Saturday 22 October 2016


I have now been to 149 National Trust properties. I've seen houses built from the profits of cotton, sugar, coal, banking, shipping, guns, and marriage but Tyntesfield (pronounced Tintsfield) near Bristol is the first place I have visited that was funded by bird poo.

Yes, you read that correctly. Bird poo. In 1842, the Gibbs family started importing guano (that's dried bird poo to you and me) from Peru of all places. It was sold as fertiliser and it revolutionised Victorian agriculture, making William Gibbs wealthy enough to create this place: 


  • The house at Tyntesfield had originally been Georgian
  • William Gibbs bought the place in 1844 as a country residence for his wife and seven children
  • In 1863, William commissioned architect John Norton to enlarge and remodel it in High Victorian Gothic style
  • His son, Antony, created the farm at Tyntesfield and modernised the place with electricity when he inherited it in 1887
  • Antony's son, George, inherited in 1907 - he later became 1st Baron Wraxall 
  • The Gibbs firm had left the guano trade in 1861 and diversified into other products
  • However, the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression impacted on business and income gradually declined
  • George's son, Richard, inherited in 1949 - he never married and lived alone in the house while he ran the estate until he died in 2001 
  • In 2002, the National Trust acquired the house and the core of the estate

The house is undoubtedly beautiful, but the real show stopper at Tyntesfield is the chapel. It was the first part of the building that we saw and I was stunned by it- it's basically half a cathedral:

Tyntesfield chapel

The chapel is based on La Sainte Chapelle, a medieval royal chapel on the Île de la Cité in Paris. It had not been part of the original plan for Tyntesfield and was added a decade later, in 1875, by architect Arthur Blomfield. He managed to build it on sloping ground so that the family could access it from the first floor of the house. 

William was very religious. He was a Tractarian; in 1833, the Reverend John Keble had created the Oxford Movement, which called for a reform of the Church of England and a return to its Catholic roots. Supporters of the Oxford Movement were called Tractarians and they included William Gladstone as well as William and his wife, Blanche.

I'm now going to make myself sound like a right philistine by admitting that I was really disappointed not to see the chapel in its entirety. There's an art installation in there at the moment - it think it features people from different faiths praying - and it's enormous, covering up the whole altar. It's only there for two months, so we were just a bit unlucky with our timing, but it was really disappointing.

Art installation Tyntesfield chapel

And I hate myself for saying that, because I'm generally all for art installations at the NT - read about my love for the Singing Tree at Biddulph. I'm just not sure I'd have covered up one of the most important parts of the property - even the guide book says that the altar is the focal point of the chapel, so why obstruct it?  

Anyway. The same artist also has other pieces on display in the house itself. I have zero shame in saying that I thought they were horrible - a huge cast of a dead cow's head and two dead lambs would make most people feel uncomfortable. And they're supposed to do that - the website explains that they "will trigger us to consider mankind's complex relationship with breeding" - and I have no issue with that at all, but don't expect me to go home thinking it was lovely.

Emotional Archaeology Tyntesfield

More Emotional Archaeology Tyntesfield

The Tyntesfield scone
The art isn't the only thing at Tyntesfield that is challenging - the tea room is one of the most stressful places I have been to in a long time. I hasten to add that we were there at 1pm on a Saturday when they were having a Hallowe'en event, so I'm not complaining. I think the main issue is the building itself - there are limitations on what they can do with it and space isn't used very effectively.

But kudos to the mainly young staff - they were efficient and friendly and unflappable. The scone looked fantastic and it was fresh and tasty - a definite 5 out of 5.

Tyntesfield scone

I'm going to end with Marketing Idea for the National Trust Number 3,231. For the first time, I was struck by how all of the NT properties fit together - so William Gibbs was commissioning work at Tyntesfield in 1863, the exact same year that William Armstrong was buying land near Newcastle to build Cragside. A book explaining the chain of events and similarities/differences would be great. Or maybe just a big jigsaw. I'd buy it anyway.

Tyntesfield: 4 out of 5
Scones: 5 out of 5
Calmness and serenity: 0 out of 5

Saturday 15 October 2016

Sudbury Hall

I don't know what I was expecting from Sudbury Hall and the National Trust Museum of Childhood in Derbyshire. I think I was expecting it to be the National Trust Museum of MY childhood, which would basically be the set of Saturday Superstore with Enid Blyton as the presenter and a cartoon sausage on a fork appearing out of nowhere every few minutes.

