Monday 17 April 2023

Which UK Counties Serve the Best Scones?

Now that I've completed my National Trust Scone Odyssey (you can read about my final victory visit to the Giant's Causeway here) I thought it would be good to crunch some numbers and share some data with you.

The question I wanted to answer for this post: which regions of England, Wales and Northern Ireland have served the best National Trust scones over the 10 years of the project? I'd covered 46 different counties over the past decade, so which ones had been most consistent in National Trust scone quality? (Scotland has its own NT that I haven't covered yet.)

The quick answer to that question is simple: every single National Trust scone I had in the 8 counties listed below scored an impressive 5 stars.

  • North Yorkshire (6 properties visited)
  • Staffordshire (3 properties visited)
  • Herefordshire (2 properties visited)
  • Isle of Wight (2 properties visited)
  • Nottinghamshire (2 properties visited)
  • Bedfordshire (1 property visited)
  • South Yorkshire (1 property visited)
  • Merseyside (1 property visited)

BUT. There was a big variation in the number of properties per county in the dataset. For example, I only included one property in each of Merseyside, South Yorkshire, and Bedfordshire - Speke Hall, Wentworth Castle Gardens, and Dunstable Downs respectively - so although those properties each served a fantastic scone on that one visit, I can't vouch for their consistency*. 

If we want to measure consistency, we probably need to focus on counties where I had 3 or more scones. If we go down that path, then we come to the real heroes of the project:

Counties where 3 or more NT scones were eaten and all scored 5 stars:

  • North Yorkshire (6 properties, all 5 stars)
  • Staffordshire (3 properties, all 5 stars)

Counties where 3 or more NT scones were eaten and average score was 4.5-4.9:

  • Cambridgeshire (5 properties, average 4.9)
  • Derbyshire (7 properties, average 4.7)
  • West Sussex (5 properties, average 4.7)
  • Somerset (11 properties, average 4.6)
  • Buckinghamshire (5 properties, average 4.6)
  • Northern Ireland (12 properties, average 4.5)
  • Worcestershire (5 properties, average 4.5)
  • Warwickshire (5 properties, average 4.5)
  • Hampshire (5 properties, average 4.5)

You may be wondering why neither Devon nor Cornwall are listed above. They're both world famous for their cream tea skills, and I've posted several times about the brilliant scones I've had there. This is where timing, luck and other vagaries come into play. Out of the 15 NT scones that I had in Cornwall, an amazing 9 of them scored 5 out of 5. But I hit a tricky patch in 2022 when the cafes at both Penrose and Pentire were closed on the days I visited, due to staff shortages and other issues. Both those zeros pulled Cornwall's average down. The timing of my visit also had an impact in Devon - at the very excellent Finch Foundry, for example, the scone facilities were limited and the score was lower. It subsequently closed its food and beverage service completely - if I'd visited more recently, then it wouldn't have been included.

To conclude then: there are many vagaries at play here, so any county not listed above shouldn't really be judged on that fact. 

However, a massive well done to the F&B teams in the areas that *are* mentioned above - there's no doubting your scone quality and consistency. 

*For this exercise, I only included NT properties that served refreshments of some sort. For example, the Beatles' Childhood Homes are also on Merseyside but they don't have any tea/food facilities at all and therefore scones were never possible. If I'd included them as a zero here, along with properties that could have had scones but didn't, then every single NT property would have to be added for balance. This only applies to the small number of properties I visited where it was 100% clear that scones would not be available - the others were Hill Top, Tintagel Old Post Office, Max Gate, Lindisfarne Castle, and Bath Skyline.

Saturday 15 April 2023

Monks House

If you're a regular National Trust go-er, you'll know that there are loads of different types of NT visitor. There's the Expert Visitor, who likes to correct the tour guides. There's also the lesser-spotted but brilliant Lived-It Visitor, who has some kind of first-hand experience of the place. 

But the category of visitor I'd like to talk about today is the Pilgrim Visitor. The Pilgrim is not a casual visitor - they have often travelled a long way to visit a specific NT property for a specific reason. This presents a bit of a challenge to the staff and I'm not sure they always get it quite right - but more on that later.

The properties that tend to attract Pilgrim Visitors are usually connected to a famous person, for example at Greenway (Agatha Christie) or The Firs (Edward Elgar) or the Beatles' Childhood Homes (The Beatles) - I've added a longer list below.

