Sunday 31 May 2015

West Green House Garden

If you're ever bored out of your mind and want to entertain yourself, you could do worse than read the TripAdvisor reviews of National Trust properties.

You'll notice that most places have something like 373 Excellent reviews, 307 Very Good reviews and then 3 Terrible reviews. And you find yourself worrying about the 3 people that wrote those Terrible reviews, because they did so knowing that 99.6% of the population completely disagreed with them.

Anyway, I think West Green House Garden has one of my favourite TripAdvisor reviews of all time: a man complaining that the walls between the toilet cubicles were too thin. I felt compelled to investigate this atrocity, so off we went.

My expectations of West Green House Garden were low, and not just because of the toilets. It wasn't the ideal weather for visiting a garden. I've mentioned previously that gardening is not really my thing - I actually avoid National Trust gardens for fear that one day they'll make me think "you know, I could do this in our garden" and so would begin twenty years of failure and misery.

I'd also been to Speke Hall the day before and had one of the greatest National Trust scones of all time, so poor old West Green House Garden had little-to-no chance of measuring up.

West Green House Garden

But I was WRONG. West Green House Garden is FANTASTIC. If I could choose any garden in the world as my own, I'd choose West Green House Garden any day. 

I better start with a bit of history: West Green House Garden doesn't feel like a National Trust property because, in many ways, it isn't. It has been leased by the Trust to Marylyn Abbott, an acclaimed garden designer who was previously marketing and tourism manager for the Sydney Opera House, and she runs the place.

The actual house was built in the 18th century by General Henry Hawley, a not-very-nice man who led the cavalry at the Battle of Culloden. It was left to the National Trust in 1971 and Lord McAlpine took on the lease, restoring the gardens and adding follies and features. 

The house was damaged by an IRA bomb in 1990 and it was almost pulled down by the Trust. However, they decided to lease it to someone that could restore it once again and Marylyn took it on.

It's also famous for its opera season - every summer, there are performances of operas by the lake. It must be quite an experience. 

To summarise my favourite five things about West Green House Garden:

1. Its size
It's a perfectly sized garden. It takes about 10 minutes to power-walk around it, or a lot longer if you were admiring flowers that you knew the names of. If you have to look after it, then it's probably about 9.5 acres too big.

2. Its variety
There's a bit of garden for every mood. If something had got on your nerves - say the toilet cubicle walls weren't to your exacting standards - and you wanted to sit and listen to a calming water feature, you can do it. If you wanted to admire a perfectly kept parterre, you can do it. If you wanted to watch potatoes growing, you can do that too. 

West Green House Garden vegetables

3. Its water features
There aren't any of those standard fountains with big fish and Neptune looking angry - the water features are very contemporary and are almost part of the ground, which makes them seem much more powerful. I absolutely loved them:

West Green House Garden water feature

4. Its bridges
There are five little bridges that wind through the garden, making it feel like you're on an expedition. The man on reception told us to look out for the irises but it wasn't until we actually found them that I understood what he was talking about. They were stunning:

West Green House Garden irises

5. Its neatness
I felt very safe at WGHG, because there's no way in a hundred million years that I could even attempt to achieve something like it. What's even more amazing is that there are only FOUR gardeners maintaining the whole area. It's incredible.

West Green House Garden

I also loved the tearoom at West Green House Garden. It has a relaxed, modern atmosphere - probably helped by the opera music playing in the background. The scones were the dinkiest little things I've ever seen, but you got two and a cup of tea for £3.75, so I wasn't complaining. They weren't fresh but they were very nice indeed.

West Green House scone

Of course, you've all been reading this thinking "never mind the scones and the gardens, Scone Blogger, exactly how thin were the toilet cubicle walls?" I sent the Scone Sidekick in to investigate, almost hoping he would return with tales of old compost bags or a bead curtain. He wasn't very forthcoming; "They were toilet cubicles." I don't think we can expect a Toilets of the National Trust blog any time soon. 

West Green House Garden: 5 out of 5
Scones: 4 out of 5
Irises: 5 out of 5

Saturday 30 May 2015

Speke Hall

A lot of National Trust properties have a nice little stream or a pond somewhere on their estates. Some even have a lake. 

Speke Hall has the River Mersey. And not just a little dribbly bit of the Mersey either - the actual whole thing. I had read about it before I went, but I still did a double take when I saw it - as you walk through the visitor entrance, before you turn off to the house, there it is; that big, famous river, with the industrial trappings of Ellesmere Port on the other side. I was awestruck. 

