Sunday 27 March 2016

Smallhythe Place

I definitely recognised the name Ellen Terry before my trip to Smallhythe Place today. I just couldn't think who she was. I'm fairly sure I had a PE teacher called Ellen Terry, but although having to teach me PE should definitely have resulted in some kind of bravery award, I'm not sure it is of major significance to the National Trust.

Anyway, it turns out that Ellen Terry was a very famous Victorian actress. If her name had been Dottie Carmichael or Mabel Sweetroses, I would have got it right away.

Smallhythe Place

Here are my five favourite things about Smallhythe Place:

1. The history of Ellen Terry:

  • She was born in Coventry in 1847
  • Her parents were 'circuit players' - actors that moved from town to town
  • Ellen started acting in 1856, playing Mamillius in The Winter's Tale
  • At 16, she and her older sister Kate were appearing in London theatres - Kate was eventually the grandmother of Sir John Gielgud, factoid fans
  • The artist GF Watts painted Ellen and Kate, and Ellen married him when he was 46 and she was 17
  • They separated within a year - he said he couldn't live with her
  • She went back to her parents and to acting
  • She then took up with Edward Godwin, the architect, with whom she had two children, Edith and Edward
  • Times got hard and Ellen returned to the stage again
  • She parted from Godwin and married Charles Wardell, an actor
  • In the same year (1878), she began a very successful acting partnership with Henry Irving at the Lyceum theatre, where they alternated between Shakespeare and popular melodrama
  • After 20 years, the Lyceum also hit hard times and Ellen leased the Imperial Theatre but it wasn't successful
  • She secretly married an American actor called James Carew (Charles had died)
  • She started lecturing on Shakespearean heroines when she finished acting
  • She had a stroke and died in 1928

There's a lovely story in the guidebook of how Ellen came to own Smallhythe. She first saw it in the late 1890s when she was driving around Rye and Tenterden in Kent with Henry Irving. She asked the old shepherd living in the house to tell her when he was ready to sell. In 1899 a postcard duly arrived with the three words 'House for Sale' on it and that was it - Ellen bought the place.

2. The house at Smallhythe:
  • It was built in the first half of the 16th century
  • It was the Port House to the shipyard - the river Rother used to be navigable as far as Smallhythe before the water receded
  • Ellen spent as much time as she could at Smallhythe between 1899 and 1928
  • Her daughter Edith (or Edy) lived at the Priest's House, one of the cottages next to Smallhythe Place
  • Edy lived in a menage a trois with two other women - Vita Sackville West from nearby Sissinghurst used to call them "the old trouts"
  • When Ellen died, Edy set about making Smallhythe a shrine to her mother - she created the Costume Room and filled other rooms with theatrical relics
  • The National Trust took over in 1939
3. The pictures and theatrical memorabilia

There are hundreds of pictures and photographs of Ellen Terry around the house - she'd have given Kim Kardashian a run for her money. 

I definitely recognised this picture of her - it's in the National Portrait Gallery and was painted by her first husband:

And I also recognised this one, painted by John Singer Sargeant - it's Ellen playing Lady Macbeth. This one is in the Tate Gallery:

4. The Costume Room
The costume in the picture above can be seen at Smallhythe Place. It's astounding. It's made of crochet and is covered in actual beetle wings from the green jewel beetle. It was recently restored and it looks amazing. Someone on Twitter asked me if she was putting up a light fitting and someone else asked me if I was at the National Smoke Alarm Museum, neither of which I can now get out of my head:

Lady Macbeth dress Smallhythe

5. The theatre
There is an actual working theatre at Smallhythe - you can go and watch everything from Much Ado About Nothing to The Wizard Of Oz this summer - and many famous actors have acted there. I tried to resist saying "more cheese, Gromit?" when I saw the name Peter Sallis, but I failed. Anyway, it's a great little place. You can also hire it for events - I may well persuade Harvey Weinstein to hold the world premiere of National Trust Scones: The Movie here when the time inevitably comes.

The Smallhythe scone
But onto the scone. I've got to be honest: the Smallhythe scone looked and tasted shop-bought to me. The Scone Sidekick strongly disagreed with me here, and I have to admit; NOBODY in their right mind would charge £5.50 for a cream tea with a shop-bought scone, so it must have been home-made. It definitely wasn't fresh though.

However, it was quite tasty - it looked dry but it was actually quite chewy - and that's really all that matters.

Smallhythe scone

It's one of my favourite things about the National Trust: you go along not knowing anything at all about a person and you come away fascinated by them (see also: Cherryburn).

