Saturday 26 March 2022

Aira Force and Ullswater

Maybe it's the law that every waterfall has to be described as 'dramatic' and 'thundering' but I will be very, very honest with you, viewers: having read a bit about the place in advance, I was expecting Aira Force to be a bit more of a force? 

Aira Force waterfall

Due to a fallen tree, you can't access the viewing platform so you have to admire the falls from afar and then walk over them. This does diminish the impact a bit. BUT. It is very beautiful and the walks around the area are absolutely lovely.

William Wordsworth even wrote a poem about Airey-Force Valley (as he called it): 

—Not a breath of air
Ruffles the bosom of this leafy glen.
From the brook's margin, wide around, the trees
Are stedfast as the rocks; the brook itself,
Old as the hills that feed it from afar,
Doth rather deepen than disturb the calm
Where all things else are still and motionless.
And yet, even now, a little breeze, perchance
Escaped from boisterous winds that rage without,
Has entered, by the sturdy oaks unfelt,
But to its gentle touch how sensitive
Is the light ash! that, pendent from the brow
Of yon dim cave, in seeming silence makes
A soft eye-music of slow-waving boughs,
Powerful almost as vocal harmony
To stay the wanderer's steps and soothe his thoughts.

The Aira Force Scone

I certainly needed to soothe my thoughts as I approached the cafeteria at Aira Force. I have to tell you that I could write a very lengthy thesis on the art and science of purchasing National Trust scones. People think it is easy. It is not. 

The Aira Force scone is a great example of this. It was my second scone of the day, as we'd already stopped off at Claife Viewing Station. This means that two completely opposing things occurred at the same time: on the one hand, my stress levels were reduced because one scone was already safely in the bag, so the trip wasn't going to be a complete disaster. 

But! Because it was the second stop of the day, it was LATER in the day. I was now veering into mid-afternoon territory and that's a scary place for a Scone Blogger. It was also the warmest day of the year so far and the place was packed.

I joined the queue with a sense of foreboding and did a quick, subtle recce of the scone situation. In normal circumstances, the person with me is usually oblivious that we have now entered the critical moments of the scone mission. My friend Steph, however, is a very, very observant person. Within 3.5 seconds she had clocked the situation and turned to me and said "There are only two scones left".  

The queue was long. The person at the front asked for a cream tea. Steph looked at me. The next person in the queue was querying out loud whether she whether wanted a cream tea or not....did she? Didn't she? She did. Steph looked at me.

We finally made it to the front. "Two cream teas please!" I chirped confidently, as if by not even acknowledging that no scones was possible, I could stop it happening. "You're lucky," said the very nice man. "These are the last two."

Aira Force Scone

(I'd like to point out that Steph doesn't eat scones and there was no other food left so while I was gambolling triumphantly off across the patio with my baked items, she was making do with coffee. I probably wasn't empathetic enough about that, so sorry Steph.)

Anyway. It was a delicious scone and well worthy of 5 stars.

Aira Force and Ullswater: 5 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Food that wasn't a scone: 0 out of 5 (it was a very busy day)

Claife Viewing Station

Nobody can ever accuse the National Trust of turning Claife Viewing Station into a tourist attraction, because it always was a tourist attraction. It was built in the 1790s to wow visitors when they came to Lake Windermere in the Lake District, a two storey octagonal tower that looked like a mini castle. 

Claife Viewing Station

It's hard to believe now, but until the 18th century the Lake District wasn't troubled by tourists. It was largely was seen as an unattractive wilderness. This changed for a number of reasons: firstly the Picturesque movement encouraged people to appreciate landscapes, while the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars made it harder for people to travel on the continent. The Lake District became a destination and - as 19 million annual visitors can now confirm - it never looked back.

It was one Reverend William Braithwaite who commissioned the original summer house, which was built in a Greek/Roman style. It was then extended by John Curwen after he purchased it in 1801, giving it a more Gothic look. By the 19th century it was hosting dinners and other events, with visitors often arriving by boat and making their way through a landscape garden to the big reveal of the spectacular views over Windermere.

The building also used coloured glass to provide filters on the views - yellow gave the visitor a summer perspective, for example, while light green was used to provide a spring theme and so on. There's still a hint of this in the building today:

Claife windows

By the end of the 19th century, Claife Viewing Station had fallen out of favour and into disrepair. It eventually passed to the National Trust in 1962.

The Claife Scone

To be honest, I wasn't sure if the cafe at Claife was actually run by the National Trust. As per the Rules of the National Trust Scone Project, I don't need to include properties with tenanted or 'NT approved' scone facilities. 

However, I decided to go for two reasons. Firstly, at this late stage of the scone quest I am taking absolutely no chances of missing one out. Secondly, my very brilliant friend SJ had seen my map of remaining properties and had sorted out the itinerary for the day to help me get two more places covered. I have had a lot of help with this project over the years but SJ and Steph have gone above and beyond - they've done about 450 miles with me and Steph doesn't even eat scones.