River Mersey at Speke Hall

Speke Hall is a rare Tudor timber-framed house that was mostly built in the 1500s, although bits of it date back further. It was really only ever owned by two families; the Norris family and the Watt family.

Speke Hall

Here's a quick summary of its life and times:

  • The Norrises were involved with Speke from 1390 to 1795
  • William Norris III built the Great Hall and Great Parlour in the 1530s - I do love a great hall and the one at Speke is fab:

Great Hall, Speke Hall
  • Edward Norris inherited in 1568 – he was reported for harbouring a Catholic priest and it is believed that the priest hole dates from then; you can just see the ladder behind the panelling in the Green Bedroom:
Priest Hole Speke Hall
  • In 1736, Mary Norris married Sidney Beauclerk, son of Nell Gwyn and Charles II - he was known as “worthless Sidney”, which isn’t very nice
  • His son, Topham, didn’t spend much time at Speke and died aged 40
  • His son, Charles, came of age in 1795 and decided to sell the estate 
  • It was bought by Richard Watt, a man that had profited greatly from slave labour in his plantations
  • Speke Hall was in a sorry state – according to his nephew, Richard Watt III, the Beauclerks had let the house to farmers and other people that had “very much destroyed” it
  • In 1856, Richard Watt V took control of Speke Hall and began renovations
  • He died aged 30 and his young daughter, Adelaide, inherited
  • While she was a child, the place was leased to a Frederick Leyland, who carried out a lot of work in the house until the lease expired in 1877
  • Adelaide Watt ran the estate and house until she died in 1921
Adelaide Watt sounds like a very smart cookie. She had no children and she wanted a descendant of the Norris family to take on the house after her death. However, an airfield had opened next to the Hall at the start of the 20th century - it is now Liverpool John Lennon Airport - and she had foreseen other developments that might put off future residents. So she made the proviso that if the Norrises didn't want to move in, then Speke Hall would be given to the National Trust. And that's exactly what happened.

It's a beautiful house, really full of history. Houses built around a courtyard always feel a bit special. There are two yew trees in the courtyard at Speke - they're called Adam and Eve and no-one knows exactly how old they are, but we're talking hundreds of years:

Yew trees at Speke Hall

The Speke Hall scones
ANYWAY. I was a bit worried about my trip to Speke today, because they have one of my most favourite things in the whole wide world: the person in charge of baking their scones is on Twitter. And before you get bored and switch off because you don't like Twitter, let me say this; when I'm having a tough day, there is nothing that cheers me up more than a tweet from a National Trust baker saying "just a normal morning's work for me!" with a picture of 800 scones piled up next to some carrot cake.  

But what if I got there and the scones weren't very nice? Or they'd sold out? The FBI will not be smashing the National Trust Scone Blogger's door down in the early hours - this is a corruption-free zone and we never lie.

I needn't have worried; the Speke Hall scone was unequivocally, indisputably up there in the top five National Trust scones of all time. It was the perfect size, it was perfectly fresh, it was perfectly was everything you could ever ask for. Whenever I find myself eating the crumbs of a scone I know it's a out-and-out winner. 

Speke Hall scone

The restaurant at Speke is lovely - big and modern with a great choice of food. I rarely have eyes for anything other than the scones but I was very tempted by the Wet Nelly. 

I'm going to end with a shout-out to all the NT bakers across the land, and especially the ones on Twitter - along with Hayley from Speke are Sian at Quarry Bank Mill and Rob at Dunwich Heath. As long as they've got the oven on, we're all going to be alright. 

Speke Hall: 5 out of 5
Scones: 5 out of 5
The Mersey: 5 out of 5

Monday 25 May 2015

Emmetts Garden

I get very, very nervous around National Trust gardens. I'm worried that one day I will let my guard down and they will brainwash me into thinking that I am capable of creating a wondrous outdoor space. I am absolutely not capable of creating a wondrous outdoor space. I am not capable of this AT ALL. 

But I needn't have worried about Emmetts Garden in Kent. It has something for everyone. It has space to play games if you're that way inclined, it has woodland walks, it has areas like the Rose Garden where it is very clear what type of plants you are looking at so you don't feel like a dunderhead for not recognising anything. And the Rock Garden is very nice:

Emmetts Garden Rock Garden

There's also a pinetum. The National Trust has given me many things in the two years since I joined it, but the word 'pinetum' must be in the top three. Unfortunately, it's very hard to take pictures of a pinetum - my photos mainly show a spindly Christmas tree so I'll just leave that to your imagination.

