Saturday 31 October 2015


I got an email recently asking me why there are so few scone missions to the South West on this blog. 'Yes,' I asked myself, 'why have there been so few visits to the South West? This is bad. I must put this right.'

Well, now I can tell you why there are so few visits to the South West: BECAUSE IT TAKES FOREVER TO GET THERE. I could have flown to Iran in the time it took me to reach Bodmin today. IRAN. Although a flight to Iran would not have taken me across the River Tamar and through some of the loveliest countryside in the UK. And it is also highly unlikely that I would find any scones in Iran.   

ANYWAY. Any sane person would have booked a holiday to Cornwall and done a tour of several National Trust properties, eating six cream teas a day, and spending peaceful evenings listening to their arteries furring up. 

Me? I went to Cornwall FOR THE DAY. But it had to be done - this blog has been going for over two years now and it's embarrassing to talk about scones without mentioning Cornwall. Plus, this is a blog about National Trust scones - sanity went out of the window a long time ago. 

I chose Lanhydrock because it's possible to walk there from Bodmin Parkway station - it's a lovely walk too, I highly recommend it.


The first thing you need to know about Lanhydrock is that it's deceptively HUGE. This is the floorplan for the ground floor alone - there are two other floors on top of this.

Lanhydrock Floorplan

Here's a quick bit of history:
  • The Lanhydrock estate was originally part of a priory
  • After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it was acquired by Richard Robartes in 1621 
  • He was a rich man - be became High Sheriff of Cornwall and Baron of Truro
  • His son, John, extended Lanhydrock, but the next in line, Charles, preferred to live elsewhere (including the Wimpole Estate) and Lanhydrock started to fall into disrepair
  • His nephew, Henry, didn't look after Lanhydrock either
  • Mary Vere Robartes and her son, George Hunt, began to rescue the place
  • George's niece, Anna-Maria, inherited in 1798 and spent 30 years restoring the house - she encouraged her son, Thomas, to take the Robartes name in 1829
  • The house caught fire in 1881 - some elements survived but a lot was destroyed
  • Lord Robartes instructed that the house be rebuilt; the family returned and the early 20th century became a golden age for Lanhydrock
  • Tommy Agar-Robartes (his father had inherited another viscountcy, hence the Agar) was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1914 
  • In 1953 the house and estate was given to the National Trust
It might be big, but the house was surprisingly homely. It's furnished in the Victorian style, with lots of comfortable furniture and William Morris wallpaper. You can find lots of excellent photos on Pete Duxon's blog but I'll share this picture of the Boudoir, one of my favourite rooms. Let's be upfront about this, though - lovely as the overmantel and silver-plated muffin warmer are, it was probably the pile of scones that caught my eye:

The Lanhydrock scone
Speaking of which - I think most people would agree that Devon and Cornwall are like the Arsenal and Tottenham of the scone world; they each have their own particular way of doing things and it's probably best to keep their supporters apart, especially if they've been drinking. 

I've had two Devon scone missions so far - Killerton and A La Ronde - so it was up to Lanhydrock to west-coast-represent as the first Cornish mission of this National Trust Scone Odyssey. 

Lanhydrock scone

Readers, the scone was sublime. It was fresh and soft and tasty and I had snaffled it down in about two minutes. Lanhydrock also achieved something that none of the other properties have managed; they served the Rodda's cream at the perfect temperature. It was soft and a bit gloopy, not hard like it normally is.

So today might have involved an insanely long trip, but it was one of those perfect days that reminds me why I pursue this crazy project. A lovely autumn day, a perfect scone, a fantastic piece of history, and the chance to see a bit more of the country that I live in. I leave you with this shot of the River Tamar taken through the train window.

Lanhydrock: 5 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Walk from Bodmin Parkway complete with babbling brook: 5 out of 5

Saturday 17 October 2015

Powis Castle

Powis Castle is in Wales. It's only just in Wales but it was built by Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn so I think we can safely say that it's Welsh.