The triangular shape of the fruit scones finally convinced me that the place wasn't NT run, but frankly it didn't matter because it was an absolute barnstormer. There was no jam or cream but SJ and I agreed they weren't needed. Fresh, warm, fluffy and full of fruit - it might not strictly qualify as a National Trust scone but I'm including it anyway. 

Our luck was also in: one of my fellow scone fans visited Claife the following day and reported that there were no scones at all.  

SJ, Steph and Cooper - if you also ever decide to visit 240 National Trust properties,
I can recommend them as an exemplary support team.

Claife Viewing Station: 5 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5

Friday 25 March 2022

Beatles' Childhood Homes

I'll cut to the chase here: there aren't any scones at the Beatles' Childhood Homes. But seeing as Paul McCartney and John Lennon gave us the most influential pop band of all time, as well as 180-odd Beatles songs, as well as all the other music they did, I'm going to let them off.

There are two properties that you get to visit as part of your pre-booked tour: 

  • 20 Forthlin Road in Allerton in Liverpool, where Paul McCartney lived from the age of 13 until his dad had to move when Paul became too famous
  • Mendips on Menlove Avenue in the nearby Woolton area of Liverpool, where John Lennon lived with his Aunt Mimi from the age of 5

Pre-booking is essential and you meet your driver at a designated pick-up point (in our case, Liverpool South Parkway station). They then drive you to the first property, drop you off, and then pick you up and drop you off again. The reason for this becomes very clear: both houses are on normal residential streets. Even the most tolerant of neighbours probably have a limit on how many people and how much traffic they're willing to put up with.

Our first stop was Mendips. I had heard that John had grown up with his aunt and uncle in quite well-to-do surroundings, after it became clear that his parents weren't able to look after him. It wasn't quite the case - his Uncle George died very suddenly when John was 14 and Mimi took in student lodgers to make ends meet.

Beatles Houses Mendips

In yet more tragedy, John's mother Julia was hit by a car and killed in 1958. What I didn't know was that she had been visiting Mimi and the accident took place only a few yards from Mendips.  

Colin, the tour guide at Mendips, was great. He was a local boy who remembered the very church fete where John Lennon met Paul McCartney for the first time. Unfortunately for Colin he doesn't remember The Quarrymen playing their set at all - he did remember the police dog display though and said it was amazing.

We then hopped back on the bus and zipped off to Forthlin Road. Colin had told us that Mimi was a bit sniffy about John having friends from the council estate but as Paul dressed smartly and didn't "talk Scouse" she let him in the house.

Paul also had tragedy in his life. The family moved to Forthlin Road in 1955 but his mother died shortly afterwards, when he was 14. Music was a big thing for Paul, his brother Michael and his dad. Jim had formed an outfit called Jim Mac's Jazz Band, and Paul's brother Michael later formed The Scaffold (of Lily the Pink fame) with Roger McGough and John Gorman. Lots of Beatles songs were composed in the living room at Forthlin Road.

Beatles House Forthlin Road

Paul's brother Mike was a keen photographer and so there are loads of great shots of the family - Paul getting ready to to The Cavern and so on. It really helps to bring the place to life, as do the recordings of both Paul and Mike that get played as you move around the house. 

The National Trust has done a great job of restoring the place. The tour guide explained that the NT had acquired the windows from a house across the road, for example, while the original Belfast sink was found in the garden being used as a flower pot. My favourite story was the front door: when new owners replaced the original, the next-door neighbour retrieved it from the skip knowing that it might be a worth a bob or two one day. 

Unlike Mendips, there's no blue plaque on Paul McCartney's house. This is because English Heritage only give you a plaque when you've been dead for at least 20 years. I can understand that it helps give a bit of perspective but come on: I hardly think we'll forget Paul McCartney. 

Anyway - I highly recommend a visit to the Beatles' Childhood Homes. The tour guides are fantastic and it's a really unique insight into the history of music and the lives of Lennon and McCartney.

Beatles' Childhood Homes: 5 out of 5, 8 days a week
Scones: there weren't any but we knew that
Tour guides: 5 out of 5

Saturday 5 March 2022

Ormesby Hall

I don't suppose there are many people in the world who would attempt a day trip to Middlesbrough from London, apart from football fans and scone bloggers. But that's what I did today: a 480 mile round-trip for a National Trust scone. 

Back in January, I'd looked at the list of places I needed to visit in order to finish the National Trust Scone Quest and two thoughts came to mind:

1. I only have 24 properties to go - I will SURELY complete the task this year
2. Those 24 properties include one in North Yorkshire, one in Snowdonia, one in Essex and three in Cornwall. How did I let this happen? 

What made it even more troublesome was that Ormesby Hall near Middlesbrough seemed like an understated kind of place. It didn't claim to be involved in any major historical event, like Moseley Old Hall, or have a scandalous past like Seaton Delaval

But if I've learned one thing over the past 9 years of this project, it's never underestimate a National Trust property.

Ormesby Hall

To summarise: I absolutely loved Ormesby Hall. There are many reasons for this: the homeliness of the place, Ruth Pennyman and her headscarf, the tea-room inside the house, the surprise model railway, all of which you can read about below.