But whichever property they're visiting, you can always spot the Pilgrims by one common identifier: they have a look of ecstatic awed happiness on their faces. It's like they've finally found their ancestral home or caught a glimpse of their hero. They almost start glowing.  

Monk's House in East Sussex probably had the most Pilgrims per square foot that I've ever encountered. There are two reasons for this: firstly, Monk's House is very small so it doesn't have many square feet. But the most important reason is that it was once owned by Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard.

Virginia Woolf bust Monk's House

To give you some idea: I hadn't even made it out of the car park when a group of women in their 20s passed me. They were animatedly debating Virginia Woolf's books, the order in which she had published them, and whether any had been written at Monk's House. 

Monk's House
Rear view of house, with cat probably called Orlando
And this is where the problem lies. I hate to say it but the visitor experience at Monk's House may need a rethink.

It started well: I booked a ticket online in advance and managed to get there on time. I was expecting some kind of actual tour where a guide collects a group of people and gives them an introductory talk and then either sets them off on their own or actually leads them through the property (like the very excellent Birmingham Back to Backs or Beatles' Childhood Homes). 

It turned out that there wasn't a tour at all - and that's fair enough, as they hadn't actually specified there would be one. Instead, I checked in at the reception area, which is very tiny, and was then directed down the street and through a gate. I got to the back door of the property and wasn't really sure what I was supposed to do, so I kept walking and got told off for jumping the queue (and I'm definitely not a queue-jumper so that was a bit awkward).

But the real problems start once you go inside. The property is small, so if more than 5 or 6 people are already looking around a room then you don't really feel able to enter or hang around. But if you're a Pilgrim-type visitor, coming from miles away for an important moment in your favourite writer's house, then you'll want to linger for a while and take it all in. You'll likely have loads of questions. And that's great, because the room guides are really knowledgeable. But when another visitor follows you into that room and catches 5 minutes of your questions, they come out with a really detailed understanding of where the bookcase was found or who made the rug but they'll probably have missed lots of other general information or detail about other things. 

One guide during my visit literally said this - she was giving a detailed and very informed answer to a super-specific question and then looked around and said "I've lost track of who's just come in or what you've heard" and it summed up the whole experience for me. It felt like potluck as to whether you learned anything useful, which made it seem disorganised.

When I got home, I read the really good guidebook and immediately wanted to go back. There was so much I'd missed. And that's not completely unusual - on a few previous occasions I've found interesting things in the guidebook that I hadn't appreciated during the visit - but at Monk's House I felt like I'd missed most of it.

Monk's House Sitting Room
The Sitting Room

So let me give you a quick summary of the life and times of Monk's House:
  • Virginia and Leonard Woolf bought Monk's House as a country retreat in 1919.
  • They loved the South Downs - Virginia had previously leased another house in the area with her sister, Vanessa, and when that lease ended she bought Monk's House.
  • The house, which had no electricity or running water when they acquired it, is located in the village of Rodmell near Lewes.
  • It had been originally built in the late 1600s as a three room cottage for servants. It was then sold on to various families including the Clears, the Glazebrooks, and the Verralls.
  • The Woolfs built a two-storey extension in 1930, with one of those rooms becoming Virginia bedroom, which you can visit today.
  • The house was decorated by Virginia and filled with artworks by Duncan Grant and other members of the Bloomsbury Group.
  • Virginia had originally used an old toolshed in the garden as a place for her writing. In 1934 the couple replaced this with a purpose built writing lodge, which you can see today.
Virginia Woolf's writing lodge
Virginia Woolf's writing lodge
  • Virginia wrote Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), and The Waves (1931) at Monk's House.
  • The couple loved gardening, especially Leonard, and the gardens are still lovely.
  • Their London flat was bombed in 1940 and they moved to Rodmell permanently. 
  • Virginia, who suffered severe bouts of depression, drowned herself in the River Ouse near Monk's House in 1941. 
  • Leonard Woolf continued to live in Monk's House until his death in 1969. he left the house to his partner, Trekkie Parsons, who offered it to the University of Sussex. The house began to deteriorate and Nigel Nicolson, son of Vita Sackville-West, encouraged the National Trust to take it on and look after it.
I'd been wanting to see Monk's House since I started this project 10 years ago. It's only a few miles from Alfriston Clergy House, which was the first building that the NT ever acquired. However, neither place owns a cafe and until recently I've had to prioritise NT properties with scone opportunities. Now that I've completed all of the scone destinations, I get to visit all the other really fascinating NT places.

