stuck it on a spike like the other plotters, and threw his body down a hole.
  • There are three buildings in Northamptonshire that Thomas Tresham constructed and all feature symbols of his Catholic faith. Triangular Lodge in Rushton is a miniature show-stopper - we used to walk there on school trips, somehow without getting killed - and I urge you to see it. The Market House in Rothwell has long ceased being home to my Topsy and Tim books but still fascinating. And then there's Lyveden.
I decided to take some Northamptonshire Catholics along to Lyveden, namely my mother and my sister. If you've ever watched The Royle Family then you'll have some idea of what this was like, as I am basically related to Denise and Barbara Royle. But they'll be really upset with me for saying that, so I better not elaborate on the 578 examples I have to hand of them behaving thus. 

I regretted my choice within 30 seconds of arriving. "There it is!" I said happily on seeing the roofless Lyveden in all its isolated splendour, to which Denise Royle replied "How do you know that's it?". So I pushed her in the moat. 

The Lyveden scone
The tearoom at Lyveden is relatively new but it is quite possibly the nicest National Trust tearoom in existence. Cosy doesn't even begin to cover it - the log burner was a sight for cold limbs, and the waitress service was really efficient and friendly. There was a choice of plain or fruit scone, the jam tasted home-made and was delicious, and the scones were really tasty, as was the tea. Well done, Lyveden.

Lyveden National Trust Scones

Lyveden itself scores top marks for a) being fascinating b) having Robert, the most helpful man ever, manning the visitor centre and c) providing a free audio guide. My love for audio guides at National Trust properties knows no bounds (see also Petworth and Osterley House) and I appreciated it today more than ever. 

Work started on Lyveden New Bield in 1594. As well as being a dead-ringer for Edmund Blackadder, Thomas Tresham was a generous host (too generous it would seem; he died heavily in debt, although having to pay fines left, right and centre to get his treason-magnet son out of bother didn't help) and the new building was to be a garden lodge for entertaining. He died in 1605 and work on New Bield ceased, although his wife, Muriel Throckmorton, continued to use the property (it's rumoured for worship). 

During the Civil War, Lyveden was seen as a Papist abhorrence and was pillaged for building materials. However, somehow it remained pretty much in tact and has miraculously remained so for over 400 years. 

National Trust Lyveden New Bield

So as you can probably gather, I loved Lyveden and would highly recommend it and its wonderful tearoom.

Scones: 4.5 out of 5
Lyveden New Bield: 5 out of 5