Smallhythe: 4.5 out of 5
Scones: 3.5 out of 5
The tablecloths in the tearoom: 5 out of 5

Friday 18 March 2016

Allan Bank and Grasmere

I have a tricky relationship with TripAdvisor. It sometimes makes me laugh - I recently read a comment from someone asking if there would be any fog at an NT property.

It also routinely makes me despair. I absolutely loved Beatrix Potter's former home at Hill Top in the Lake District and yet someone had spent valuable minutes of their life rating it Terrible and offering to bulldoze it. I am not of the same species as that person. 

However - and I NEVER thought I would say this - if you want to learn about Allan Bank in Grasmere, you should definitely read the TripAdvisor reviews

Allan Bank

They really give a very accurate representation of the house and how it works. Bizarrely, the Allan Bank page on the NT website doesn't tell you much about the place at all, considering its history.

But I did a bit of extra reading and here's what I managed to find out:

  • The house was built by John Gregory Crump in 1805
  • William Wordworth lived across the valley at Dove Cottage at the time and he was outraged by Allan Bank - it spoiled his view and he called it "a temple of abomination" 
  • However, in 1808 he moved in to his temple of abomination with his wife, children, sister Dorothy, sisters-in-law, plus their many regular guests, which included the Coleridge family
  • The house wasn't easy to live in - the fires were very smoky and everyone was cold and covered in soot 
  • In 1811 they moved down the hill to the Parsonage, but that was damp - it all ended sadly when two little Wordsworths died while they were living there
But the history of Allan Bank didn't end there. It later became the home of Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, the man who founded the National Trust, when he retired in 1917. 

He left it to the Trust and it was tenanted for many years. In 2011, it was gutted by fire - once it was restored, the Trust took the opportunity to open it to the public.

But what makes the house at Allan Bank very unusual is that it isn't 'finished'. It's undecorated and full of bits of furniture that you can sit on. 

And that's what the TripAdvisor reviewers seem to love - the informality of the whole place, where you can pour yourself a cup of tea in the kitchen and take it into another room to sit and marvel at the views.

In fact, it's probably just as well that I live 300 miles away from Allan Bank, because if I lived nearby I'd be in there every single day - a book and a flask of tea and I'd be happy as Larry plonked in one of these armchairs:

Allan Bank room

There's a kitchen cafe where you can make yourself a cup of tea and buy a piece of cake. There were no scones but I didn't mind about that - how can you complain when you're drinking your tea with this view:

Allan Bank tea room view

In fact, it's the views that make Allan Bank really special. I was very lucky with the weather:

Allan Bank view

Grasmere was described by Wordsworth as "the loveliest spot that man hath ever found" and I'd go along with that. An absolute must see. 

Allan Bank and Grasmere: 5 out of 5
Scones: there weren't any but there was cake and views

Other National Trust properties we've visited in the Lake District: Acorn BankFell FootHill TopSizergh CastleSticklebarnWordsworth HouseWray Castle

Thursday 17 March 2016

Acorn Bank

If I ever get invited on Desert Island Discs, I know exactly what my luxury item will be: a National Trust mill enthusiast.

The people that restore and run water mills for the National Trust are not like you and me. I have been to four National Trust mills now and the story is often the same: the mills have been there for 800 years and there's nothing much left, except some barely standing timber and a mill-stone covered in lichen. 

Yet the National Trust mill enthusiasts get stuck in and soon have the whole thing up and running and rattling away to produce actual flour that is actually consumable. That's why I want one on my island: give them a pebble and a coconut and we'd soon have a Boeing 747 to get us home. 

And before anyone points out that the luxury item on DID has to be inanimate and must not facilitate escape - I know. I don't think I really need to worry about it.

Acorn Bank

ANYWAY. Today I went to Acorn Bank near Penrith, which has a watermill. Here are my five highlights:

1. The house tour
I very rarely join tours at NT properties, but thank God I did at Acorn Bank. There was no guide book and if I had wandered around on my own, I'd have come away slightly baffled by it all. There's very little furniture and a lot of doors are locked.

But the tour guide was excellent - she gave us a bit of history:
  • The estate was once owned by the Knights Templar, who used it as a safe haven for pilgrims and other travellers in the 13th century
  • In 1543, it was acquired by the Dalston family and it remained with their descendants until the 1930s  
  • The house we see today was largely built in the 16th and 17th centuries
  • In 1934, the estate was acquired by Dorothy Una Ratcliffe and her husband Noel McGrigor Phillips
  • She gave it to the National Trust in 1950 - they supported her efforts to stop a munitions dump near the estate and she promised the house to them
  • Dorothy sounds like a real character - when James Lees Milne went to negotiate the terms of her leaving the house to the Trust, he left his notes behind. She read them and all the uncomplimentary things he had said about her (in his diary, he described her husband as "a grubby, red-visaged, hirsute old teddy bear"). She took offence and although she left them the house as planned, she took everything out of it - hence the lack of furniture.  

