Monday 28 July 2014

Moseley Old Hall

I'm not having a go at my history teachers here, but I reckon with a semi-decent lawyer and a copy of the Trade Descriptions Act, I could probably sue them. 

I just don't remember history being very well structured at my school. We did the Tudors. We did the Romans. I have a vague recollection of the Spinning Jenny. We did 'Medicine Through Time' but I only remember the bit about sailors sticking amputated limb stumps into boiling tar. And then a term spent on Sino-Soviet relations (WHY?). 

So I went to Moseley Old Hall near Wolverhampton today knowing that I'd probably meet a few toddlers with a better grasp of the life and times of Charles II than I had.

Moseley Old Hall is amazing. It's a really unusual National Trust property, in that it was given one chance of fame and it took that chance, a bit like Susan Boyle or Pippa Middleton. Over the course of two days in September 1651 it went from being just someone's house near Cannock to securing centuries of fame for itself as the place that hid a king with a price on his head. 

Moseley Old Hall

The story goes: Charles I was executed in 1649, leaving the hopes of Monarchists on the shoulders of his son, Charles II. In 1651, Charles II marched south from Scotland with an army of 16,000 men to reclaim the throne. However, he was soundly beaten at the Battle of Worcester on 3rd September and was forced to go on the run.

On 8th September he arrived at Moseley Old Hall, bedraggled and tired. On his way to Moseley he had stayed at Boscobel House where he had famously hidden in an oak tree while Roundhead soldiers searched for him nearby (thereby giving hundreds of pubs their name, The Royal Oak). 

Moseley Old Hall had been built in 1600 and was owned by Thomas Whitgreave. Thomas was Catholic and had been hiding a priest, Father Huddlestone. It was in Moseley's priest hole that Charles II spent his first night at the house.

The unfortunate thing about priest holes is that they're not very photogenic. This picture looks like the entrance to someone's not-particularly-interesting cellar. But it is the actual spot where Charles II hid, even though he was 6'2" and a king. Apparently when shown it, he said it was "the best place he was ever in", which makes me really like him:

Priest Hole Moseley

The second night they allowed him to rest on a bed, and that bed is still there today in The King's Room. However, troops arrived at the house to arrest Whitgreave for being involved in the battle, which he was not, and so the King was forced back into his hidey hole. He then left Moseley to continue on to Bristol, disguised as a servant.

It's a story that would defy belief if you made it up, but it happened and Charles eventually made it to the Continent, thanks to men and women like Thomas Whitgreave.

I love the end of the story too: when Charles II lay dying in 1685, he asked for Father Huddlestone, who gave him the last rites. This is Father Huddlestone's chapel at Moseley:

Moseley Chapel

The Moseley Scone
I was so engrossed in the story that I almost forgot to stop for a scone. The scone at Moseley Old House was very good. If I was being finicky, it maybe wasn't quite as fresh as the other scones I've had lately but it was a nice-looking scone and very tasty. I am sure that Charles would have declared it "the best scone he had ever seen" had he been offered it in 1651.

Moseley Old Hall National Trust Scones

The only thing that wasn't absolutely brilliant at Moseley was the shop. I've read two great books this year, neither of which I had heard of until I picked them up in National Trust shops, namely A Circle of Sisters from Bateman's and Wedlock from Gibside. We've already established that I am in dire need of education vis a vis Charles II but there were no books on the subject in the shop, which I was really disappointed about. If you're thinking "look, Little Miss Whinge, there's this thing called Amazon?" you are absolutely correct and I've gone there and purchased this.

I will now finish with one of those stories where the person telling it thinks they've had a really spooky supernatural experience and everyone listening thinks 'you just saw something on a shelf'. 

Basically, I spent 20 minutes at Moseley sitting in the sun and mentally berating my useless teachers, asking what kind of education system teaches a British kid about Chiang Kai-Shek but doesn't teach them about the time the King of England hid in a cupboard in Wolverhampton. 

Towards the end of the tour (which was really good, by the way, just as everything at Moseley was really good), was a room containing a chest with this on top: 

Moseley Old Hall Pomander

To you, this may look like an elderly orange with a ribbon and a load of cloves stuck into it, resting on a bed of pot pourri. But to me it was a voice, a voice from beyond the grave, the voice of Mrs House, my 3rd year junior school teacher, saying "What are you complaining about? Did I not teach you to make a pomander EXACTLY like this in 1983? Does your poor mother not still have it, mouldering away in her home somewhere? You were taught loads of history, you just didn't LISTEN." 

And so, thoroughly admonished by an orange, I went home. 

