Sunday 26 October 2014

Sheffield Park and Garden

I sometimes get the urge to ring Leeds Castle and say "What are you doing calling yourself Leeds Castle when you are in Kent? You could cause someone a serious travel mishap." (Note to the people that work at Leeds Castle: I have never actually done this, so if anonymous callers complaining about the above are the bane of your life, it's not me.)

Likewise Sheffield Park and Garden, which is actually in East Sussex and not in Yorkshire. I was hoping it might be a mini enclave of its Northern namesake, with Geoffrey Boycott in a flat cap saying "ow do" as he directed us to a parking space. But it wasn't and he didn't.

Sheffield Park and Gardens National Trust

Sheffield Park is in the Domesday Book - it meant 'sheep clearing', apparently. A lot of illustrious personages were connected with Sheffield Park but it was in 1730 that we know Lord de le Warr began landscaping the gardens. 

John Baker Holroyd, the Earl of Sheffield, bought the estate in 1769. He employed Capability Brown to continue the landscaping, and the work was continued by Humphrey Repton. 

(On a side note, the makers of Doctor Who really should have a look at Capability Brown. The man seemed to have had a hand in every garden in England in the 18th century. Either he was a timelord, he had cloned himself and there were ten of him, or he was part-octopus.)

Henry Holroyd, the 3rd Earl, was mad about cricket and built a cricket pitch at Sheffield Park. He died heavily in debt and the estate was acquired by Arthur Gilstrap Soames. He carried on the landscaping effort, putting in a lot of the plants that are still there today: the rhododendrons, the American oaks, and the Japanese maples. His nephew inherited and sold the estate in lots. The National Trust acquired the gardens in 1954.

(On another side note, the National Trust guidebook really didn't seem to want to talk about the house. It's in private ownership so maybe something dodgy is going on in there - perhaps it's the headquarters of the pro-fracking coalition or the National Old Building Eradication and Removal Society?)

Sheffield Park and Garden with house

The marketing campaign to promote autumn as the best time to visit Sheffield Park and Garden has been a huge success - the place was absolutely packed. And it was well worth the visit - there are plenty of paths for walking and admiring the autumnal views.

I also found what I firmly believe to be Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree. The label said Sequoiadendron giganteum but I know The Faraway Tree when I see it:

The Faraway Tree in Sheffield Park

The Sheffield Park Scone
Anyway, let's move onto the scones. Sheffield Park definitely wins the award for National Trust Property That Doesn't Skimp On The Scones Like Cliveden Does: a cream tea comprised of two hefty fellas that weren't fresh but by Jiminy they looked the part and they were enormous. I managed one and a half before I had to reluctantly admit defeat.

Sheffield Park Scones

I'm going to finish with an apology on behalf of the Scone Sidekick to the wood artist that carved these charming sheep that can be found dotted around the estate. The Sidekick, on seeing them, said "oh look, it's a hippopotamus":

Sheffield Park & Garden: 4 out of 5
Scones: 4 out of 5
Trees resembling Enid Blyton characters: 5 out of 5

Friday 24 October 2014


I'm going to admit something bad: I sometimes visit National Trust properties just because I like their names.

Even worse, I have been known to overlook properties because I DON'T like their names. I know. Feel free to stop reading.

Anyway, I'm ashamed to say that I overlooked Ickworth for quite a while. And then I was looking for somewhere to go in Suffolk, on the basis that my most successful scone missions to date have been at Flatford and Dunwich Heath and therefore Suffolk must be the Mecca of scones, and up popped Ickworth. I started reading about it and within five minutes I was shouting "HOLY MOLY! Start the Sconemobile!"

Ickworth Rotunda

I don't even know where to start with the factoids. OK, as we're being open about my shallowness, let's begin with the dirt:

1. Bess Foster lived there
Elizabeth Hervey Foster Cavendish is probably best known for being part of the scandalous menage-a-trois that she formed with the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire (as played by Keira Knightley in the film The Duchess). Bess was the daughter of the Earl-Bishop who built the house at Ickworth and she lived there with her first husband before allegedly having an affair with a servant and ending up divorced and disgraced and in Bath where she made things even worse after befriending Georgiana. Luckily for her, Georgiana died and Bess married the Duke. There's a portrait of Bess in the Drawing Room:

Bess Foster portrait Ickworth

2. Ickworth has been inhabited by scandalous Herveys for 600 years 
Bess wasn't the only Hervey with a "colourful private life", as the guidebook puts it. The Herveys (pronounced Harvey) took ownership of Ickworth in the mid 15th century, through marriage. They were very influential at court down the years, but they were also total scandal magnets. Mary Wortley Montagu is famously quoted as saying that there were three human species: "Men, Women, and Herveys". 