2. The watermill
There wasn't much to see at the mill, to be very honest - I'm not sure if they open more of it up at weekends - but there was a brilliant exhibition explaining its history. I learned more about the Acorn Bank mill in five minutes than I've learned from hours at other properties. There's also a really lovely mill blog.

3. The fairy houses
Today I finally understood the point of putting fairy houses in trees; when I saw this little green door and jetty, complete with miniature boat, I realised that children walking round Acorn Bank must go absolutely nuts with excitement. I was quite excited and I'm 42.

Fairy door at Acorn Bank

4. The newts
The woman on reception told me excitedly that there were some newts in the pond. I tried to look interested, but I am no wildlife expert and I wouldn't have recognised a newt if it fell on me. But I wandered around for a look and I was amazed - there were loads of them. They also have very weird feet. I can't share any pictures - there were a lot of gardeners around and I knew that me + pond + attempting to take photos of small things would end up with me being fished out by people trying not to laugh.

5. The Acorn Bank scones
Acorn Bank was the fourth stop on the Scone Blogger's Spring Tour 2016 (t-shirts and other merchandise available). Wordsworth House had delivered a barnstormer of a scone on Tuesday. Sizergh Castle had followed up with an outstanding specimen on Wednesday. Hill Top doesn't do scones, but it was fabulous anyway. Could Acorn Bank score the hat-trick? 

There wasn't a scone to be seen when I got to the Acorn Bank tea room and my heart sank. But the very nice man confirmed that they had some - in fact he offered a choice of plain or fruit, which is very rare.

I then went and sat in the sunny courtyard, where they brought out the freshest scone I've had in ages - it had definitely seen an oven within the past hour - and it was AMAZING. I ate every crumb.

Acorn Bank scone

So hurrah for the Lake District - three properties so far and three 5-star scones.

Acorn Bank: 4 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Sunbathing newts: 5 out of 5

Other National Trust properties we've visited in the Lake District: Allan BankFell FootHill TopSizergh CastleSticklebarnWordsworth HouseWray Castle

Wednesday 16 March 2016

Hill Top

I loved reading when I was little. But for some reason my local library only had one Beatrix Potter book and that was The Tale of Ginger and Pickles. It's about a cat and a dog who run a shop but keep giving credit to their customers, so they go out of business. I'm sure it was a big favourite in George Osborne's house, but even at the age of five I knew capitalist propaganda when I saw it and I didn't like it. 

Maybe this is why I've never really had any major affection for Beatrix Potter. And when I discovered that her former home at Hill Top has no tea room or scones, I very nearly gave it a miss.

Hill Top

But thank God I didn't give it a miss, because it's now one of my favourite National Trust properties and I urge you all to go.

It's a relatively small and very understated place - it's a farmhouse, basically - but the minute I walked into it, I completely understood why she loved it so much. It has a really warm and cosy feel to it and it contains a whole treasure trove of objects that meant a lot to her.

Here's the background:
  • Beatrix Potter was born in London in 1866 
  • She was 16 when her family started holidaying in the Lake District
  • When she was 30, the Potters stayed near the village of Near Sawrey and Beatrix completely fell in love with the place
  • She got engaged to Norman Warne, her editor, when she was 39 but he died a month later
  • That same year, she bought Hill Top - a 34 acre working farm in Near Sawrey, using an inheritance and her royalties from her books
  • She continued to live in London, looking after her parents, but returned to Hill Top whenever she could
  • She wrote 13 of her books at Hill Top, including The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck and my old nemesis, Ginger & Pickles
  • There are pictures from her books dotted all round the house, showing how the house and furniture appeared in her stories 
  • I didn't realise this at the time but the shop in the village is the very shop that appears in Ginger & Pickles!
  • She married a local solicitor, William Heelis, in 1913 and they moved down the road but she kept Hill Top
I'm ashamed to say that I had always assumed that Beatrix Potter was a little bit twee. In fact, she was way ahead of her time: 
  • She was a keen conservationist and worked closely with the National Trust to protect the Lake District from development
  • The founder of the Trust, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, became a friend of the Potters when they started holidaying in the Lakes
  • In 1930, she bought a 4000 acre estate to save it from development, giving the Trust more time to raise the money needed
  • Beatrix eventually owned 15 farms and pieces of land in the Lake District
  • She died in 1943, leaving everything to her husband - when he died all the farms, land, manuscripts, illustrations and drawings went to the Trust
  • The Trust headquarters were named Heelis in her honour
The ONLY bad thing about Hill Top is that they don't allow you to take photos inside. I was very sad about that, because the Entrance Hall is particularly lovely and her library was stunning, with four giant landscape paintings done by her brother, Bertram. Mind you, I am supremely bad at taking pictures so you're probably better off just going to see it all for yourself.