Emmetts started life as a farmstead. The house was built in 1860 and in 1890 it was bought by Frederick Lubbock and his wife, Catherine. 

Frederick transformed the gardens at Emmetts, following the design principles of Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson. Frederick's style of informal planting can still be seen today. 

Emmetts Garden

From 1928, Emmetts was owned by Charles Watson Boise and his wife. He bequeathed it to the National Trust in 1964.

I bought a guidebook at Emmetts today wondering how they were going to fill 32 pages without a house to talk about. But it turned out to be guidebook gold, containing really interesting background information on Victorian plant-hunting and some startling facts:
  • Amets or Emmetts derives from the Old English word for ants and may have referred to the "abundance" of ant colonies in the area! Probably just as well I didn't know this before we set off.
  • A Room with a View was filmed at Emmetts Garden! Not the bits in Florence, obviously.
  • Frederick Lubbock's brother, John, invented the Bank Holiday! Good man! And what an apt occasion for me to be visiting.
  • John loved insects and once took a tame wasp to the Pyrenees by train.
I told you: National Trust guidebook gold.

The Emmetts Garden scone
Anyway, let's move on to other golden matters. If there were such a thing as Scone Vogue and if I were editor of it, then I would be heralding the 2015 Spring-Summer scone trend as 'well-fired'. Today's scones at Emmetts Garden had definitely enjoyed a longer-than-average stay in the oven, as had the scones at Studland Beach last week. This, in my book, constitutes a trend.

And I have to say; it's a risky scone strategy. A fresh scone usually tastes nice whether it's well-baked or not. But a well-baked scone that's 2+ days old is usually a horror story involving a dental bill. 

But for the second week running, my concerns were misplaced. The Emmetts scones were really, really tasty, just like the Studland scone. I came close to awarding a 5 out of 5 but they were just a touch on the dry side, so it's a 4.5. But very enjoyable.

Emmetts Garden Scones

So a successful mission all round - delicious scones and I didn't come home with a car-boot full of azaleas. 

Emmetts Garden: 4 out of 5
Scones: 4.5 out of 5
Bonus points for reminding me of the most excellent word 'pinetum': 5 out of 5

Monday 18 May 2015

Studland Beach

Studland Beach has the best EVER description in the National Trust handbook. 

It starts off innocuously enough: "Glorious slice of Purbeck Coastline...gently shelving bathing waters and views of Old Harry Rocks" before throwing in "includes the most popular naturist beach in Britain" and ending with "Studland was the inspiration for Toytown in Enid Blyton's Noddy". 

How in the name of cream of tartar have I managed to visit 75 other National Trust properties before I got round to Studland? 

It turns out that Studland Beach is also a very beautiful place: 

Studland Beach

The beach stretches for four glorious miles, with views of the Isle of Wight and Old Harry Rocks, which you can just about see here behind this very rare sighting of the Scone Sidekick:

Studland Beach

But I will admit: finding out that the National Trust owns a 1km stretch of beach where you can walk around completely starkers is one of the more surprising discoveries of my life, right up there with Warren Beatty being Shirley Maclaine's brother, or Bruce Springsteen having written the song Pink Cadillac. 

The Studland scone
You may be disappointed to hear that I didn't see any naturists. I didn't see Noddy either. But I DID see some scones. 

I will be brutally honest here; my heart sank when I saw this specimen. It looked a bit well-fired for my liking. But faint heart never won fair scone, so I bravely tried it...and it was absolutely delicious. It was fresh, with a lovely soft middle and a slightly crunchy exterior. A 5 out of 5 if ever I saw one. 

Studland Beach scone

We stayed in Studland at the very lovely Pig on the Beach hotel - we later discovered that this had previously been Studland Manor where the Bankes family, the owners of Kingston Lacy (another successful purveyor of scones), had spent their summers. A very fitting end to our Dorset tour.

Studland Beach: 5 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Amazingness of the National Trust owning a naturist beach: 5 out of 5 

Sunday 17 May 2015

Max Gate

If I had to list the most depressing moments of my life, the time I spent reading Jude the Obscure would be right up there, along with most mornings after general elections and the League One play-off final of 2002. 

And the horror has stayed with me: I haven't read it in over 20 years and yet when a colleague recently told me her new baby's name was Jude, all I could think of was the little boy killing his siblings and then hanging himself "because we are too menny". At least you got a few happy endings with Charles Dickens.