Sudbury Hall and the Museum of Childhood are in the same building, but they are separate entities so you can visit one or the other as you prefer.

Sudbury Hall
Can you just pretend the car is not there - it's cheaper than Photoshop 
We started off in the Museum. It begins with a really good replica of a chimney that little kids can actually climb into to see what life might have been like for them 170 years ago - quite handy if your offspring ever need reminding that a broken iPad is not the worst thing that ever happened to any child ever. 

Then there are loads of toys from olden times - I loved these cat skittles:

Cat nine-pins Steiff

And there were a few faces that I recognised from my own childhood days, although I don't remember Sooty looking this depressed:

Sooty at Sudbury
Poor old Sooty - maybe that rat stole his jumper
HOWEVER. I knew - I just knew - that there would be SOMETHING unexpected in that museum that would stop me dead in my tracks and throw me back to my younger days. 

And here it is. It wasn't Grange Hill, or Claire and Friends singing 'It's 'Orrible Being In Love When You're 8 and Half' in Search for a Superstar, - it was this orange Sindy bathroom suite, which I hadn't seen for at least 35 years. I can't recall which of my friends it belonged to, but I remembered every single bit of it, from the little white taps to the brown bath mat. I take my hat off to whoever got Sindy's hair into this Betty Draper do though - I remember her barnet just sticking up in the air and being impossible. 

Sindy Bathroom Sudbury
Proust had his madeleines to remind him of the past -
it's a little fringed brown bath mat that does it for me
ANYWAY. Once we'd looked round the museum we went next door to the actual house itself. This is a rear view of it:

Sudbury Hall rear view

A bit of history for you:

  • The Vernons arrived in Britain with the Norman Conquest
  • There are many branches of the Vernon clan, including the slightly mad lot at Hanbury Hall
  • However, the Sudbury branch inherited the Sudbury estate in 1513, when John Vernon married a local heiress
  • John left his property to his two sons - John Jnr inherited Sudbury and Henry got an estate in Staffordshire
  • The brothers appear to have been great pals, until Henry married a woman called Dorothy - John did not approve
  • John was a bachelor in his forties when Henry died in 1592, but he wanted to stop Dorothy getting her hands on all of the family estates - so he married a woman called Mary, the widow of his cousin, who handily already had a son called Edward Vernon
  • John died in 1600 without an heir of this own, and so Dorothy and Mary went into battle for the property
  • It was all sorted out in time-honoured fashion - Mary's son, Edward, and Dorothy's daughter, Margaret, were married off to each other (it's not known what they thought of this) and they were given a house at Sudbury
  • However, the house we see today was actually built by their grandson, George, after he inherited in 1660
  • The house was handed over to the National Trust by the 10th Lord Vernon in 1967, although he built himself a house on the estate and his family still live there apparently

The house has a Long Gallery, which was quite unusual for its time:

Long Gallery Sudbury Hall

In the Long Gallery there are a number of portraits, including these two. The first is Nell Gwyn, mistress of Charles II. The second is Barbara Villiers, mistress of Charles II. Do you get the feeling that he had a thing for shepherdesses whose clothes kept falling off?

Nell Gwynn Sudbury

Barbara Villiers at Sudbury

The Sudbury scone
Anyway, let's move on to more important matters. It took us a while to get to Sudbury today and we were both REALLY looking forward to our scones. I spotted a pile of them sitting on the counter as I walked past the tea room window - I think I may have broken into an actual sprint at that point. 

We were rewarded though, because the Sudbury Hall scone was fantastic. It looked perfect, it felt a tiny bit warm, and it was light and delicious. It even looked happy to see me. Definitely one of the best NT scones ever.

Sudbury scone
Maybe it's me, but I'm sure this scone was smiling for the camera

Sudbury Hall: 4 out of 5
Scones: 5 out of 5
Ability of 1980s children to be wildly jealous of anyone with an orange doll's toilet and a rubbish mirror: 5 out of 5 

Saturday 1 October 2016

Melford Hall

I absolutely love watching National Trust room guides interact with the British public. At one extreme you have the room guide that sits in a dark corner and doesn't say a word, and none of the visitors ask them anything, because we're British. Occasionally a German visitor will walk in and say "What is this?" and the room guide jumps a mile. 