3. Ickworth House was built by an Earl who was also a bishop
The Earl-Bishop, as he was known, was the younger grandson of the 1st Earl of Bristol. He didn't expect to inherit so he wangled himself a bishopric in Derry. He doesn't sound terribly well suited to ecclesiastical life, to be honest - he preferred careering round Europe collecting works of art to doing sermons. Factoid of the Day: he is the reason that you will often find a Hotel Bristol in so many towns on the Continent, as our good friend was frequently seen in those parts, bouncing along in his carriage looking for art, like some sort of 18th century Charles Saatchi. He became the 4th Earl and built Ickworth as we see it today - he loved round buildings and had already built himself a fine one in Ballyscullion, which he then used as a basis for Ickworth.

Ickworth Rotunda

4. The 7th Marquess didn't like the National Trust and flew his helicopter at them
My taxi driver told me about the man who lived at Ickworth: "He did loads of drugs and threw wild parties and wasted all his millions. A friend of mine once had to pick him up when his helicopter ran out of fuel." I thought to myself: 'I bet they don't tell you THAT in the National Trust guidebook' but I was WRONG because they DO. After the 4th Marquess of Bristol restored Ickworth (thanks to his marriage with a wealthy heiress called Theodora) it all went downhill and the National Trust spares no detail in the guidebook - the 6th Marquess, Victor Hervey, was a playboy in the 1960s who ended up in prison for taking part in an armed robbery. Ickworth was owned by the National Trust by the time Victor moved in, with an agreement that the Herveys could continue to reside there. His son, who became the 7th Marquess in 1985, also did time, for possession of drugs. He loved Ickworth and resented the National Trust's presence, so would hover his helicopter over the upper storey of the Rotunda where the NT custodian lived. He ended up having to sell loads of family stuff to the Trust when his millons ran out and he died when he was just 44. 

So there you have it. And I haven't even mentioned the 3rd Earl, who secretly married an Elizabeth Chudleigh who then went on to enjoy a bigamous marriage with the Duke of Kingston, which caused - guess what - an almighty scandal. Say what you like, you certainly got your money's worth with the Herveys. 

The problem with all of this is that I haven't even mentioned Ickworth itself. It is STUPENDOUS. The house is formed of a Rotunda with two enormous wings curving round either side. It looks more like an art gallery and that's exactly what the Earl-Bishop intended - he wanted it to be a showcase for his art collection, which unfortunately was confiscated by Napoleon before he could get it back to England. 

Ickworth Rotunda

The whole place is extremely impressive, with huge rooms. I can't recommend it highly enough. The East Wing is now The Ickworth Hotel and I will definitely be checking THAT out at some point (pointed look at Scone Sidekick). 

Ickworth Entrance Hall

Ickworth undoubtedly wins the award for nicest house volunteers. I've mentioned before that going to properties on your own can sometimes be a bit of an uncomfortable experience (the Scone Sidekick didn't have the day off like me) but at Ickworth it was the total opposite - I had more time to chat and the guides were absolutely lovely, every one of them. 

The Ickworth scone
And what about the scones? Ickworth has a lovely swanky restaurant, complete with table service. I did have to wait quite a long time to actually get served, but never mind - I am not going to turn into one of those Tripadvisor reviewers that gives a place a TERRIBLE rating "because it was raining". I got served in the end and that's the main thing.

The scone itself was fresher than a daisy with a new chat-up line - the texture was perfect in every way. I'd had a choice of plain or fruit and there was plentiful fruit in mine. It was a great scone, so bravo to the Ickworth scone maker.

Ickworth scone

My trip to Ickworth was the 59th stop on my National Trust Scone Odyssey and it was a watershed moment, because I have now visited every National Trust property that begins with an i. To be fair there are only two of them - Ightham Mote is the other - but it's still an achievement. I'll just have to hope that the Trust doesn't buy Iceland or an igloo before the Scone Odyssey is complete (and you never know with the National Trust). 

Ickworth: 5 out of 5, no question
Scones: 4.5 out of 5
Loveliness of the volunteers in the house: 5 out of 5

Sunday 19 October 2014

Clandon Park

Did you know that there's a Maori meeting house in Guildford? It doesn't seem like the most obvious place to put a Maori meeting house, I have to say, but it's there in the grounds of Clandon Park

Maori meeting house

Maoris were the subject of a TV series that I loved as a child in the 1980s called Children of Fire Mountain. It was slightly misleading, in that it convinced me that all children in New Zealand lived on the edge of an exploding volcano and dressed like mini-Edwardians. Imagine my surprise when I met my first Kiwi and she wasn't covered in soot.

