Saturday 31 May 2014

Corfe Castle

I know nothing about falconry. You can probably choose it as a GCSE at Eton but I went to a school where you were lucky to find a tennis racquet with strings. 

But I can now add falcons to the long list of things that I've learned from the National Trust. It began when I was reading up on Corfe Castle prior to today's scone mission. "They have a Saxon and Viking falcon display!" I said enthusiastically to the scone sidekick, who was looking at the train times to Dorset and saying "HOW FAR??". 

"And then next week they have a Norman falcon display, followed by a Medieval falcon display the week after, and then the following week there's a Tudor falcon display, followed the next week by a Civil War falcon display." We looked at each other. I looked back at the website hoping it would continue on to Falcons of the 1960s, where they dress up as Jimi Hendrix and protest against Vietnam, but it stopped in the 1600s. 

But I'll come back to my education in falcons in a moment. First, let me tell you about Corfe Castle itself. 

Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle is a ruin. You probably didn't need me to point that out, but it was demolished by Parliamentarian forces during the Civil War. It was owned by Sir John Bankes and he supported the King. He died, leaving his wife Dame Mary to defend two sieges before someone within the garrison betrayed her and she was forced to leave. She got it back during the Restoration but it had been blown to pieces.

Corfe Castle National Trust

It's a big site and you can walk around the various parts of it that were built throughout medieval times - the Norman Old Hall, built by William the Conqueror, is believed to have been built on an older Saxon castle, constructed by King Alfred. It was here that Alfred's son Edward was murdered by his stepmother to put her own son, Ethelred the Unready, on the throne. William's son, Henry I, added a keep and for 500 years the castle was an important royal stronghold. Queen Elizabeth I sold it to her Chancellor, who then sold it to the Bankes family. 

It takes a bit of imagination to envisage how impressive it would have looked back in 1500. And it's quite astounding to see how much of it withstood the gunpowder; in some places the walls look like they're still falling over in very, very slow motion:

Corfe Castle wall falling down

So what about the falcons? I'll be honest; I'm still not 100% sure about the difference between a Saxon falcon and a Tudor one. However, the man that was showing us the falcons was fascinating. He explained how he trains them using a traditional technique of sleep deprivation rather than withholding food - he really knew his stuff.

Corfe Castle falcon

The Corfe Castle scone
I don't know if falcons eat scones but I definitely do, so we headed off to find the tea shop. It was a lovely little place and strangely quiet, until I looked outside and realised that everyone else was enjoying their cup of tea in the very large garden that overlooks the castle. And I found my National-Trust-Guidebook-Fascinating-Factoid-Of-The-Week: the tea room at Corfe Castle sells 23,000 cream teas every year. 23,000. Amazing.

They have an ice cream tea on the menu at Corfe Castle, made with Purbeck clotted cream ice cream. (That's CLOTTED CREAM ICE CREAM for anyone that wasn't paying attention just then.) I was sorely tempted, readers, but I realised that it would ruin this highly scientific study of mine, so I stuck with the standard version. It was delicious. The scone was huge, the cream was thick and surprisingly less sweet than I expected - it was great.  

National Trust Corfe Castle scone

Corfe was the 40th destination on my National Trust Scone odyssey and I've come to the conclusion that you can't really go wrong with castles. I loved Bodiam Castle and Scotney Castle as well, so I'll be adding more to my itinerary. Let me know your favourites. I might even take my scone mission international and go to Wales.

Corfe Castle: 5 out of 5
Scone: 4.5 out of 5
Medieval falcon: 5 out of 5

Saturday 17 May 2014


If the National Trust ever looks in its marketing money box and finds 5p and a button, then I have an idea for them, which I will donate for free.

There's a partly ruined manor house at Nymans in West Sussex that was built by two men, Sir Walter Tapper and Norman Evill. I think you will agree that these are BRILLIANT names and should immediately be turned into cartoon characters: Sir Walter, a tap-dancing mouse in a big Cavalier hat that goes about rescuing heritage for the nation, and Norman Evill, his murky nemesis, who tries to foil Sir Walter in a variety of dastardly ways (trying to knock down stately homes to build car parks, eroding the coast, spreading a bit of damp about - there's a lot of potential here, it could easily run to 50-60 episodes). It's marketing GOLD, I tell you. Although Norman Evill's descendants might sue. And the people that moan about the Disneyfication of the National Trust will have a field day. 