Lastly, I was delighted to meet a cat at Hill Top. Sadly, he wasn't wearing a jacket and he didn't appear to be running a shop. And he pointedly refused to pose for me. 

Cat at Hill Top

But never mind! Hill Top is absolutely marvellous and I highly, highly recommend it.

Hill Top: 5 out of 5
Scones: there weren't any, but I knew that
Cat not really playing ball with the whole Beatrix Potter thing: 0 out of 5

Other National Trust properties we've visited in the Lake District: Acorn BankAllan BankFell FootSizergh CastleSticklebarnWordsworth HouseWray Castle

Sizergh Castle

I'm going to admit something now that will probably result in the National Trust cancelling my membership; I didn't really like that Michael Buerk ITV programme, Inside the National Trust.

It wasn't the actual NT properties that I didn't like - I first saw Sizergh Castle on there and it went straight onto my wishlist.

Sizergh Castle

No, what I disliked is the thing that gets on my nerves with any TV programme these days - the way it introduces you to the subject ("Jim works at Boggins Castle, which was built by William The Conquerer and was the wedding venue for Wayne Rooney") before moving on to something else and then coming back to repeat everything ("Back at Boggins Castle, which was built by William the Conquerer and was the wedding venue for Wayne Rooney...") until you want to kick the TV in and scream "I KNOW! I WAS WATCHING 3 AND A HALF MINUTES AGO WHEN YOU LAST TOLD ME!"

But let us not kick the TV in. Let us instead be calm and grateful to Mr Buerk for enlightening us about Sizergh Castle.

Here are my five favourite things about Sizergh: 

1. Nearly 800 YEARS with the same family! 
Sizergh has been connected to the Strickland family since 1239. That's astounding. I'm proud of myself for having maintained a mortgage for 5 years without anybody sending the bailiffs round. But 800 years!

It's impressive because the family didn't have it easy. They were Catholic and Royalist and basically always seemed to be on the wrong side of things. But they were also very clever and somehow managed to retain control of Sizergh. 

However, I am not even going to TRY to summarise the full 800 years of Stricklands, particularly as they all seem to be called Walter or Thomas and it's all very confusing. But some basics: 
  • The tower at Sizergh dates from the mid-1300s, when it was constructed to display the Stricklands' power and authority
  • Walter Strickland transformed the house into an Elizabethan residence
  • Modernisations were made in 1897-1902 by Gerald Strickland
  • The house was given to the Trust in 1950
  • The family still live there
I was surprised at how relatively small the cafeteria was - I couldn't imagine it coping with hundreds of visitors on a Saturday. But Sizergh Castle itself isn't open at weekends, as the family don't allow it. 

This normally drives me bonkers, but I will say this: one thing that Sizergh has in spades is homeliness. I've visited many NT properties with a no photography rule "because it's a family home" and you look around at all the priceless objects and furniture and think "REALLY? People ACTUALLY live in here? I don't think so." Sizergh isn't like that - you can genuinely imagine people traipsing in and shouting "What's for tea?" It's the homeliest castle I've ever seen. 

2. Lots of Jacobite history
In the same way that I knew very little about Charles II until I went to Moseley Old Hall last year, I knew pretty much nothing about the Jacobite Rebellion until I went to Sizergh.

James II came to the throne in 1685, following his brother, Charles II, who had no legitimate heirs. James was Catholic and there had been efforts to stop him becoming king, which had failed. 

The Stricklands were fans of James - Lady Strickland was under-governess to the Prince of Wales - and so they went into exile in France with him in 1688 when he was deposed and replaced by William and Mary. Sir Thomas left Sizergh in trust with two family servants so it couldn't be seized by the new monarchy. 

The Stricklands eventually returned to England, but remained loyal to the Jacobite cause when James III moved to Rome. Strickland cousins were part of Bonnie Prince Charlie's army when it marched through nearby Kendal.

3. The house guides
I always love properties with excellent room guides and at Sizergh they have Betty. She was brilliant. "Have you been here before?" she asked. "Would you like a potted history?" and without any further messing about she gave us the background.