Moseley Old Hall: 5 out of 5
Scones: 4.5 out of 5
Book purchasing opportunities: 3 out of 5 (I bought a guidebook)

Other visits I have made in the West Midlands: Kinver EdgeWightwick Manor, Dudmaston

Saturday 26 July 2014


I went to primary school in the 1980s when 'arts and crafts' was a term used to describe 30 kids sticking screwed up bits of tissue onto sugar paper using gloopy white glue that you smeared about the place using little white spatulas.

So I was quite surprised when I discovered that Arts and Crafts actually means something quite different to most other people. I'm not going to embarrass myself by telling you when I made that discovery but it wasn't in the 1980s.

Anyway, Standen in West Sussex is a fine example of a house built in the Arts and Crafts style. It was designed by the architect Philip Webb, who also built Red House.  

Standen National Trust

Standen was built in 1892-4 for James Beale, a solicitor, and his wife and seven children. In the guidebook there's a lovely photo of the Beale family. Most photos from Victorian/Edwardian times have people stood about like pokers with big glum faces - the Beales actually look like fun people. Or Mafia people. One or the other:

Beale family Standen

James Beale wanted Standen to be a family home, not a grand country house for entertaining and showing off. But it's an amazing building - it's very homely but it's also quite big. It's also clearly very modern for its time. The Dining Room, for example, has an alcove with dressers in it - it feels practical rather than ostentatious, as you find in so many other properties where rooms used by visitors were designed to impress.

In every room there are fabrics and wallpapers from William Morris, a cohort of Philip Webb and the main driving force behind the Arts and Crafts Movement. Webb was a founder member of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., the business set up by Morris and his friends to provide well-crafted furniture and furnishings to the Victorian middle-class.

Standen drawing room

Webb himself was a fascinating man. He built very few public buildings, preferring to take on commissions for country houses and other properties where he could build a rapport with the owner and create something true to his vision. 

The house was handed over to the National Trust in 1972 by Helen Beale, James's daughter. So what you see is essentially a home built and inhabited by one family.

James Beale's wife, Margaret, was a direct descendant of Oliver Cromwell and there's a picture of him in the hall (on some very pretty Arts and Crafts wallpaper).

Oliver Cromwell Standen

The Standen Scone
As the self-appointed National Trust Scone Blogger, I'm often asked for the definitive National Trust scone recipe. As far as I know, there isn't one. Every scone I've met so far has been completely unique and each one has its own position on my trusty National Trust Sconeometer™. 

At one end of the National Trust Sconeometer  are the scones known technically as the "massive hefty ones", a good example being Quarry Bank Mill

At the other end of the Sconeometer, we find the light and fluffy species of scone. Until today, Claremont Landscape Garden was the world leader in fluffy National Trust scones. 

But today, Claremont was gently wafted off its perch by a scone that we suspect has more in common genetically with a cloud than with other baked foodstuffs. It was unbelievable. It looked more like a soufflé and it had the texture of one too:

Standen National Trust Scones

I usually have some sort of heated debate with the scone sidekick about whether a scone is worth top marks or not, but today it was an undisputed FIVE stars.

So that's now FOUR scones in a row winning the Scone D'Or. It's unheard of and it's frankly unnerving. Surely this glorious run of scones can't continue? Stay tuned, sconers - the final nail-biting visit for July takes place on Monday. 

Standen: 5 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Lack of blobs of tissue stuck on sugar paper cut into the shape of Elizabeth I: 5 out of 5

Sunday 20 July 2014

Charlecote Park

If I had a pound for every time someone recommended Charlecote Park near Stratford-upon-Avon to me, I'd have...why, I'd have £3. But a journalist friend once told me that once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, and three is a story, so off we went.

Charlecote Park

I'd been reading a good book about Charlecote: Mistress of Charlecote, The Memoirs of Mary Elizabeth Lucy. On page one, it tells the story of a local tanner's son caught stealing a deer from the park. Sir Thomas Lucy, owner of Charlecote at the time, was a justice of the peace, so the poacher decided it was time to move on and try his luck in the London theatre, his name being William Shakespeare. 

The Shakespeare connection has been very important to Charlecote over the years, although some miserabilist party-poopers have now cast doubt on it. The National Trust took the property on in 1946 partly because of the link (or so I'm told), and since the 1700s the great and the good have come to Charlecote to see where The Bard started a short-lived criminal career.

