Saturday 28 February 2015

Wightwick Manor

I'm thinking of writing a book called How To Persuade Your Other Half To Visit National Trust Properties. There is an art to it and I believe I have perfected it. Take the conversation I had with the Scone Sidekick about Wightwick Manor

Me: I really want to go to Wightwick Manor

Him: Where is it? 
Me: Wolverhampton
Him: <looks aghast> That's MILES away. What's there? 
Me: It's a house built and furnished in the Arts & Crafts style. It has William Morris wallpaper, Pre-Raphaelite art and De Morgan pottery scattered throughout.
Him: <continues to watch The One Show> 
Me: It's the one on the front of the Houses of the National Trust book <holds book up>
Him: Oh alright then

The moral of the story is that EVERY National Trust property has SOMETHING going for it. And Wightwick Manor is very, very photogenic. 

In fact, the book doesn't do Wightwick Manor justice - it is much bigger and much more impressive in real life. Behold my first ever attempt at a panoramic shot on my iPhone:

Wightwick Manor

In 1887, a Wolverhampton paint manufacturer called Theodore Mander bought the Wightwick estate. There had been a manor house at Wightwick for centuries but he decided to build a new house in the 'Old English' style - he had attended a lecture by Oscar Wilde on 'The House Beautiful' and set out to design a home that prioritised the principles of hand craftmanship, both inside and out. In 1893, Mander extended the house to accommodate his growing family. 

Theodore died young - he was only 47. He had married a woman called Flora St Clair Paint (I kid you not) and they had four children. The eldest was Geoffrey and when Flora also died aged 47, he inherited Wightwick.

In 1937, Geoffrey Mander took the extraordinary step of handing Wightwick Manor AND ALL ITS CONTENTS to the National Trust. Initially, it sounds as if the Trust wasn't too keen - the house was less than 50 years old and Victorian architecture and art had fallen out of fashion.

But luckily they did they take it on. Theodore and Flora had created a home filled with features and furnishings from some of the leading lights of the Arts & Crafts movement - William Morris fabrics and wallpaper and De Morgan tiles - and Geoffrey and his wives continued to add to the collection. Today you can find the original Morris furnishings complimented by Rossetti and Burne-Jones artworks. It's amazing. 

In fact, I would go as far as to say that Wightwick has the single most beautiful room in all of the National Trust. It's the Great Parlour and it was designed to look like a Great Hall but with beautiful furnishings. There's even a Minstrels Gallery at the back, but it's actually a useful landing rather than an ornamental feature. This picture doesn't do it justice at all - you need to go and see it.

The Wightwick Scone
But onto the scones. I was very relieved to see a pile of scones at Wightwick, I can tell you - I've had two hits and two misses so far this year and it has shaken my confidence somewhat. 

It was another 'sconus tardisus' this week - like last week's scone at the Wimpole Estate, this week we had another nice-looking scone that turned out to be enormous. It was full of currants and very tasty. 

Wightwick Manor scone

I've just realised that I don't really have the time to write a book about How To Persuade Your Other Half To Visit National Trust Properties, as I've still got around 150 properties to complete as part of my scone odyssey. Maybe I'll run it as a summer school instead. We'll all meet somewhere lovely for a week in August and eat scones and drink tea. Who's in?

Wightwick Manor: 5 out of 5
Scone: 4.5 out of 5
Great Parlour: 5 out of 5

Other visits I have made in the West Midlands: DudmastonMoseley Old Hall, Kinver Edge 

Saturday 21 February 2015

Wimpole Estate

I had a disastrous visit to the Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire last year. It wasn't the scones that were at fault, or the cute little piglets, or even the massive, massive sows that were almost the size of my car and quite possibly the scariest thing I have ever seen (and I'm not even joking).

It was disastrous because we got there too late and there was too much to do. We strolled round the farm, then noticed the time and crammed scones into our mouths before practically running to the house. My scone companion sister said the now legendary words "the house can't be that big, we'll be fine" just as we turned the corner to see this: 

Wimpole Hall

I think you will agree that it is actually quite a big house. By 4pm it was also actually quite a shut house. And although I love and adore scones to a point that is veering on the unhealthy, even I will admit that a blog post saying "I ate some scones" would be a bit dull. 

And so today we went back to Wimpole. I was going to make everyone get up at 5am to make sure we got there in time but I thought this might be too extreme, even for me.

So, having now seen it all, here are my top 5 features of Wimpole:

1. The farm!
If you made a list of National Trust properties most suited to children, Wimpole would be in the top five I reckon, thanks to the very wonderful farm. There's a piggery, some cows, some Shetland ponies, and even a Shire horse to keep everyone entertained and slightly on edge:

Two friendly-ish pigs
Some cows - after years of watching Adam on Countryfile I should know the breed,
but I don't. I have failed you, Adam.