Powis Castle
Make the most of this photograph - there aren't any others, for reasons I'll explain later

When I first saw a picture of Powis Castle, I was convinced that it was one of those mock medieval castles built by a bonkers millionaire in 1898. It looks so new. But it isn't. Here's some history:
  • Powis Castle was built in the mid 1200s by Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn
  • Gruffudd of Gwynedd destroyed the castle in 1274 but our hero Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn returned and rebuilt it, helped by his son and grandson
  • It passed to a woman called Hawise and the Charlton clan in 1309
  • Edward Grey took over in 1530 and began significant rebuilding
  • In 1578 the castle was leased and then sold to Sir Edward Herbert - the Herberts retained Powis until 1952, when George Herbert, 4th Earl of Powis, bequeathed it to the National Trust
  • In 1784, Henrietta Herbert married Edward Clive, son of Robert Clive (or Clive of India as he was known), thus providing financial security for Powis
Powis Castle is fantastic, because it's a medieval castle that is still habitable. Having seen Powis, I now have a much better idea of how Bodiam Castle, built in the 1300s, or Corfe Castle, which is even older, might look if history had worked out differently.

But unfortunately, I can't show you any photos of the astounding rooms. And this is where we get to a very rare burst of complaint from me.

First, a disclaimer. I read Bill Bryson's new book this week, The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island. In it, he is quite critical of the Trust. I found myself defending them in my head with the sophisticated argument that I always use for NT haterz, which involves me holding my hand up and saying "Is the National Trust a good thing or a bad thing?" and when they start spluttering about how it is generally a good thing, I declare "case closed" and move the conversation on, usually to did they see the failed bake on Extra Slice last week, the one that was supposed to be a squirrel, because I DIED laughing at it. 

But maybe I was unknowingly influenced by Mr B, because for the first time today I found myself absolutely infuriated by the National Trust.

1. The Earl of Powis doesn't allow photos - I was taking a photo on my phone when a guide rushed across the room and said "no photographs!" I'm no Annie Leibovitz but I was surprisingly dismayed by this - maybe it was the 6.30am start and the four hours I had just spent on trains getting to Powis - so I asked why not. "The Earl of Powis doesn't allow it". I wanted to ask her why he would put up with the public traipsing around the place, which is surely a far greater inconvenience, but not allow a few unflashed photos, but she seemed a bit flustered and I knew the answer anyway (the £13.40 entrance fee x the 126,000 annual visitors) so I left it. 

2.  The Clive Museum - I had read about the Clive Museum in the guidebook before my trip and I was perturbed by it, to be honest. Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that my school didn't bother with the British Empire - in fact, and this is no word of a lie, the only education I got about the Empire was when I was a 20 year-old teaching assistant in Germany and the 11 year-olds there knew all about it. 

BUT, even with my limited education, I sort of assumed that we didn't really celebrate the whole Raj thing? At one point the guidebook tells how Robert Clive (father of Edward, the 1st Earl of Powis, 3rd creation) served in India where "there was considerable local unrest and Clive was authorised by the British government to defeat local uprisings; this he did successfully, amassing a personal fortune at the same time." Shouldn't there be some sort of coda to this, just reminding us what "successful" actually meant to the local population?

I later spoke to my wise Sconecounsel, Pete Duxon, who gently reminded me that many NT houses have either been built or extended or furnished on the proceeds of the East India Company, or slavery. And he's absolutely right - Robert Clive owned Claremont for a while, and Osterley Park was built thanks to the Child family's involvement in the EIC, to name but two.

But I still felt better after I read this article by historian William Dalrymple about the Clive Museum, which explains that there are more Mughal artefacts on display at Powis than at the National Museum in Delhi.

3. Tipu Sultan's tent - as you can probably gather, I didn't like the Clive Museum and its lack of balanced information, but while I was there I saw one of the laziest, most arrogant things I have ever seen at the Trust. I wandered into a little annex to find some glass panels facing what looked like a building site, with a woman's dress plonked in it. I looked closer and realised that this is where they usually keep Tipu Sultan's state tent. Tipu had been the ruler of Mysore until our friend Robert Clive helped defeat him at the Battle of Seringapatam in 1799 and "many of his possessions were acquired as the spoils of war" as the guidebook puts it. Interestingly, this event is known as the Siege of Seringapatam everywhere else.