But Charlecote has a fascinating history with or without Shakespeare:
  • The Lucy family has lived on the estate since the 1100s
  • The present house was built in the 1550s
  • Much of the house was refitted in the 1800s, in Elizabethan Revival style
  • The current baronet, Sir Edmund Fairfax-Lucy, still lives in the house
  • The father and grandfather of Dame Judi Dench both worked at Charlecote
The Elizabethan Revival style can be seen in the Great Hall, where the supposedly wooden ceiling is actually made of plaster. I've now seen so many Great Halls at National Trust properties that I've decided I want one of my own. I don't know about you, but our hall was the smallest, coldest room in our house - we only ever went in there to open the front door or to collect a semi-frozen coat. Yet in medieval and Tudor times, the Great Hall was the most important room in the house, with people coming and going and servants and dogs running around. If you ever see an episode of Grand Designs with Kevin McCloud saying "what she's planning is quite literally ridiculous - a medieval Great Hall where servants and dogs can run around, even though she hasn't got any servants and she's scared of dogs. I just can't see it working," - you'll know it's me. 

Anyway, back to the book. What makes Mistress of Charlecote so readable is its author, Mary Elizabeth Lucy. She wrote her memoirs specifically for her grandchildren, yet she happily tells them that she was forced to marry their grandad in 1823, even though she cried her eyes out and begged and pleaded with her father not to make her do it. It makes you realise that Jane Austen wasn't inventing it all. 

I also have Jane Austen to thank for my Surprising Moment of Self-Discovery of the Week. We came out of the house and saw a sign for 'Carriages', which made my heart sink, as I have absolutely sub-zero interest in transport history.

But I was shocked to find that I was FASCINATED by the display of carriages. I am almost tempted to give up my job, find a PhD course on How People Got About Before Cars and write books on the subject. For all you other Jane Austen fans, below on the left you can see a barouche, with its four seats, two facing two, as used by those pompous old bats Lady Catherine de Bourgh and the Dowager Viscountess Lady Dalrymple.

On the right is a brougham, which was invented a bit later and is enclosed, making one think mainly of murders on foggy November nights in Whitechapel.

Barouche and Brougham Charlecote

And this is a phaeton or "an owner-driven carriage suitable for a sportsman who enjoyed driving himself with groom sitting behind". So now you know. I'll let you know when my book is published.

Charlecote phaeton

The Charlecote Scone
But let me stick to my true area of expertise: scones. In the history of the National Trust Scone Blog, I've never had top-scoring scones on three consecutive missions. Two weeks ago Claremont Landscape Garden was awarded five out of five for their flufftastic scones. A week later, Bateman's took top honours for their any-fresher-and-they-were-flour scones. Surely, the scone blogger wasn't going to score a hat-trick?

Readers, she did score a hat-trick. The scone at Charlecote Park was scone perfection. There was a choice of plain or fruit, a choice of jam, a sprinkle of icing sugar and the freshest scone since...well, last week. It had that tiny hint of warmth that provides the alibi of freshness, without interfering with your digestion. The Orangery was a lovely restaurant as well - welcoming with friendly staff. Marvellous.

National Trust scones at Charlecote

Charlecote Park: 5 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Surprisingly fascinating carriages: 5 out of 5

Saturday 12 July 2014


Here is a list of things that I knew about Rudyard Kipling before I went to Bateman's:
1. He wrote The Jungle Book, but the actual book and not the cartoon

That's it. Worryingly, I knew this when I was about nine years old - I remember finding a copy of The Jungle Book and being really disappointed that it was full of words and no pictures of bears in grass skirts.

But the National Trust has saved the day, yet again, and raised me out of my shameful ignorance. Bateman's in East Sussex was Kipling's home from 1902 until he died in 1936. He loved it and it's easy to see why:

Bateman's National Trust

Here's what I learned about Kipling today:
  • He was the most famous writer in the English-speaking world in his day
  • His most famous works included The Jungle Book, the Just So Stories, Kim, and poems such as If and Gunga Din
  • He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature
  • He refused a knighthood
  • He lost his first child, Josephine, to pneumonia when she was six, and then his son, John, in the Battle of Loos during the First World War
  • His remaining daughter Elsie married a Captain Bambridge and lived on the Wimpole Estate from 1938 to 1976, when she handed it over to the National Trust (it's a small world)
Bateman's itself was built around 1634. It is presented today just as 'Rud' left it, but it retains a real sense of its Stuart origins, with huge fireplaces and a Hall for welcoming guests.