4. Incongruous artefacts 
Sizergh wins the award for Most Unexpected Item on Display at the National Trust Ever. I can't remember which room this was in, but there it was: a Wham! double album. I spent the rest of the day thinking of suitable Wham! scone tracks (Club Sconeicana, I'm Your Scone, Bad Scones being my three favourites). I really wanted to rifle through the pile and see if there was any Johnny Hates Jazz, but I restrained myself.

5. The Sizergh scones

This was my 113th National Trust scone and my expectations were low. I very rarely get two excellent scones on the trot and the Wordsworth House scone yesterday had been spectacular.

But the Sizergh scone was excellent too. It was freshly baked and tasty and gets top marks. 

Sizergh scone

It's only a matter of time before the BBC calls me up and ask me to front a major documentary on scones of the National Trust - I promise I won't allow them to keep repeating the facts.

Sizergh Castle: 4.5 out of 5 

Scone: 5 out of 5
Musical taste of the Stricklands: 5 out of 5

Other National Trust properties we've visited in the Lake District: Acorn BankAllan BankFell FootHill TopSticklebarnWordsworth HouseWray Castle

Tuesday 15 March 2016

Wordsworth House and Garden

"I wandered lonely as a cloud" is the only thing I knew about William Wordsworth until my visit to Wordsworth House and Garden today.

And when I say the only thing - I mean it. I didn't know the second line of that poem, nor the third line, nor any other lines. I knew the word 'daffodils' was in there somewhere but that was it.

This is BAD. I studied English Literature at university. I even did a WHOLE TERM on the Romantic Poets. It's embarrassing.

Wordsworth House

Anyway. I tried to make up for my failings by reading a very good book about Wordsworth by Hunter Davies before I set off for the Lake District - I can recommend it.

I also did a bit of research and discovered three things about Wordsworth House that greatly appealed to me: 

1. Wordsworth House was badly flooded in December - here's a video about it. The water was three feet deep and yet the staff still managed to open last week as planned.

2. They have a scarecrow called Fletch, who is a spectacular failure at keeping the birds away, but he does have his own blog

3. When the Tour of Britain cycle race started in Cumbria, the baker at Wordsworth House made these bike-shaped scones, which are the greatest thing I have ever seen:

And I'm happy to report that Wordsworth House did not disappoint. Here are some factoids:
  • The house was built between 1670 and 1690
  • John Wordsworth, dad of William, moved there in 1765 - it came rent-free as part of his job as agent for Sir James Lowther
  • William was the third child born to John and his wife Ann - he arrived in 1770, followed by his sister Dorothy in 1771
  • Ann Wordsworth died in 1778 - this had a big impact on the family, with Dorothy being packed off to relatives in Halifax
  • John died just five years later in 1783 when William was 13. The house was given back to John's employer and the boys were sent to live with relatives
  • In his great autobiographical poem, The Prelude, William talks about his happy childhood growing up by the River Derwent, which runs behind the house:
Wordsworth House river

I must admit: I expected Wordsworth to have grown up in a tiny cottage somewhere, and not in a sizeable house on a main street in Cockermouth. But the house is great: you get a real sense of what life would have been like.

The Wordsworth House scone
February was not a good month for this blog. First, I discovered that all National Trust properties now follow the same recipe to bake their scones. I'm not one to overreact but when I heard this news, I threw myself face down onto my bed like Scarlett O'Hara and announced "THE BLOG IS DEAD!" - the Scone Sidekick had to talk me round. 

And then the day after that shocking news, I travelled miles and miles for two subpar scones and went into a bit of a sulk.

Luckily, I had already booked the Scone Blogger's Spring Tour 2016, and so I was forced back onto the road in March.

And thank the Lord for that, because the Wordsworth House scone was DIVINE. Every single constituent part of the cream tea was perfect - fresh scone, delicious jam, great cream, fantastic tea. 

Wordsworth House scone

It was so good, that I decided to compose this poem in its honour:

Golden scone! With your curranty treasure,
How happy you make me is beyond measure
With jam and cream and tea in a cup
You really cheered the Scone Blogger up

On the off-chance that you're now muttering "that's rubbish" to yourself, I'm going to leave you with a poem by Wordsworth himself. I read it in Hunter Davies' book and was astonished; "I recognise the first line of this one as well! And it's a REALLY GOOD POEM! How can I not have understood this at university? I must have been a real div."

It's not about the Lake District, or scones for that matter, but I'm a city girl at heart:

Upon Westminster Bridge

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Wordsworth House and Garden: 5 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Ability to take all that Mother Nature can throw at you and still manage to open on time: 5 out of 5

Other National Trust properties we've visited in the Lake District: Acorn BankAllan BankFell FootHill TopSizergh CastleSticklebarnWray Castle