Anyway. Hardy wrote Jude the Obscure at Max Gate, the house in Dorchester that he built in 1885. It's lovely - it certainly didn't inspire me to any thoughts of infanticide.

Max Gate

Hardy was already a successful author when he built Max Gate, having published Far From The Madding Crowd and other notable works. He had been an architect before his writing career took off, and he designed Max Gate and had it built by the family firm.

Max Gate has a very comfortable feel to it. He lived here with his first wife, Emma, until she died. In 1914 he married his second wife, Florence, who was 39 years his junior. He also had a lot of illustrious visitors over the years, including WB Yeats, Rudyard Kipling and the Prince of Wales.

I loved the study at Max Gate. This was his third study, apparently, as the first one was turned into a bedroom and the second one was too small and uncomfortable, but this one was just right:

There are no scones at Max Gate, but I knew that in advance. Anyway, I had already troughed my way through scones at nearby Kingston Lacy and Hardy's Cottage and even I would baulk at three cream teas in one afternoon.

If you are heading to Max Gate, make sure you visit Hardy's Cottage, located around 3 miles away - it's where Hardy was born and grew up and I highly recommend you visit that as well.

Max Gate: 4 out of 5
Scones: 0 out of 5 - there weren't any but we knew that
Misery of house compared to subject matter of artistic output: 0 out of 5

Hardys Cottage

If an acquaintance of mine were to say to me "We went to a National Trust place on Sunday. It was the birthplace of an author who has a blockbuster Hollywood film showing in zillions of cinemas around the world at the moment. It was horrendously busy - we didn't enjoy it much at all", do know what I would do? I would laugh my head off and say in my best Mr T voice: "I pity you, FOOL. Number one rule of visiting the National Trust; never, ever go anywhere on a Sunday afternoon just after it has been on the telly."

And for that reason I was very worried about my trip to Hardy's Cottage in Dorset. Thomas Hardy was not only born in this cottage, he actually wrote Far From The Madding Crowd there. I haven't seen the new film version of FFTMC but it has had rave reviews and so I figured we would be queuing for miles and having a big row until the Scone Sidekick lost his temper and drove off in a squeal of tyres without us having seen so much as a chimney pot.

But, not for the first time, I was completely wrong. It was lovely and quiet - we were the only ones on the little path to the cottage, which leads through a wood until suddenly there it is:

Hardys Cottage

Thomas Hardy was born here in 1840. The cottage had been built in 1800 by his great-grandfather, who had set up a family business as a mason. Thomas suffered poor health as a child and so his mother encouraged his education, allowing him to become apprenticed to an architect. He went on to publish 14 novels and a thousand poems.

They are very much embracing their cinematic fame by proudly displaying some of the costumes worn by Carey Mulligan in the film:

And it really is an idyllic little place. It's easy to overlook how cold and dark it would have been back then when Thomas was growing up here.

Anyway. I should not have had a scone at Hardy's Cottage, for the following reasons:
1. The cafeteria isn't run by the National Trust
2. I had just had a scone at Kingston Lacy an hour before
3. There was only one scone left and it looked extremely sorry for itself:

Hardys Cottage scone

But I did have it and the staff were very kind and insisted on heating it up for me, as it had been frozen, plus I think she charged me a reduced price. 

However, you don't go to Hardy's Cottage for the scones - even I will admit that. It's a lovely little place that makes a fascinating stop on the Hardy Country tour (Max Gate and Clouds Hill being the two other places of note). Highly recommended.

Hardy's Cottage: 5 out of 5
Scone: 3 out of 5

Kingston Lacy

You're probably getting a bit bored of me saying "I read a GREAT book about <insert National Trust property name here> and I just HAD to go there!". 

And that's a bit unfortunate, because I read a GREAT book about Kingston Lacy and I just HAD to go there. 

A Kingston Lacy Childhood is a collection of reminiscences from Viola Bankes, whose family owned the place from 1632 until 1981. It's a short book that tells of an Upstairs Downstairs world, just as Upstairs was becoming increasingly unable to sustain itself.