Anyway, the Maori meeting house is called Hinemihi. It originally stood in the shadow of the Mount Tarawera volcano near Rotorua on North Island. It was built in 1881 to act as a traditional meeting place for the Maori community, but also to welcome tourists that were attracted by the thermal spas in the area. In 1886, Tarawera erupted and Hinemihi was one of only two buildings in the town that survived. (Funnily enough, the storyline of COFM involved a tourist spa being built on Maori land before a volcano destroys it all.)

Hinemihi was brought to Clandon in 1892. The 4th Lord Onslow was Governor of New Zealand and wanted to bring a meeting house back home to the UK when his term in office ended. It has remained here ever since, with some new carvings being added in 1995 - the carvings were done by descendants of the original builders, using trees from Tarawera, and were presented to the National Trust for its centenary.

Clandon House itself looks a bit like a doll's house:

Clandon House

It was built during the 1720s by Thomas, 2nd Lord Onslow, with the help of architect Giacomo Leoni, who was a big fan of the Palladian style. 

The Onslows are one of those families that you could write a mini-series about - they had been involved in court business and politics for centuries. Clandon House was built to mark their growing influence and importance, and it acted as a place for entertaining and general showing off. The Onslows still live at Clandon, in a house in the park.

During the First World War, Clandon was used as a military hospital. One of the rooms was used as an operating theatre and it has been restored to give you an idea of what it was like. The thought of the pain caused during the 700+ operations carried out in there made me shudder but it's a good idea.

Clandon Park scones
There's a very nice tea-room with friendly staff at Clandon. The scones were dinky little things, with a choice of plain or fruit. I don't think they were fresh but they were very tasty indeed:

Clandon Park scones

Clandon Park: 4 out of 5
Scones: 4.5 out of 5
Maori meeting house: 5 out of 5

Saturday 18 October 2014

Lacock Abbey

I'm a bit like Shania Twain when it comes to National Trust properties that have appeared on TV or in films - they don't impress me much. However, I'm going to make an exception with Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire.

Lacock Abbey stood in for Hogwarts in many of the Harry Potter films. The cloisters below, for example, were used in numerous scenes, and the Sacristy was Professor Snape's laboratory. 

Lacock is a fantastic place, whether it has Harry Potter connections or not. The abbey was built in the 1200s by Ela, Countess of Salisbury. She sounds quite formidable: she was the only child of the Earl of Salisbury and became a ward of King Richard I when her father died. She married William Longespee and when he died she built Lacock Abbey, where she lived as its first abbess until she died in 1261. Her tomb can be seen in the cloisters.

Lacock survived as an abbey until 1539, when it was closed during the final wave of Henry VIII's Dissolution. It was bought by William Sharington, who turned the abbey into a country house. Lacock was relatively small, so Sharington built on top of it rather than knocking it down. 

Lacock Abbey

And that's what makes Lacock Abbey quite fascinating - it's a house on top of an abbey and you can see the joins all over the place, as in the South Gallery:

Lacock ended up being passed to Sharington's niece, Olive, who had married a John Talbot. The house then remained in the Talbot family until it was passed to the National Trust in 1944.

The most famous Talbot inhabitant of Lacock was the snappily named William Henry Fox Talbot, who changed the world when he invented the photographic negative.

I love the story behind WHFT's invention, even though it makes me feel completely inadequate. Basically, he was on honeymoon on Lake Como and feeling annoyed by his inability to draw or paint the beautiful scenes he was seeing. "There must be a way of committing these images to paper," he thought, and so went home to Lacock and invented a way. I've said it before; if the world had relied on me to invent things, we'd still be sitting in caves in the dark. It would never even occur to me to try and create such a thing.

Anyway, there's a museum that explains WHFT's work and his rivalry with Louis Daguerre. I am still absolutely none the wiser as to how photography actually works, but that's not the museum's fault at all. I could have stayed in there for the next 20 years, with WHFT himself taking me through it, and I would still be clueless.

Lacock also has a Great Hall, which gets another big tick from me, as I do love a Great Hall:

Lacock Abbey Great Hall

There's more. Lacock village itself is also a star of TV and film - Cranford was filmed there, Pride & Prejudice, Moll Flanders, Emma, Tess of the d' name it and Lacock's 18th century houses have been in it. The village is also owned by the National Trust.

But now it's time to move onto the scones. I spent far too much of my time this week on a side project called Scone Forensics. I invented SF to help me work out the age of a scone - I wanted to be a bit more informed on my scone visits, so instead of me saying 'It was a bit dry' I wanted to be able to say 'This scone was 3.48 days old! Give it a bus pass!'.