Anyway, the tent has been taken to the V&A. Nothing wrong with that. But if you go to Powis to see it, all you will find is a building site and a really insulting piece of A4 stuck to the window showing pictures of it being removed. What use is that? Why not have a large picture of it so people can still see it, having paid their £13.40? 

I was a bit dejected by all of this, because Powis was the 100th stop on this National Trust Scone Odyssey and I badly wanted to have an informative and enjoyable day, like so many of the other 99 days that I've had. 

The Powis Castle scone
But the very good news was that they had scones and the tea room was lovely. My scone looked and tasted a little bit dry but I was delighted to see it: 

Powis Castle scone

I'll finish with the highlight of my day; the walk from Welshpool station to the castle. The National Trust really should treat itself to a new website - if you look on the Directions page to Powis it says "Welshpool, 1¼ miles on footpath" which could mean anything really. I love this National Trust Scone Odyssey more than is probably healthy, but I would prefer not to get murdered doing it. There was one trip where I 100% thought I was going to get mugged on my way back to the station. But then there was Lyme Park and there was Flatford, where the walks from the station were absolutely fantastic and I wouldn't have missed them for all the cars in the world. 

Anyway, my point is that the Trust should share this information a bit more. If the walk from the station is difficult - there's no path to Baddesley Clinton for example - then just tell us. If the walk is a little challenging but utterly worth it - Lyme Park - tell us that too. Or let us tell each other. 

Welshpool is a lovely little town. One of my life rules is never to look in estate agent windows when I venture outside London and today I accidentally broke that rule. I've decided to move to Welshpool next week. I'm not going to tell the Scone Sidekick - I'll just stick a piece of A4 on the fridge showing pictures of me packing my stuff. 

Lastly I want to thank Pete Duxon for his insights today, especially about the National Trust and photography. He tells me that the NT used to be paranoid about people taking photographs but they relaxed their rules in 2010 so that most places now allow photography without flash - he explains it here. It made me feel a little less annoyed (but not much). 

Powis Castle (without the photography rule and the unbalanced information in the Clive Museum): 5 out of 5
Scones: 4 out of 5
Welshpool and the walk to the castle: 5 out of 5

Other properties we've been to in Wales: Aberdulais Tin WorksBodnant GardenChirk CastleDyffryn GardensErddigPenrhyn CastlePlas NewyddTredegar House

Sunday 11 October 2015

Rainham Hall

I think it was just after my 10th scone expedition that I idly came across a page on the National Trust website that said "the Trust now looks after 566 properties". 

I immediately had to go and lie down. 566 PROPERTIES. How in the name of cream of tartar was I going to visit another 556 places and eat 556+ scones? 

I calmed myself when I realised that around 50% of National Trust places are scone-free zones. I personally think that everything in life can be improved with a scone, but it's probably unwise to start installing ovens and extractor fans at an unspoiled natural beauty spot that you are supposed to be preserving.  

Anyway, I totted it all up and came to the conclusion that I had around 220 National Trust tearooms to visit. A tough target, I thought, but achievable with a bit of commitment and an obliging Scone Sidekick. 

Unfortunately for me, the National Trust doesn't stand still. Every once in a while I will see an NT person on Twitter saying "woo, check out the mugs for our new tearoom!!" and I know that my list has just been extended, AGAIN, and I will NEVER, EVER be finished with this National Trust Scone Odyssey. 

Rainham Hall is a case in point. It reopened this week after a £2m restoration project, which included the creation of a new coffee shop. I doubt that the whole £2m went on the coffee shop, but I decided to go along anyway.

Rainham Hall

Here's a bit of history:
  • Rainham Hall was built in 1729 by a man called John Harle
  • The Harles hailed from South Shields, where they shipped coal to London
  • He moved to London sometime after 1704 and got married in 1719
  • The Harles expanded and were soon shipping goods all over the place
  • John died in 1742, leaving the house to his second wife, Sarah, and then their son
  • The house was then passed to a series of other owners before the National Trust took it on in 1949
  • The Trust leased it to a series of tenants until 2010 
  • In 2013, a major restoration project began to turn the place into a "hive of commercial and community activity"
The highlight for me today was the story of John Harle's will. A few weeks ago, I shared my surprise with you when I discovered that the NT had used eBay to find genuine cannonballs from the Battle of Quebec for Quebec House.

