Friday 22 July 2022

Hatfield Forest

When I finally come to write my magnum opus The History of National Trust Scones 1895-Present, I will define in some detail the seismic change - some would call it a revolution - that occurred during the years 2020-2022.

In the pre-COVID era, a National Trust scone that was not served on an actual ceramic plate caused emotional shockwaves. I well remember being served a cream tea on a paper plate in the cafeteria at Greenway and the absolute confusion that ensued. I don't think my MP actually ever raised it at Prime Minister's Questions but she should have done - that's how controversial it was. 

But by 2020, when I finally made it to Stackpole for a scone after months of lockdown, I could have sent the takeaway box that it came in off to the Vatican and asked them to canonise it. If the cafe staff had handed that scone to me balanced on an old copy of Hello magazine, I'd probably have eaten it. 

In short: COVID made takeaway scones acceptable.

Why am I telling you this? Well, if I had gone to Hatfield Forest in Essex in 2018, I would never have expected to find any scones. There's no cafeteria at Hatfield - just a serving counter. I would have been completely prepared to settle for a more traditionally portable baked item.

But then last week, someone sent me a photo of a scone being eaten at Hatfield Forest and I let my guard down. I recruited my niece Fay (the Craig Revel-Horwood of scones, as we saw at Lamb House and Croft Castle) and off we went.

I'll cut to the chase, readers: there were no scones. I couldn't see any when we arrived at the cafe/counter and so I asked if they were available. "We haven't got any yet," said the woman, at which point my heart leapt and I asked her when she expected them, quickly calculating how long I'd be willing to wait (2 hours probably my limit). "Tomorrow," she replied and so we settled for some rhubarb flapjack.

Hatfield Forest Scone
Ceci n'est pas une scone

Bravely soldiering on with flapjack

We then wandered off for a look around Hatfield Forest. A bit of history for you:
  • Hatfield Forest is the best surviving example of a royal hunting forest
  • It was named as such by Henry I around 1100
  • Henry introduced fallow deer to the forest from Europe
  • If you were caught poaching the royal deer, one of the punishments was to be sewn into a deerskin and hunted by dogs, which would probably put you off trying it
  • The forest was owned by Robert the Bruce from 1304-6 but Edward I wanted to be King of Scotland so he confiscated it
  • Hatfield Forest then passed through many aristocratic hands until it was given to Sir Richard Rich by Edward VI 
  • If you are a fan of Wolf Hall, you will recognise the name Richard Rich. He worked with Thomas Cromwell on the Dissolution of the Monasteries as well as on the Act of Supremacy, recognising Henry VIII as the Head of the Church in England
  • It was then purchased by Jacob Houblon before ending up with a timber merchant - luckily a passionate conservationist called Sir Edward North Buxton stepped in and bought it before giving it to the National Trust
  • Across the 900 acres today, around 3,500 species of living things can be found
But here's an interesting fact: the last time I went to a National Trust property where I expected to find a scone but failed to do so was in February 2017 (Chedworth Roman Villa)! In 5 years of scone missions, I have always found a scone when the tea room was open. That is really impressive by the National Trust. Admittedly, I recently had a couple of tea room closures in Cornwall but that's a different challenge.

Anyway! The National Trust recently opened another property called Crook Hall Gardens in Durham so I've had to add one to my list - I now have just 13 properties left to go! Onwards to scone glory!

Hatfield Forest: 4 out of 5
Scones: 0 out of 5 - there weren't any
Realisation that out of 66 National Trust scone missions between 2017 and 2022, I always got a scone when I expected one: 5 out of 5

Other National Trust properties I have visited in Essex: Paycockes

Saturday 16 July 2022

Dunstable Downs

I'm going to level with you here: until today, if you'd asked me to make a list of my least favourite words, then 'Dunstable' and 'down' would have been on that list. Why? Well, Dunstable and I fell out with each other some years ago (for relatively trivial work-related reasons that I won't go into), and down is not the cheeriest word in the English language.

As a result of this, I've probably been avoiding Dunstable Downs, or Dunstable Downs and Whipsnade Estate to give the place its full title. But I got out of the car in Bedfordshire today and the view literally took my breath away - it was not what I was expecting at all. I was genuinely astonished by it.

Dunstable Downs

In fact, I was so taken aback by the spectacular views that I failed to take a picture of the bumps that cover the Neolithic burial grounds. Dunstable Downs has seven round 'barrows', which are believed to be the resting places of kings or chiefs. Over 90 skeletons from various periods have been found - in Saxon times about 30 bodies were buried with their hands tied behind their backs, which doesn't sound very hopeful. 

But if walking on 5000-year-old burial grounds isn't your thing, then extra entertainment is provided by the London Gliding Club, which is based at the foot of the downs. Gliders and hang gliders come in and out of view, while kite flying is also very popular.

The Dunstable Downs Scone

I had originally planned to visit Dunstable Downs in 2020. My friend Justine had agreed to bring her talented young baker daughter along so I could get her expert opinion on the scones. That was postponed, however, for yet more trivial work-related reasons. Young Evie takes after her mother, in that if you don't get in her diary early enough then you will struggle, as she is much in demand. So it was just me, Justine, and Evie's notes on her 2020 scone that made it to Dunstable Downs today. 

The lovely modern cafeteria in the visitor's centre at DD gives you the opportunity to 'eat the scone' and 'see the place' at the same time, which I always love: 

View at Dunstable Downs with scone

I was worried that the good weather may have caused a scone-buying frenzy and we'd be left empty-handed. But there were plenty of plain and fruit scones to be had. We did have a minor scare that there was no clotted cream but that turned out to be a false alarm, although the cream we did get was completely frozen and we had to thaw it out a bit.

National Trust scone at Dunstable Downs

My plain scone was absolutely first-rate - large, fresh, crumbly and tasty. The fruit scone was a bit smaller but also tasty, according to Justine:

Dunstable Downs scone

Our experience corroborated Evie's earlier review, which means that Dunstable Downs is consistent. Evie's detailed notes confirm that: 
  • Scone does not come with cream and jam as standard 
  • The outside of scone has a well-baked crust
  • For the size of the scone it could have more raisins
  • Very generous size
  • The inside of the scone was nice and sweet

I'm not going to worry too much about the fact that Evie's review is way better than any of my reviews. I see it as an investment - in about 30 years' time she might repeat this National Trust Scone Quest exercise and write blog posts that keep me entertained in my nursing home.

So I highly recommend Dunstable Downs - for scones, tea and spectacular views.

Dunstable Downs: 5 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Added bonus of aircraft watching: 5 out of 5