Using Scone Forensics for the first time (eek), I would say that the Lacock scone was at least a day old and had been kept in an airtight tin. It looked and tasted quite dry, and it had that soft, slightly damp texture that you get from keeping a scone in airtight conditions. I'm not sure why people do it, to be honest. 

I was too scared to go and ask the staff behind the counter if I was right. I once had to take a scone back because it was the wrong flavour and the girl serving seemed so traumatised that I felt guilty for days afterwards.

HOWEVER. Lacock scores very highly for its generous cream portion and for the size of its scone - I reckon you could fit two Cliveden scones into one Lacock scone. It also tasted really nice, despite being a bit dry - it was buttery and very tasty. AND there was a choice of plain or fruit, which is always a treat. 

Lacock Abbey National Trust Scone

On the subject of Cliveden, a correspondent went there recently and tells me that the scones are still very small and don't taste very nice. I'll be honest: this depresses me. I'm not claiming to be some sort of Gordon Ramsey of scones but if someone told me, in a polite and constructive way, that I was selling something that wasn't great value for money, I would change it.

But never mind that: Lacock is fantastic and I highly recommend it.

Lacock: 5 out of 5
Scones: 3.5 out of 5
Sightings of Hedwig the owl: 0 out of 5

Saturday 4 October 2014

Hindhead Commons & the Devil's Punch Bowl

The word 'devil' makes a place sound really interesting, doesn't it? There are loads of towns that could benefit from this idea - Devil's Staines, or Slough of the Devil, to name just two locations of my own regular acquaintance.

Unfortunately the Devil had eaten all the scones today at Hindhead Commons and the Devil's Punch Bowl 

The Devil's Punch Bowl

They had some in the oven, apparently. I could have waited for them but the place was mobbed full of cyclists, a bit like Box Hill, so it would have felt wrong to sit there hogging a table for 20 minutes, waiting. I settled for some Victoria sponge, which was lovely, and got over my disappointment.

The weather wasn't brilliant today either, but we wandered around anyway and learned three very interesting things:

1. How did the Devil's Punch Bowl get its name? 
The Devil lived in Surrey at one point apparently, and he used to jump around the hills to annoy Thor, the god of thunder, who also lived nearby. Instead of getting an ASBO sorted out, Thor used to throw thunder and lightning at the Devil, who one day retaliated by scooping up a load of earth and throwing it at Thor. That scooped out bit became the Devil's Punch Bowl.

The alternative version is that when the mists gather over the depression it looks like a punch bowl. And it's quite big, so only something like a giant or the Devil could have created it. You can pick your favourite version.

2. Mist moves about in columns
I often berate my history teachers on this blog for failing to teach me much history. Today I turn my attention to my geography teachers, but in all honesty it's not them, it's me. I went into my first senior school geography lesson expecting capital cities, all ready with my Addis Ababa, only to discover that geography is actually about weather. Weather! And rock formations! I never really got over the shock and I can honestly say that I learned nothing in four years, which is terrible.

I'm telling you this because I was fascinated today to see the mist moving in wispy but very determined columns across the Punch Bowl. I was expecting a flat blanket sitting on top but instead there were spectral misty towers gliding into the trees, just like ghosts. It was quite something and made me sorry that I had spent all my Geography time writing on my pencil case.

Devils Punch Bowl mist

3. The history of the A3
The biggest surprise of the day, however, was this:

Hindhead Commons A3

It looks like a fairly normal part of Hindhead Commons, right? Well, not exactly. This used to be the A3. Imagine three lanes of traffic crashing along here, before the Hindhead Tunnel was opened in 2011. 

I loved the informative sign explaining the history of the A3 - how it used to be a favourite spot for highwaymen until it was rerouted to the area shown in the photo above in 1822. So it remained for 200 years before being closed off, and now it's being reclaimed by nature (and the National Trust).

I've been very fortunate over the past 14 months - out of 56 properties, I've only had five that failed to deliver any scones; Bath Assembly Rooms, Knole, Nuffield Place, Hughenden and now the Devil's Punch Bowl. A couple more didn't have any but hadn't promised them in the first place. That's not bad going. Onwards and upwards to our next destination.

Devil's Punch Bowl: 3 out of 5 - he ate our scones, the meanie
Hindhead Common: 5 out of 5 - for its A3 history
Scones: 0 out of 5 - there weren't any

UPDATE: I went back to Hindhead Commons and the Devil's Punch Bowl in 2023 to see if they could provide any scones second time around! And they did!