Wimpole sows
Two scarily huge sows trying to batter each other through a metal fence

2. Wimpole Hall!
Wimpole Hall is a very large and interesting house, with a chapel, a very impressive library, and an indoor pool built in 1792. I was fascinated by the pool - I've never seen one like it before, but apparently they were quite common at the time, although they were usually located away from the house.  

The Wimpole Hall we see today has had many owners. Sir Thomas Chicheley began work on it in 1640, but was forced to sell in 1686 to Sir John Cutler. It passed by marriage to the Earls of Radnor, who sold it in 1710 to the Duke of Newcastle. It then passed by marriage again to the Harleys, before one of them fell on hard times and sold it to the Earl of Hardwicke in 1740. The 5th Earl of Hardwicke had to sell Wimpole to cover his debts (bit of a pattern emerging here). It was bought by the 2nd Lord Robartes in 1894 who actually lived at another property now owned by the Trust; Lanhydrock in Cornwall. 

Wimpole was left to slowly deteriorate, until it was let to a Captain George Bambridge and his wife, Elsie, in 1936. She had money - she was the only surviving child of Rudyard Kipling, which links her to another NT property, Bateman's, and so they bought Wimpole. George died in 1943, leaving Elsie to spend 30 years doing it up on her own - it tells you everything that the War Office didn't requisition Wimpole, as it had no electricity or running water.

Elsie sounds like a character. Apparently she hated people coming near the house - there's a story in the guidebook about how she once saw a couple having a picnic in the grounds, so she made a note of their number plate and then went round and had lunch in their garden the following week. It's probably not true, but the fact that it might be says a lot about her. 

3. Gina the Wimpole cat
I do love a National Trust cat. Gina lives in the Wimpole shop where she has her own shelf. I'm not sure what type of merchandise has been ousted to make way for her, nor do I know how she actually gets onto her shelf (the sign says that she is 14) but she seemed happy enough, if a bit camera-shy. Maybe the spirit of Elsie Bambridge lives on in Gina.

Gina the cat at Wimpole

4. The Wimpole scone
The restaurant at Wimpole is one of those really well organised efforts - and it has to be, because it's very popular. I had my usual moment of panic when I couldn't see any scones, but Wimpole didn't let me down; the sultana scone was lovely. It definitely belongs in the species of Sconus Tardisus - it didn't look that big but it certainly didn't leave me hungry.

Wimpole National Trust Scone

5. Scone of the Month
My love for any National Trust property that does a Scone of the Month knows no bounds. I think it's such a great idea. Wimpole's Scone of the Month for February was a white chocolate and cherry affair and it was absolutely delicious - it was cleverly put together so that you could really taste the chocolate and the cherry but it wasn't in any way sickly. I loved it.

White Chocolate and Cherry Scone Wimpole

So let's recap. Big house - check. A piggery - check. Tasty scone - check. Scone of the Month - check. Cat doing its own thing - check. You really can't fault Wimpole - if you haven't been, go immediately.

Wimpole: 5 out of 5
Scone: 4.5 out of 5
Gina the cat on a shelf: 5 out of 5

Sunday 15 February 2015

Ashridge Estate

I was drawn to the Ashridge Estate because they sell ice-cream for dogs. I don't have a dog but the fact that someone has dreamt up ice-cream for dogs and the National Trust has decided to sell it is very reassuring in this turbulent world.

Anyway, I doubt that many dogs were queuing up for ice-cream today as it's February. I didn't care - for the first time in my career as a National Trust member I had remembered to bring my wellies. This meant that for the first time in my career as a National Trust member I wasn't THAT woman - the one clinging to a tree and shrieking "it's all muddy Pete!" while wearing wholly inappropriate shoes. Yes, you've probably seen me. 

Anyway. Here's a picture of Ashridge - it's the only one I took, unfortunately:

Ashridge Estate National Trust

And here are some facts about Ashridge for you:
  • There have been settlements at Ashridge since prehistoric times
  • A monastery was founded at Ashridge around 1283, although it was dissolved in 1539
  • Elizabeth I spent quite a bit of time at Ashridge as a girl - she was arrested there in 1552 on the orders of her sister, Queen Mary
  • The estate fell into the hands of the Egertons in 1604
  • Francis Egerton (the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater) was known as the "Canal Duke" as he built the first true canal in England
  • The Bridgewater Monument was built to celebrate his achievements - it's still there and you can go up it (but not until April)
  • Ashridge House was built in the early 1800s in the Gothic style - it's now a business school and not owned by the National Trust
  • The Brownlows took over ownership in the 1850s until the 1920s
  • Ashridge is massive - the woods stretch over 2,965 acres

Ashridge has also been used as a location for many films - Maleficent and Into The Woods to name just two.