So you can imagine my shock today when I found out that John Harle's will was basically discovered AT A CAR BOOT SALE. There's a brilliant video of a woman explaining how she loves rootling through old documents at car boot sales, and she happened to visit one up in Newark in 2012 on her way home to Essex after a holiday. There was a man selling a few bits from Rainham in Kent, so she asked if he had anything relating to Rainham in Essex. He said he did, at home, and after a follow-up phone call she got her hands on the original will of John Harle, which she donated to the Trust. 

The Rainham scones
On to the scones: it seemed a little bit unfair to visit an NT property only five days after it opened, but I did it anyway. The scone didn't look or taste home-made but it was fine, and the new tea-room is lovely.

Rainham Hall scone

Rainham Hall: 4 out of 5
Scone: 3 out of 5
Use of car boot sales for finding lost artefacts: 5 out of 5

Saturday 3 October 2015

Little Moreton Hall

I love the National Trust more than is probably advisable, but they do have a tendency to remind you on a regular basis that you are a bit of a thicko. I mean that in an affectionate way. They're like a clever uncle that always knows more than you, even when you've tried really hard to swot up on something in advance of his visit. 

Take Little Moreton Hall near Stoke-on-Trent. I have been a National Trust member for over two years now. I have been to 98 (NINETY-EIGHT) properties. I have a GCSE in History (I got a B). And yet the Little Moreton Hall guidebook contains at least two terms that I have NEVER, EVER heard or seen in my life before; 'chamfered pilaster' anyone? 'Bloomery'? 

What made it worse was that they also used the word 'minstrel' at one point and helpfully put '(musician)' after it. I cannot be the only person who knows what a minstrel is but wouldn't know a chamfered pilaster if it hit her in the face? Anyway. Don't play Scrabble with anyone who writes National Trust guidebooks is my advice.  

Let's move on, because I am doing Little Moreton Hall a massive disservice by not focusing on the charming wonkiness of their beautiful Tudor house, chamfered pilasters and all. 

Little Moreton Hall

Here's a bit of background: 
  • The house was built and owned by one family throughout its history
  • William Moreton I built the Great Hall in 1504-1508
  • His son William Moreton II continued the work, as did his son John
  • The Civil War was the undoing of the Moreton clan - William Moreton III was arrested for supporting the Monarchy and the family fell on hard times
  • For 200 years the house was owned by Moretons but rented out to farmers and other tenants
  • Nobody was really taking care of the building and it became neglected
  • The Dale family were tenants from 1880 until 1955, by which time they were caretakers for the National Trust, who had taken ownership in 1938 
The hall itself is built around a lovely courtyard, leading to the various rooms. The Long Gallery was my favourite room. It sits on top of the house and it caused all sorts of structural problems - these already needed fixing in 1658, and serious remedial work was also carried out in the 1890s. More work was done in 1979 and again in 1990. It's frankly a miracle that the house is still standing.   

Great Hall Little Moreton

The Little Moreton scone
I said that the Long Gallery was my favourite room but of course that's not quite true. The tea room at Little Moreton Hall is situated in the old Tudor kitchens - I do love a tea room located in the historic building itself, although I do also love the big modern stand-alone tea rooms that you find at other properties, so the National Trust really can't lose where I am concerned.

Anyway, the tea room was very cosy on a nippy October day and they had a good supply of scones. I split mine as usual and bit into the bottom half, which seemed a bit dry. Then I ate the top half and it was lovely. So go figure - I'm starting to wonder if I will ever truly understand scones. 

Little Moreton Hall Scones

I hate to finish by going on about the blooming guidebook AGAIN but I need to tell you that today I went all thoroughly modern scone blogger by buying the guide online before I set off on my trip. 

I basically wanted to see if pre-reading about the place improved my visit. And I can report that in some ways it didn't help - I actually felt a bit stupid swiping through pages on my iPad trying to work out which room I was in. 

