Friday 3 March 2023

Divis and the Black Mountain Revisited

On March 1st 2023, after almost 10 years, I finally completed this National Trust Scone Odyssey. My final scone was at the Giant's Causeway, which was a very fitting place to end, for many reasons.

But today, two days after the grand finale, we made a return visit to another National Trust property: Divis and the Black Mountain. This unplanned stop, on the way to Belfast airport, turned out to be the perfect epilogue to the project. 

There are five main things that this quest has given me over the past decade - and Divis encapsulated them all in one place:

1. The National Trust Scone Community. One of the best things to come out of this project has been the online community of National Trust scone fans that has gathered to support the quest. I had set up a Twitter account (@nt_scones) when I created the blog back in 2013 and over the years it attracted a few thousand followers. Taking a steer from Blue Peter and Smash Hits magazine, I even sent out badges to thank them for their encouragement at one point. Wearing an I AM A NATIONAL TRUST SCONEPAL badge won't get you free entry anywhere but I like to think people wear them with a certain understated pride.

Anyway. In 2019, I decided to try and meet some of these NT scone fans. I'd had a mad idea about doing Desert Island National Trust Properties as a kind of podcast. I soon discovered that sound engineering wasn't really my thing so the idea ended up in the bin. But one of the people I met was Abby Semple-Skipper. She lived in London at the time and we met up at Ham House. Shortly afterwards, she relocated to her native Belfast (I'd like to think these two things were not connected). 

During our conversation in London she had thanked me for the NT scone community. I was taken aback by this and thought she was probably just being polite, but she persisted: she appreciated the positive, gentle, unaggressive outlook of the Twitter community that had built up around the project. 

So I was overjoyed when Abby agreed to meet us at Divis today. Having the National Trust scone community represented at the end of the project was perfect - a reminder of how supportive and important this lovely group of people has been. 

Divis Cafe
With Abby at Divis. We penned her in the corner so she couldn't get away.
As far as I know she hasn't moved house again to avoid us. 

2. Visiting Places I Wouldn't Otherwise Have Seen. I've covered 244 National Trust properties in 46 counties during this project. How many of those places would I have visited if I hadn't started the quest? 

Let's take Divis as the example. I can say with 100% certainty that I would not have gone to Divis and the Black Mountain if I had not been a National Trust member. And if we look at Northern Ireland as a whole: before this trip, I had already been to Ulster twice for this project - once in 2017, when my sister and I spent a couple of days near Strangford Lough outside Belfast. We went to Castle WardRowallane and Mount Stewart. My second visit was in 2019 when I covered CromCarrick-a-RedeSpringhillFlorence CourtThe ArgoryWhite Park BayCushendun and Castle Coole as part of my 26-scones-in-31-days-of-August rampage. How many of those would I have seen? The answer is one: the rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede. Would I have seen Enniskillen on a beautiful August morning without this project? No. Is my life better for having seen it? Yes. 

A poor photo of Enniskillen

3. Time with Family and Friends. I have had some fantastic times with friends and family thanks to this project. So many examples spring to mind: I went to Horsey Windpump with my schoolfriends and their children, combining it with a weekend in Great Yarmouth that will never be forgotten. Plas yn Rhiw in North Wales had caused me some concern last year, as it was so far away and looked very small - my friends SJ and Steph drove miles to come with me and it turned out to be brilliant (SJ and Steph have covered a lot of miles with me). My mum, sister and her partner came to Ilam Park where my mum's hat blew probably had to be there for that but it was very funny. My sister-in-law and niece came to Lamb House in Rye where they demonstrated that I might be the scone expert in the family but when it comes to sniffing out a champagne bar at 200 paces, they have no equal.

And of course my late husband Pete and I had covered a lot of properties together. When he was sick in hospital I even made a Powerpoint presentation of pictures of NT places we'd seen and tested him to see how many he could remember. It might not sound like much but at the end of it he said "I really enjoyed that" and I could have cried. Snowshill Manor will always have a special place in my heart, as it was last new property we visited together and he loved it.

This trip to Divis was another great example of how the National Trust and the scone quest have given us trips that we'll never forget. My mum, my sister and Tim came to Northern Ireland with me for the final scone mission at the Giant's Causeway. We had a great few days together, staying in Portrush and visiting other NT sites as well as the Bushmills Whiskey Distillery (not NT but it'd be rude not to go there as it's so close).  

4. Occasional Interaction with National Trust Chefs and Property Managers. I hadn't actually planned to visit Divis on this trip. When I went there in August 2019 they only had a small Ranger's Station that served limited refreshments. I did call in for a cup of tea on the off-chance that I might find a scone but they weren't serving anything at the time and a scone looked highly unlikely. My previous post gives you the history of the place, so I won't cover it again here. 

But during this final trip, a lovely woman called Jenny messaged me on Twitter. She suggested I might want to drop in at Divis again if I had time: "We do a mean cherry scone now, freshly baked." My ever-supportive travel companions agreed to a detour on the way back to the airport and off we went. 

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I've met National Trust chefs and property managers in person as part of this project. This is mainly because I've kept a low profile, probably unnecessarily. But all of those occasions have been brilliant and I'll never forget them: Rob invited me to his amazing Sconeathon at Dunwich Heath in 2014. Jemma arranged for me to bake Mince Pie Scones with Russell the chef at Flatford in 2013. I also got to meet the NT's Development Chef, Clive Goudercourt, back in 2016. And Karla and Devon at Treasurer's House in York chatted to me about the Christmas Pudding Scone in 2019.

Divis once again reminded me that the very best days tend to happen when people point you in the right direction. Massive thanks to Jenny for getting in touch. 

5. Finding a Five-Star Scone. But, just as with the other 243 National Trust properties on this list, the most important thing about our visit to Divis has to be the scone. Abby had done a quick recce on arrival and informed me that they weren't any - on seeing my stricken face, she quickly admitted she was joking. There was a choice of fruit scones or cherry scones, and I'm happy to report that both varieties were excellent and scored 5 stars. 

I am going to confess to you, though, that I did not take the photograph below. I'm ashamed to admit that for the very first time in 10 years, I forgot to follow the first rule of scone club: take the photo before you eat. Thankfully, I can refer you to 4) above - Jenny and her team recreated the scene for me and I can promise that this is a faithful reconstruction: 

This project has definitely given me scones - hundreds of them, in fact - but it's also given me a lot of other things. And there's so much more - I just hope this blog post has given you a small sense of what small projects can offer.

Divis & the Black Mountain: 5 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Rescue Services of National Trust Staff Following Photo Fail: 5 out of 5

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