The Ashridge scone
Talking of films: have you ever seen the film Teen Wolf? It's about a boy (Michael J Fox) who turns into a wolf - that's all you need to know. Anyway, there's a scene in the film, unless I have made this up, where he turns up at school as a wolf and the camera shows you the faces of the other students, all spilling their hot dogs and dropping their jaws in slow motion disbelief as he passes.

Well, today that EXACT thing happened to me at Ashridge as I carried this scone to my seat. A woman did actually say the words "Oh my God" as I passed:

Ashridge Estate scone

And you can see why: it's ginormous and it looks more like a burger. 

There is a good reason why the scones are so unusual: the tearoom at Ashridge is outside. It's large - there's plenty of seating and some of it is under cover - but the food is ordered at a window. I've mentioned before that a cream tea really isn't the easiest food to do as a takeaway, so I take my hat off to Ashridge for finding a way to do it. Amazing work.

I also found out afterwards that the food at Ashridge is actually an "NT approved concession", which I think means that someone else is making the scones. But whoever it is: jolly well done to you. If I ever get stuck on a desert island, I'd want you with me.

Ashridge for people: 4 out of 5
Ashridge if you're a dog: 8,000,000 out of 5
Scone: 3.5 out of 5

Saturday 7 February 2015

Birling Gap and the Seven Sisters

Is there anything more British than white cliffs? Apart from red postboxes, the Queen, and people saying "fine, thanks" when you ask how they are, even though they're stuck down a manhole with a man-eating shark? 

It is also nicely contrarily British to go to the seaside in February I think, which is how I found myself at Birling Gap and the Seven Sisters near Eastbourne today. 

And what an amazing place it is. There's a tea room and a shop on the cliff top and then a stairway down to the beach, so you can walk along and marvel at the beauty of it all from every angle.

Birling Gap

There was no guide book in the shop, which I was really disappointed about. However, there were signs explaining that Birling Gap was a haven for smugglers back in the 1700s. Coastguard cottages were built in 1817 to stop the smuggling and to help any stricken ships that got into difficulties. I did buy a book called Shipwrecks in Sussex, which lists many stories about thousands of pineapples and oranges being washed ashore and appropriated by the locals. 

It's on days like today that I really wish I was a geologist. If I made a list of jobs that I am most ill-equipped to do, geologist would be number two, just behind electrician (I am scared of electricity) and above bus driver (I can drive a Ford Fiesta, but only just). Geologists never stop being geologists - you occasionally overhear them when you're on holiday in Lanzarote or shopping in the Arndale centre, telling their companions about the type of stone they can see and what it all means. I wish I could do that, although it's possibly very irritating.

You don't need to be a geologist, however, to appreciate the effect of sunshine on chalk. It is mesmerising and definitely one of the highlights of Birling Gap. Everytime you glance at the cliffs, the light is having a different effect. I took this photo just as we were leaving - if you compare it to the photos above, you will hopefully see what I mean:

Birling Gap cottages

The eagle-eyed among you will have noted the buildings in the foreground of the above shot. These are the coastguard cottages and I understand that there used to be more of them. If you look at the photo of the same cottages below, you'll understand where the others have gone:

It's really very sobering to realise that what is here today might not be here in a few years' time, thanks to coastal erosion. And the tea room at Birling Gap is also perilously close to the cliff edge. It's lovely - you can drink your tea and watch the light moving along the cliffs - but presumably it won't be there forever. Or even for another five years. I don't know. I need a geologist to help me out with that particular prediction.

The Birling Gap scone
And it will be a shame if the tea room does disappear into the waves below, because it's one of the nicest National Trust tea rooms in Britain. There were people coming in and greeting the staff by name, there were dogs leaping out of car boots and making an excited beeline for the cafe (they're allowed in to a section of it) was a very happy, spacious place, with lots of comfortable furniture and smiling people.

More importantly, BIRLING GAP TEA ROOM HAD SCONES. Regular viewers will know that I've been experiencing a bit of a scone famine in 2015 so far - despite visits to Aberdulais and Leith Hill, I had yet to find a National Trust scone THIS YEAR. I will admit that it's been very worrying and I did consider that I may have to make myself redundant, or become the National Trust Sponge Cake Blog. 

But Birling Gap came through for me - two lovely sized scones that were a little on the dry side, but after 55 days without a scone I didn't care and I ate every crumb.

Birling Gap National Trust Scones

So I highly recommend that you go to Birling Gap as soon as you can - it has scones, stunning views, and a lovely friendly tea room that might not be around forever.

Birling Gap and the Seven Sisters: 5 out of 5
Scones: 4 out of 5
Sun-inspired cliff-face light-show: 5 out of 5