But before I get onto the history, I'm going to give a mention to the volunteer guides. There are some properties where you just strike lucky with entertaining, informed, passionate guides and the ones at Ormesby were brilliant. There was no guide book, so I had to try and learn as much as I could from them and they didn't let me down.

Ormesby - owned by the Pennyman family

The Pennyman family lived at Ormesby for over 400 years, although the present house was built in the 1740s. They sound like an interesting bunch, always on the wrong side of things: Robert Pennyman had been executed in 1569 for his part in the Pilgrimage of Grace against Henry VIII. They were Royalists in the 17th century, with William Pennyman (the 1st Baronet) fighting for the King at the Battle of Edgehill in 1628. 

The 'Wicked' Pennyman bankrupts the place

James, the 'Wicked' 6th baronet, was a gambler who landed the family in bankruptcy. The guide told me that he had inherited £25m in today's money but it was soon gone. The contents of the house were sold off and the place was shut for almost 20 years. His son William managed to get it back on its feet - when he died without children the estate passed to his aunt and her family, while the baronetcy became extinct.

Jim and Ruth - the final Pennyman residents

The last Pennyman to inherit Ormesby was James Beaumont Pennyman. His first wife died in childbirth and in 1926 he married a woman called Ruth Knight. I knew I liked Ruth from the minute I saw her portrait:

Ruth Pennyman

How many women would choose to sit for a portrait in a head scarf and blazer? She was obviously brilliant. I knew she was the kind of woman who got things done and I wasn't wrong - there were notices everywhere explaining how the couple had very different interests and political viewpoints but together they had set up schemes for unemployed miners. She was also very fond of the arts - visitors to the house included everyone from Sybil Thorndike to Ewan MacColl.

The Ormesby Model Railway

Before I move on to the all-important scone, I have to tell you that Ormesby Hall had a final flourish up its sleeve. It doesn't happen very often but occasionally you wander into the last room of a house thinking 'well, that was all very nice', expecting nothing more than a basket for your visitor surveys and an exit door with a handle that needs twisting a bit.

At Ormesby, I wandered into a final room to find an enormous model railway. In the middle of the railway was the nicest man in the world. He told me that Ormesby had decided to use the space to offer something to younger visitors and that a man had donated a fantastic model railway that had taken him 35 years to create. "To be honest, this ended up being something the adults love," he added. "So we put Thomas the Tank Engine next door." He pointed out the bits of the railway that were particularly relevant to the NT - Corfe Castle is in it, for example.

At that point, some other visitors wandered into the room so I thanked him and turned to leave. "Are you not going to see Thomas?" he said, sounding disappointed. I will admit that my heart sank a bit. I didn't want to be rude but I imagined that the room would contain a toddlers' table with some colouring pencils and books. But he had been so very lovely - I decided I would go and admire the crayons for him.

Reader, I was wrong. I have never been more surprised at the contents of a National Trust room. There in front of me was another model railway containing four trains, of Thomas and his friends. You could choose which button you pressed to set each in motion. My mind was blown, so a real fan of Thomas the Tank would probably have exploded with excitement. 

It was so good, I just spent 30 minutes working out how to upload a video onto the National Trust Scone Blog so I could share it with you. 

The Ormesby Hall Scone

But let's move on to the scone. I have to tell you that I've never met a National Trust tea room I didn't like. Team rooms fitted into stables or other out-buildings? Love the quirkiness. Large new-build cafeterias? Love the space and modern conveniences. Tea rooms located inside the house, thus allowing you to pretend you live there? Saddle up my second-best horse, Jeeves, I want to inspect the ha-ha after tea. 

Ormesby falls into the latter category. It has been fitted into the kitchen area of the house and the service area is relatively small. Having been to two large modern tea spaces this year, I started to worry. I worried even more when they charged me £6.20 for a cream tea - ie the same as East Riddlesden the week before, where they seemed to have better facilities. What if this turned out to be a 'good effort with limited resources' type of scone?  

The worrying was for nothing. The scone was absolutely first-rate - very fresh, slightly warm and delicious. I ate every last crumb of it.

Ormesby Hall scone

I don't award points for tea room decor but I'd like to compliment Ormesby on providing a tea room that matched my bag:

Ormesby Hall tea room

The Scone Blogger has a Walk of Fame called "Houses I Would Live In Tomorrow If The National Trust Would Let Me, And Also Paid The Heating Bills". Ormesby Hall goes straight onto that list, along with Croft CastlePeckover, Goddards, Sunnycroft, Batemans, Arlington and Hughenden.

I will end by saying that every time I tweet about scones at the moment I feel a bit uneasy. Like everyone, I spend a lot of time reading and worrying about Ukraine. I know that scones are trivial compared with being bombed, killed, forced from your home. But all I can do (apart from donating to the Disasters Emergency Committee, which supports 15 UK charities in getting aid to the Ukrainian people) is to keep going. During those 14 hours on the road yesterday, all I could think about was how I had the freedom to travel from one end of a much loved country to the other and how one day the Ukrainian people will once again be able to do the same. Let's make sure that day comes soon.

Ormesby Hall: 5 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Thomas the Tank: 5 out of 5