Saturday 28 March 2015

The Vyne Revisited

Here's a question: which National Trust property do you think has the best ever claim to fame? There are plenty of contenders, what with all those appearances in Downton Abbey and Wolf Hall and Bargain Hunt. 

For me it's either Moseley Old Hall in Wolverhampton or The Vyne in Hampshire. Moseley Old Hall was where Charles II hid in a priest hole after the Battle of Worcester. Imagine if there was a revolution today and tomorrow evening Prince William turned up at your back door asking you to hide him from Ken Livingstone, or whoever had abolished the monarchy. And the only safe place involved you lifting up the floorboards, pointing to a tiny, dark little hole and saying "" It's a cracking story - read about it.

But I think The Vyne probably trumps it, because they have a great claim to fame AND a great name. The claim to fame goes like this: in 1785, a gold ring was found in a nearby field. It turned out to be a Roman ring and it was later linked to a tablet found in Gloucestershire cursing the person that had stolen the ring from its owner. 

An archaeologist trying to work out the significance of all of this turned to the Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. That professor later wrote a couple of books about rings that you might have heard of - his name was J.R.R. Tolkien. And the ring that probably inspired Tolkien is still at The Vyne today - I work with a lot of Americans and I sadly use the word awesome way too much but The Vyne ring is truly deserving of the word. For more about the ring, read my previous post.

ANYWAY. We went back to The Vyne today because it had been semi-shut on our first visit in January 2014 and we didn't get to see the inside of the house. 

The Vyne

The Vyne is a Tudor building, constructed in the 16th century by Lord Sandys, who was Lord Chamberlain to Henry VIII. 

The Sandys family eventually came unstuck and the estate was sold to the marvellously named Chaloner Chute, who was Speaker in the House of Commons during the Commonwealth. His great-grandson John Chute inherited The Vyne in 1754 and he carried out some alterations - he moved the front door and he installed a new staircase, which does come as a bit of a surprise after you've walked through Tudor rooms.

The Vyne staircase

My favourite Tudory room was the Oak Gallery, which is one of the few surviving long galleries from the first half of the 16th century. I liked it mainly because it had rush matting on the floor and it always smells alive, like it would have done at the time. Admittedly it does also smell like a stable but I'm sure there were plenty of smells worse than straw wafting about in the 1500s.

The Vyne Oak Gallery

The other really good Tudor room is the chapel. You can't see it in this rubbish picture but the bottom centre window depicts Henry VIII with St Henry. On the left is Catherine of Aragon with St Catherine. On the right is Henry's sister Margaret with St Margaret. You get the idea.

The Vyne chapel

Sir Charles Chute gave the house to the National Trust in 1956. Apparently the family still come back to the house and hold weddings in the chapel.

There was no scone scoring today - I'm taking the quizmaster route when it comes to revisiting National Trust properties and insisting that I take the first scone as their final answer. And that's a shame for The Vyne, as today's scone was wonderful and a big improvement on last year's version.

But that's enough revisiting for now - I've still got 150 odd properties to visit and I need to get a wriggle on. Next weekend I'm aiming for two big visits. In the meantime, let me know of any NT properties with even better claims to fame than my above choices.

Friday 13 March 2015

A la Ronde

I've always been an enormous fan of souvenir tat. Wherever I go in the world, I always find some little memento that reminds me of my trip (a tip for all you tat fans: Washington DC is the best city in the world for souvenirs). 

Sadly, my tat is not appreciated by those closest to me and is now relegated to a cupboard. When I close the door of that cupboard, eight snow globes from various American cities emit a baleful note or two, just to remind me they are there, including the one I bought in Texas that has a big yellow rose inside it but plays the music from the BBC's snooker coverage.

Two cousins called Jane and Mary Parminter may also have suffered from tat-phobic relatives, because in the 1790s they built AN ENTIRE HOUSE to store their souvenirs of The Grand Tour. The house is called A la Ronde near Exmouth in Devon and it is amazing:

It's astonishing, for three main reasons:

1. It's round
The house has 16 sides, allowing the sun to shine into different rooms at different times of the day. Originally, the sun would have risen in the cousins' bedrooms, before the light moved into the drawing room and then the dining room in time for dinner. What a GENIUS idea. When you think of all those people on Grand Designs building big hangar-shaped blocks - ROUND IS THE ANSWER.

2. The interior

At the centre of the house is the Octagon, a room where the cousins could entertain their guests. A number of other rooms lead onto the Octagon - the Study and Music Room were originally the cousins' bedrooms.

It was very hard to take good photos inside but this is the view from the Octagon through to the dining room - it gives you some idea at least. 

3. The decor
A la Ronde is famous for its Shell Gallery at the top of the house. It is closed to visitors but you can see bits of it thanks to screens and mirrors. The Parminters used glass, pottery, and stones to supplement the shells in creating beautiful decorations.

The ownership of the house has had some interesting twists and turns. When Mary died in 1849, she stipulated that the property could only be passed to unmarried female relatives, which was initially followed. Then it somehow ended up with the Reverend Oswald Reichel, whose widow tried to sell it to a developer, but a relative called Margaret Tudor bought it and opened it to the public in 1935. The National Trust acquired it in 1991.