At the other extreme is the room guide that talks without drawing a breath - I hasten to add that I now know EXACTLY why they do this: they have a mortal dread of the Expert Visitor. We've all seen them - the architectural expert or professional historian that knows more than the guide and spends the whole time tutting and saying "well, that's not EXACTLY right - the horse that threw him in 1532 was actually called Archibald, because his other horse, Geoffrey, was lame that day" until everybody just wants to shove Expert Visitor out of a top floor window.

But the best room guides are the ones that don't wait to be asked questions and don't fear the know-it-all visitor - they just go for it. And that's exactly what the room guides at Melford Hall did today. They were ALL brilliant - really enthusiastic and happy to show off the property. I wanted to take a quick picture of the library door and the guide walked the full length of the room to shut it for me, so it looked its best - I know this doesn't sound like much, but it really helps to make you feel welcome.


But let me tell you a bit about Melford Hall itself:

1. The Hyde Parkers still live there!
  • Melford Hall was bought by Sir Harry Parker in 1786 
  • His dad was a real character; as Vice Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, he resigned after the Battle of Dogger Bank in disgust at the terrible condition of the fleet's ships and officers
  • Unfortunately for him, he came out of retirement in 1782 and went to sea again with his grandson, but they both drowned in a storm off the Maldives
  • Sir Harry's second son, William, inherited Melford in 1812 - he designed the fantastic library with its hidden door: 
Melford library
The hidden door is very successful at its job -
it's the third panel from the left.
  • William was succeeded by his brother, Hyde, who also had an interesting naval career; during the bombardment of Copenhagen he gave the signal to withdraw, but his second in command - one Horatio Nelson - lifted his telescope to his blind eye and said "I really do not see the signal" and continued until the Danish surrendered. I doubt that Hyde was very pleased about this.
  • Sir Richard Hyde Parker still lives at Melford today, although the estate was given to the NT in 1960
2. Beatrix Potter was a regular visitor!
  • William Parker, the 10th baronet, was married to an Ethel Leech, the cousin of Beatrix Potter
  • Beatrix often stayed at Melford, reading her stories to the Hyde Parker children - they called her Cousin Beatie
  • She gave them the duck that had inspired Jemima Puddleduck, and it is still at Melford today! I commented on how new she looked and the guide said "well, she had to go to be restuffed last year". It's sad that in today's society even toy stars have to have 'work' done to stay young-looking. Or maybe she had a drug problem? Who knows with these celebrities.
Jemima Puddleduck: ask her to wrinkle her forehead. She can't.

3. The Cordells built the place!
  • Melford was originally a manor owned by the abbots of St Edmondsbury
  • The Dissolution of the Monasteries put paid to that and after 500 years of monastic rule, the estate was passed to the King 
  • He sold it to William Cordell, who had worked his way up and was eventually Speaker in Queen Mary's Parliament
  • William built the hall between 1554 and 1578, although he probably used bits of the original abbots' manor
  • Elizabeth I visited Melford Hall in 1578
4. The Savages inherited in 1602, then it went back to the Cordells!
  • Thomas Savage, great-nephew of Sir William Cordell, extended the house after he inherited 
  • Descendants of the Savages apparently include Princess Diana, Camilla Duchess of Cornwall, Sarah Ferguson, the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, the scientist Sir Francis Galton, Bertrand Russell, and Lord Lucan - you couldn't make it up
  • Elizabeth Savage had to mortgage Melford to a John Cordell - the Cordells were back at Melford again, becoming Firebraces before they left Melford for good
The Melford scone
But let's move on to the all-important scone. I think I've been letting the Scone Sidekick watch too much reality TV; today when I asked him for his scone verdict he looked very serious but then said "the best scone I've had in a long time" in the same tone of voice I would expect him to use when sending somebody to the gallows. 

But he was right - it was a fantastic scone. Fresh as a daisy, superb texture, and great taste. Great job, Melford.

Melford Hall scone

I'll end with this, the winner of Creepiest Thing I Have Ever Seen at the NT. I'm still not sure exactly what it is or what it's for, but it was acquired by Sir Harry Parker's dad after he captured a Spanish galleon full of gold and porcelain in 1762. This was one of the things he was allowed to keep. I'd have been locking my bedroom door at night, personally.
As someone on Twitter said, you just totally know
that this thing gets down and runs around at night

Melford Hall: 5 out of 5
Scones: 5 out of 5
Celebrity ducks: 5 out of 5

Suffolk has been a very happy hunting ground for the Scone Blogger. Other properties include: Dunwich HeathFlatford, Ickworth, Sutton Hoo