But it really did make a difference in other ways. This stained glass window, for example, has a barrel (known as a tun) and a wolf with its mouth open (a mouth being known as a maw), thus making it a depiction of 'More-ton':

Little Moreton Hall Wolf Window

I would never have noticed this in a thousand years if I hadn't read the book beforehand. None of the other visitors seemed to have noticed it either, which made me feel like the cleverest person in the place. So there we have it; the National Trust might make you feel like a thicko compared to them, but read the guidebook and they make you feel very intelligent compared to everyone else.

I still don't know what a chamfered pilaster is though. 

Little Moreton Hall: 5 out of 5
Scones: 4 out of 5
Likelihood of me ever knowing every word in a National Trust guidebook: 0 out of 5

Biddulph Grange Garden

If I had to pick a job from history that I would have hated, 'coroner for plague victims' would be quite high, as would anything to do with sewage. 

But I would also put 'Victorian plant hunter' on that list. Weeks of being thrown about on a rickety boat to some godforsaken place; potentially being eaten by something (or someone) while you thrashed about in the undergrowth searching for specimens; lovingly drawing your findings; carefully storing them for the voyage home; losing the lot when your ship got stuck in Godwin Sands half a mile off Dover; turning up weighing 5 stone at your patron's house clutching a single dead plant that they take one look at and say "the Duchess of Porkington's man found that two months ago" before slamming the door in your face? I'd have taken my chances up a chimney, frankly.

Luckily the Victorians were a bit braver than me. Biddulph Grange Garden near Stoke-on-Trent was the creation of one James Bateman, a horticulturalist and landowner. Starting in 1842, James and his wife Maria spent twenty years creating a 'world garden' from scratch, planting specimens from the four corners of the globe. 

Biddulph Grange Garden

The Bateman family eventually had to sell up, but the National Trust acquired Biddulph in 1988 and have restored it to its former glory. You need a good 2-3 hours to walk around it and see exactly what a Victorian world garden would have looked like. Some of my highlights: 

Most pictures of Biddulph Grange Garden focus on the 'China' area, and for good reason. It's stunningly pretty, laid out to resemble a real-life willow pattern scene. There's also a gilded water buffalo (see picture above) and a giant frog sitting on a wall.

Biddulph China

The plants in the China area were brought back by the plant hunter Robert Fortune. They include one of the oldest golden larches in the UK, along with Japanese maples and cedars. 

An Italian garden in Victorian times involved formally arranged flower beds and a stepped terrace, as seen here:

I'm not a massive fan of topiary, but I thought the Egypt area at Biddulph was very effective, with its pyramid and stone sphinxes. Unfortunately you'll have to imagine the pyramid clipped out of yews as I clipped it out of this photograph for some reason.

Biddulph Egypt

The Dahlia Walk
I unexpectedly discovered a massive respect for dahlias today. It's October but there they were, blooming bravely away even as the temperatures dropped. Yay dahlias.

Biddulph Dahlias

The singing tree
I was aware of someone singing at Biddulph almost as soon as I set off around the path. I eventually found the source of that singing: it was a tree. I read later on the website that it's a sound installation as part of a 'Dangerous Discoveries' art project. I completely missed this project, which made me a bit sad. On the other hand, I've spent several hours thinking that I'd seen a singing tree, so it's not all bad.

The Biddulph scones
I'm not sure scones were a feature of the traditional Victorian world garden, more's the pity. However, Biddulph was the 97th stop on the National Trust scone odyssey AND my first scone mission in four weeks, so I desperately wanted it to be a good one. 

And I was in luck. The Biddulph scone was FANTASTIC. I would actually go so far as to rank it in the top three National Trust scones of all time - it was fresh, it was crisp on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside. I loved it.

Biddulph Garden Scone

I also visited nearby Little Moreton Hall today. For some reason, I decided to buy the LMH guidebook in advance and read it before I went - this caused me all sorts of problems with my self-esteem, as you can read in that post - but it made a big difference to my visit. If I had read the Biddulph guidebook in advance, my trip would have been a lot better. I missed seeing 'The Ape of Thoth' for example - I'm not sure what that is, but it sounds brilliant. So guidebooks in advance in future.

Biddulph Grange Garden: 5 out of 5
Scones: 5 out of 5
Singing tree reminiscent of The Singing Bush from The Three Amigos: 5 out of 5