Because it was pretty much kept in the family, the furnishings and trinkets belong to the place. And although not everything is exactly as the Parminters had it, you still get a real sense of how harmonious it must have been to live in a round house full of beautiful pictures and treasures in a beautiful setting. It's a remarkable place.

But let's move on to the scones. A la Ronde was the 70th stop on the National Trust Scone Odyssey. Yes, that's right - I have somehow managed to visit 70 National Trust properties and trough my way through at least one scone in nearly all of them. 

The one thing that every scone trip has in common is The Moment Of Terror. It never goes away. You can walk into a tea room as nonchalantly as you like but that flash of panic that there might not be any scones is always there.   

The Moment Of Terror varies in severity and today's rating was HIGH. It was my 70th mission, I had travelled 160 miles, it was raining, I was soaked, and I got lost. I was expecting A la Ronde to serve octagonal scones but by the time I got there I didn't care if the scones were in the shape of Jeremy Clarkson as long as they had some. 

The A la Ronde scone
But A la Ronde DID have scones. Behold this magnificent specimen:

It was the tastiest scone I have had in a long time. This being Devon, the cream was turbo-charged - it was very thick and less sweet, which I loved, but it did present a challenge to the scone. However, I ate all of it and if I did end up walking around with jam smeared all over my face, nobody said anything.

So that's 70 National Trust scone adventures done - only 150 odd to go. 

A la Ronde: 5 out of 5
Scones: 5 out of 5
Genius round house idea: 5 out of 5

Sunday 8 March 2015

Upton House and Gardens

I keep getting Upton House mixed up with Upton Park. They are not the same thing at all. Upton House is a stately home near Banbury. Upton Park is a football stadium in East London. 
Upton House

I will tell you now that I LOVED Upton House. There are many reasons for this. It has an impressive art collection, complete with fascinating stories about where those artworks came from and where they were hidden during the war (in a quarry in Wales). 

The house itself also has a very interesting history; in 1927 it was bought by Walter Samuel, Lord Bearsted. He had a lot to contend with during his years at Upton - apparently Hitler had two lists of people that were to be rounded up immediately after an invasion of the UK and Lord Bearsted was on both of them, as the chairman of an international business - his father had founded the Shell oil company - and as a prominent member of the Jewish community. 

However, I wouldn't have known any of this if we hadn't joined a tour. I'm a MASSIVE fan of audio tours but I normally avoid being led about by a human - mainly because I don't want to wait an hour and a half for the next one, or go careering around the place trying to catch up with the one "that just left two minutes ago".

After today, however, I will try harder to join a tour if one is available. It was full of fascinating facts and it really helped to bring the place to life.

The art tour basically showed us round the gallery area of the house. There are plenty of impressive works. This one, painted by El Greco in 1579, was one of my favourites. Poor old 'El' had his fee cut apparently, because he painted the heads of the crowd higher than that of Christ, which didn't go down very well in 16th century Spain: 

El Greco at Upton House

Once the art tour was over, we wandered around the rest of the house. It was built in the 17th century and had many owners, before the Bearsteds bought it as a weekend country bolt-hole. 

I think it's the only National Trust property I've seen with a swimming pool in the back garden. It didn't look all that inviting today, in the drizzle:

Upton House swimming pool

The Bearsteds have remained connected to Upton. The daughter of the 3rd Viscount, Felicity Waley-Cohen, is the mother of the jockey Sam Waley-Cohen and they still own a nearby stud farm called Upton Viva. So there is a sporting connection after all.

The Upton House scone
Let's be honest though - there was only really one work of art I was looking for today and that was a show-stopping SCONE. It hasn't been a good year for me and my scone odyssey so far. In 2013 and 2014, I managed a total of 20 top-scoring National Trust scones, giving me an average of 1.18 top class scones per month. This year, the Scone d'Or has been gathering dust and it's the 8th of March already. 

The tea room at Upton House was lovely - it's big and welcoming and without doubt one of the nicest I've seen. It was early, though, and I had serious concerns about that. Going into a tea room at 11.30am and asking for a scone - you might as well say "I know you're more concerned with preparing lunches at the moment, so please just give me one of last Thursday's scones and I'll get out of your way". I know this probably doesn't happen, but I fear it all the same. 

But there was no reason for concern because the Upton scone was A TRIUMPH. It was warm, fresh, and literally melt-in-the-mouth, which is really all I ever ask of a scone. Even the scone sidekick agreed and he's normally saying things like "I'd give it a two".

Upton House National Trust Scone

I did learn one other thing today, and I hope the National Trust forgives me for this. I sometimes think that I've gone a bit native with the NT - I so rarely find anything to complain about, and I've even started feeling more positively inclined to gardens, which was UNHEARD of two years ago. BUT today I came to the firm conclusion that even if I live to be 104, I will never, ever be interested in porcelain. But if porcelain IS your thing, then there's plenty of it at Upton. 

Upton House: 4.5 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5! Get IN!
Artwork tour: 5 out of 5
Porcelain: 0 out of 5 for me, 5 out of 5 if porcelain is your bag