In fact, every single room at Bateman's is strikingly pretty. The study feels like he only just left it (although it does appear to have a large run-over cat in it):

Rudyard Kipling study Bateman's

And then you leave the house and are faced with the stunning loveliness of the garden and pond, before you look back and marvel at the rear view of the building:

Bateman's rear view

Bateman's is one of those National Trust properties that you know you could live in. I did start to wonder what it would take for the nation to offer me Bateman's. I'd probably have to save the country from an asteroid or a giant tidal wave, or maybe it would be enough to show 11 young men how to win 7 games of football and come home with the World Cup? I mean, how hard can that be?

Anyway, possibly my favourite feature at Bateman's was a radio with a dial that visitors can turn to hear one of Kipling's poems or letters being read by the actor, Ralph Fiennes. It's such a simple idea and yet it made my day - just a few minutes listening to Kipling's work being read aloud in the house that he loved. It was quite mesmerising. 

Radio Ralph Fiennes Batemans

The Batemans scone
I had had a gentle word with myself before I set off for Bateman's. I reminded me that in National Trust Scone Blog history there has very rarely been a 5 out of 5 in consecutive visits, and Claremont Landscape Garden got a 5 last week. I should probably prepare myself for misery on the M25 followed by potential scone disappointment.

But I was WRONG, readers. The Bateman's scones were absolutely fantastic. They certainly looked the part, there was a choice of plain or fruit AND a choice of jam, and they proved to be extremely fresh, soft, tasty and very crumbly. A triumph. 

Batemans National Trust Scones

So it seems that the only thing I didn't learn today is why the place is called Bateman's. If anyone knows the answer, let me know!

Batemans: 5 out of 5
Scones: 5 out of 5
Ralph Fiennes: 5 out of 5

Sunday 6 July 2014

Claremont Landscape Garden

I'm going to be dangerously honest here: I'm not very interested in gardening. I will change my mind eventually, I'm sure. One day I will get into my car and be really excited at the thought of going somewhere to see some peonies - AND I'll know what peonies are.

The problem with my lack of passion for gardens is that I am unwittingly excluding them from my National Trust Scone Odyssey. And then one freezing cold day in December none of the manor houses or castles will be open and I'll head off to a garden only to complain that THERE'S NOTHING THERE! GARDENS ARE BORING! Which would be very unfair indeed. 

So I decided to preempt this injustice and go to Claremont Landscape Garden in the summertime. 

The first thing I learned at Claremont today is that I don't actually know what a landscape garden is. I was expecting rigorously ordered flower beds, with blue ones lined up against yellow ones (I told you I know nothing about gardening). I think I was maybe getting confused with Langley roundabout near Slough, where someone has spelled out HONDA using red flowers (nope, no idea what they are either).

This is Claremont Landscape Garden:

Claremont Landscape Garden National Trust
It's more of a park, and a very good park too, for the following three reasons:
  • It's a good size - if you want to visit every nook and cranny of it, you could do so in one visit
  • It's full of features - there's a thatched cottage, a tower, statues...all sorts of things to see
  • It's a park for all seasons - because it's not reliant on flowers, you could happily visit Claremont all year round
Claremont also has an interesting history. The Duke of Newcastle bought it from Sir John Vanburgh, keeping Sir John on to expand the house and landscape the gardens. He built a thatched cottage a bit like this one for gambling:

Claremont Thatched Cottage

And he built the Belvedere Tower for supper parties and card-playing:

Belvedere Tower

Robert, Lord Clive of India, bought the house from the Duke and knocked it down to build a new one, but he died before he moved in. Between 1816 and 1922, Claremont was a home to British and foreign royalty, including the young Queen Victoria who visited her Uncle Leopold there and had such happy memories of the place that she brought her own children back to the estate.

Today, the house is a school and is not open to visitors - you could send your child there, though, if you're happy to part with £15,000 a year.  

The Claremont scone
The fourth and fifth reasons for why you must visit Claremont are a) the tea room and b) the scones. The tea room is lovely and relaxed - there's enough room for everyone. And the scones were a triumph. I've had a couple of visits lately where the scones have been a bit on the small side (namely Cliveden and Killerton). I know we live in times of austerity (or is that all finished now?) but I was starting to get a bit concerned that the National Trust was rationing flour.

Claremont delivered a bumper crop of scones. A cream tea cost £5.25, so probably one of the most expensive that we've encountered, but it came with the usual delicious National Trust tea and two beautiful-to-behold scones. And my word, were they good scones. They were without doubt the lightest, fluffiest scones yet seen on the National Trust Scone Odyssey:

Claremont Landscape Gardens Scone

So I think that the moral of this story is never judge a National Trust property by its name. Or think you know what a landscape garden is. 

Claremont Landscape Gardens: 5 out of 5
Scones: 5 out of 5 
Thatched cottage built for gambling, now full of toddlers: 3 out of 5