But in fact, the book didn't prepare me for Kingston Lacy at all. The house is incredible. But before I get onto the amazingness of the rooms, here's a bit of history:   

Kingston Lacy

  • The Bankes family began their connection with the place when John Bankes, Chief Justice to Charles I, bought the old royal estates of Kingston Lacy and Corfe Castle 
  • Corfe Castle was the family home until it was blown up during the Civil War, despite the valiant efforts of Dame Mary Bankes to defend it
  • Ralph Bankes, John's son, decided to focus on building a new house at Kingston Lacy rather than rebuild the castle
  • The original Kingston Hall was two-storey and built in red brick
  • Kingston Hall was remodelled by Henry Bankes the Younger in 1784 and then by William John Bankes from 1834, who worked with Charles Barry to transform it into a four-storey Italianate palazzo called Kingston Lacy
  • William John Bankes was caught in an "intimate situation" with a solider in a London park in 1841 and was exiled abroad
  • He continued to work on Kingston Lacy from exile, however, commissioning furniture and directing the building works
  • When Ralph Bankes gave the estate to the National Trust in 1981 it was the largest bequest in the Trust's history
The two most striking things about the house are the elaborate rooms and the artworks. I am no art expert but even I was blown away by the both the number of pictures and the atmosphere that they lend to the house. In the Drawing Room for example are 50 miniature portraits painted by Henry Bone - I've never seen anything like them. They're on enamel and they look strangely 3D. There's also a Spanish picture room that is unlike any other room I've ever seen at the National Trust.

The Kingston Lacy scone
I might not be an art expert but I AM a scone expert. I had been experiencing a severe scone drought in the run-up to my Kingston Lacy visit - a full SIX WEEKS had passed since my previous scone encounter at Stourhead (I hasten to add that this was due to me not being able to go anywhere because of flu and other hassles).

Thankfully Kingston Lacy delivered - there was a choice of large (two scones) or small cream tea (one scone). I plumped for the latter and it was very nice - fresh and tasty:

Kingston Lacy National Trust Scone

As we left Kingston Lacy I thought back to the taxi driver that had dropped us off at Stourhead a few weeks ago. He was enthusiastically extolling the virtues of Stourhead and what a great place it was, before adding that he'd once been to a place called Kingston Lacy and it was rubbish. I am normally quite sanguine about these things and reason that everyone has different opinions, but in this case he was barking mad. It's an amazing place and I recommend it.

Kingston Lacy: 5 out of 5
Scones: 4.5 out of 5
Stourhead taxi driver's taste in National Trust properties: 0 out of 5

Clouds Hill

If there was an award for National Trust Property That Doesn't Look Very Interesting But Turns Out To Be Brilliant then Clouds Hill would win it.

And I'm sorry if that offends anyone but it's true. When I looked up Clouds Hill on the National Trust website, this is the first thing I saw:

Remember, this is the National Trust. Clouds Hill could have been a castle. It could have been a manor house. It could have been a hill. In fact it's a little hovel with no windows.

But I've watched enough episodes of A Touch of Frost to know that you have to look beneath the surface of these things. WHY, I asked myself, would the National Trust own a little windowless cottage? 

The answer is Lawrence of Arabia. The great TE Lawrence used this little place as his rural retreat from 1923 until his untimely death in 1935:

Clouds Hill

And in fact, until today, that is all I knew about TE Lawrence - that he was killed in a motorbike accident. Here are some other facts about him and Clouds Hill:

  • He was born in 1888 at Tremadoc in Wales
  • After university in 1915, he was posted to the British Military Intelligence office in Cairo
  • He became an expert on Arabia and in 1922 he wrote the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an account of his experiences 
  • He agreed to write a shorter version of this text while he was enlisted in the Tank Corps, which was stationed near Bovington in Dorset
  • He rented a little ramshackle woodsman's cottage nearby called Clouds Hill, where he could write and listen to music
  • He received many illustrious visitors there, including EM Forster and Thomas Hardy
  • He returned to the RAF in 1925 and was posted to India
  • It was during this time that he bought Clouds Hill, loaning it out to friends
  • In 1929 he returned and began remodelling the house - it was completed in 1934 and remains the same today
  • He was killed half a mile up the road in 1935 when he swerved his motorbike to avoid some cyclists on the way back from the post office

The rooms at Clouds Hill are fascinating. It somehow manages to be austere and yet cosy at the same time. My favourite feature was the enormous gramophone - Lawrence was a music buff apparently and had the latest hi-fi equipment. You can just about see it on the right in this very poor photo:

Clouds Hill Gramophone

There were no scones at Clouds Hill - there was no anything at Clouds Hill - but it didn't matter at all. It's a fascinating little place that gives an insight to a very interesting man and I highly recommend it.

Clouds Hill: 5 out of 5
Scones: 0 out of 5 (there aren't any, but I knew that)