But putting my genius marketing ideas to one side for a moment, let's focus on the UTTER LOVELINESS of Nymans. If a heritage-loving alien arrived on Earth and wanted to be shown one property that sums up the National Trust, I'd take it to Nymans. It has everything:
a) extensive gardens that are actually interesting
b) a ruin
c) a Gothic-style house that you can go inside and see where an Edwardian Englishwoman lived


I was actually expecting Nymans to be a bit of a sad place. The original manor house and gardens were bought by Ludwig Messel in the 1890s. His son Leonard remodelled it, creating a stunning Gothic house (this is where Tapper & Evill come in). 

But then it burnt down. The ruined bit might look lovely and romantic now but imagine it on that February morning in 1947 when it was a smouldering pile of rubble. Awful. And Leonard never went back. His daughter Anne lived there in some capacity until she died in 1992 (this week's National-Trust-amazing-factoid-that-gets-briefest-mention-in-guidebook: Anne was the mother of Antony Armstrong-Jones, Princess Margaret's husband).  

Nymans ruined manor house

But Nymans isn't sad at all. The ruin is beautiful, while the rooms you can enter give you some idea of how stupendous it must have been to have lived here during its 20 year heyday. 

Nymans is famous for its gardens and they are indeed stunning. I'll be honest, my interest in gardening is at the lower end of the scale but even I found it fascinating. The wisteria in the photo below is a real reminder of how landscape gardeners are unique, in that they're always designing and planting for the future - and not just next Spring, but 20 years' time or even beyond their lifetimes. 

Nymans wisteria

The Nymans scone
At the risk of being boring, the cafe at Nymans was also lovely. It's one of the best National Trust tearooms I've seen - it's big and efficient, with a really lovely outdoor bit. And if the scones had been any fresher, I'd have been eating a pile of flour. They were also massive, with a choice of fruit or plain. The plain scone was very nice but the fruit scone was a triumph of a scone. Utterly lovely.

Nymans National Trust Scones

Like Waddesdon Manor, Nymans is a National Trust property that really knows what it's doing. And it was packed - we arrived at 10.30am and there were 100 cars in the car park already. A fantastic place that I highly recommend. 

Nymans: 5 out of 5
Scones: 5 out of 5
All-round utter loveliness of it all: 5 out of 5

Saturday 10 May 2014


What a difference 800 years makes. Today I set off on my humble little pilgrimage to Mottisfont in Hampshire with the primary objective of eating their scones. If I'd gone there in 1214, I would have been queuing to see the forefinger of St John the Baptist. Not quite as appetising, I agree. 

Mottisfont National Trust

It seems that St John had quite a few forefingers knocking around Europe in medieval times. Back then Mottisfont was a priory, located between Salisbury and Winchester, so plenty of pilgrims would have been passing and a holy relic would have been a massive draw, even if that relic wasn't 100% (or even 0.001%) genuine. 

However, the holy relic didn't save Mottisfont from two catastrophies: 1) the Black Death, which struck in 1348, and 2) Henry VIII, who dissolved the monasteries in 1536 and gave Mottisfont to his pal William Sandys.  

Sandys then did something very unusual; he built a new house around the priory structure. Most abbeys were either knocked down or the building materials looted but that didn't happen at Mottisfont. 

The result is that you can still see bits of the medieval priory beneath the mansion. The very atmospheric cellar is stunning: 

Mottisfont Cellarium

And in the actual house itself, there are glimpses of the old underneath the relatively modern. A corner of this room, for example, has been opened up to show the nave of the old priory beneath: 

Mottisfont nave

After Sandys, Mottisfont was owned by the Mill and Barker-Mill family before being bought by Gilbert and Maud Russell, who turned it into a country house for entertaining artists, writers like Ian Fleming, and other eminent people.

But it's not just the layers of history that make Mottisfont so special. It also has a warmth about it and some really lovely little stories:

1. Whistler painted one of the rooms before he went off to war
The Whistler Room at Mottisfont is amazing. Maud Russell was a friend and supporter to many artists and Rex Whistler painted the whole room with striking trompe l'oeil murals, so that the flat walls appear lavishly sculpted. The story goes that he argued with Maud about how the room should be painted - she wanted plain colours - so while she was away he stuck some colours into one of the pictures and added plumes of smoke pouring from a vase, as she hated bonfires. 

What is achingly poignant is that he drew a little paint-pot on one of the ledges, apparently to indicate that he'd be back to continue. But he went off to fight in the Second World War and was killed. You can just see his pot sitting on the ledge below:

Whistler's paint-pot at Mottisfont

2. The National Trust managed to buy a portrait of Gilbert Russell with funds raised from the second-hand book shop
There's also another lovely little story in the Whistler Room. Next to a portrait of Gilbert Russell, a sign explains that the picture turned up in Canada when it was put up for sale by the private collector that owned it. The National Trust heard about this and managed to buy it, using funds from their second-hand book shop. I thought this was fantastic - I see second-hand book shops at National Trust properties all the time and I always assumed they were more of a helpful service to members than a money-making venture. Just shows what I know. 

The Mottisfont scones
But let's move on to the scones. The Mottisfont scones looked absolutely amazing. If you were going to design a plastic scone to adorn dining room tables in B&Q, then it would look like the Mottisfont scones. And they lived up to their looks - they were crunchy on the outside but soft and tasty, with plenty of fruit. Delicious.

Mottisfont National Trust Scones

I've never really warmed to the idea of the country house weekend, so it's just as well that I don't know anyone that owns a country house or would want to invite me to one. But Mottisfont has a wonderful atmosphere - the gardens and surrounding estate are large and inviting, and the thought of sitting in the Whistler Room with a dry Martini waiting for dinner is enough to make me accept should the invitation ever come. A really lovely place.

Mottisfont: 5 out of 5
Scones: 4.5 out of 5

Tuesday 6 May 2014

Eastbury Manor House

I don't think that I could work for the National Trust. They're a bit too honest. I'm not saying I'm dishonest but if I was in charge of bringing more visitors to Eastbury Manor House near Barking I know my thought processes would be: "Tudor gentry house - good. Evocative exposed timbers in attic - nice. Totally unsubstantiated and widely discredited possibility that Eastbury was the home of The Gunpowder Plot - ORDER THE FIREWORKS AND STICK SPARKLERS IN THE SCONES."

The National Trust website doesn't even mention The Gunpowder Plot. It takes you to the Barking & Dagenham website and THEY explain the legend that connects Eastbury to the events of 1605. And it's not THAT far-fetched - records show that Lewis Tresham lived at Eastbury, and he was the cousin of Robert Catesby and brother of Francis Tresham who were involved in the Plot. But it's obviously not enough for the fact-sticklers at the Trust. 

But Eastbury Manor House is a beautiful building, whether it was involved in any plots or not:

Eastbury Manor

It was built by a man called Clement Sysley and was completed in around 1573. We don't know much about Clement but we can assume that he had a few quid; Eastbury had a lot of glass, which was expensive, and it had tall chimneys, which apparently were the equivalent of a three-door garage today (that analogy copyright of the very nice guide). 

The house also had two turrets and although one of them fell down, the other is still there - it's possible that Sysley used the turrets to keep an eye on the activity on his farmland or on boats coming down the Thames. 

Eastbury is all the prettier for being in a completely incongruous location. To get there you have to walk past blocks of flats and 1920s semi-detached houses thinking "OK, this is wrong. I've definitely taken a wrong turn. I could actually be in the wrong county." and then you turn a corner and there it is. 

To give you some idea, if you've got your back to the house, this is what you're looking at:

It's actually amazing that Eastbury has survived at all. It was falling apart in the 1800s until it was rescued by the National Trust and with all of the development around it, it could easily have been pulled down. 

It's also an unusual property, in that it has no furniture. The rooms are used for weddings, by TV and film companies, by school's a functional community building rather than a stately home. In this regard, it reminded me of Sutton House, which isn't far away.

The Eastbury Manor scone
But let's move onto the scones. I have good news and bad news. The good news is that today's scone wins the Scone d'Or for being the prettiest scone seen to date (and I've seen 36 others so I have some authority on this). It was also lovely and fresh and light and I had eaten it within about 2 minutes. The bad news is that I belatedly realised that the National Trust may not run the tearoom at Eastbury. But never mind! Someone is very good at scone presentation and whether it's the NT or Barking & Dagenham council, I congratulate them.

Eastbury Manor scones

Eastbury Manor: 4 out of 5
Scone: 4.5 out of 5
Presentation of scone: 5 out of 5