In summary, then: if you're a fan of Virginia Woolf, you have to visit Monk's House. It's very easy to imagine her living and working there, making it perfect for any Pilgrim visitor. The visitor experience could admittedly be better, to make it more informative and complete, but the guides are very well informed and there's lots to enjoy in the gardens and local area. 

Rodmell Monk's House
A walk near to Monk's House

Monk's House: 4 out of 5
Scone: there's no cafe so no scone and no scone scoring

Other National Trust properties where you're very likely to find Pilgrim Visitors:

Alfriston Clergy House

Get ready, everyone - it's time for another National Trust Factoid. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know that on several occasions during the National Trust Scone Odyssey I've had to stop the presses and put the scones down while I digest a mind-blowing factoid about the property I'm visiting. 

Some of the National Trust Factoids I've shared are shocking - take, for example, the factoid that Dunwich Heath will have fallen into the sea by 2070. Some are very unexpected yet fascinating: Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame opened one of the rooms at Knightshayes, as he is a big fan of the architect. And some are just bonkers: one former owner of Attingham had a working model of Vesuvius.

Today's factoid comes from the guidebook at Alfriston Clergy House in East Sussex. It turns out that the village of Alfriston inspired the hymn Morning Has Broken, which was written in 1931 by Eleanor Farjeon and was probably sung in primary school by every single person in the UK who is currently over the age of 40. Luckily for me, my primary school teacher preferred to play the Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam version of Morning Has Broken, rather than let a bunch of 9-year-olds howl along to it, so it was Cat/Yusuf's very calming version that played constantly in my head as I wandered around the village.

Alfriston Clergy House

Anyway. I was delighted to finally see Alfriston Clergy House today. I've been wanting to visit for 10 years because - and here's another factoid for you - it was the very first building that the National Trust took on in 1896 and I knew it would be fascinating. But I was also aware that it didn't have a cafe on site, so until now my ruthless pursuit of scones meant I had to focus on other places first. 

Alfriston First National Trust Property Sign
After waiting 10 years to visit, I coincidentally turned up on 15th April -
the day before Alfriston's 127th anniversary as the first NT building.

But having now completed my scone odyssey, I'm free to go crazy and visit all the National Trust properties that don't serve refreshments. I did find today's outing a bit weird - I looked around the building, chatted to the guides, bought a guide book and a mug, and then casually decided I might as well have a cup of tea in the non-NT cafe across the green. There was no Scone Stress ("Do they sell scones?? Are there any scones left?? Are they good scones?? Why am I putting myself through this torment??") although I will admit I missed the stress a bit.  

But let me crack on and tell you about Alfriston Clergy House:

The Clergy House is built between 1370-1450

Nobody knows who built Alfriston Clergy House or when it was built, but it was a timber-framed medieval building that was typical of the area, with a Hall, family rooms, and servants' quarters. It was extended in Tudor times, possibly to accommodate a married vicar and his family.

The Hall at Alfriston Clergy House

Alfriston declines from the 17th century

The first recorded vicar to live in the house was Hugh Walker who arrived in 1593. The last vicar who resided there was Robert North who left in 1709. The area had prospered during the 15th century but it soon declined and was not a good living - this meant that vicars were often absentees living elsewhere.

The Clergy House is earmarked for demolition

After 1709, the house was rented out to non-clergy tenants. By 1841, there were 11 people living there - mainly the families of agricultural labourers. After the final resident died in 1883, the house became virtually derelict and permission was given to demolish the place.

The Bedroom - set out as Harriet Coates, the last pre-NT tenant, likely had it

Rev Frederick Beynon saves the day

Thankfully, demolition was prevented thanks to Rev Beynon, who became vicar of Alfriston in 1889. He appreciated the building's historic value, as well as seeing its potential as a possible location for a night school or other community use. He began to seek advice on how the place could be restored but he met with a lot of derision and discouragement.

The newly formed National Trust steps in

In 1894, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) advised Beynon to speak to the council of what would shortly become the National Trust. The Trust had originally been focused on protecting open spaces - after some debate they agreed to take on Alfriston as their first building, completing the purchase in 1896. It was a struggle to raise the funds for restoration. The brilliant volunteer guide told me how the survival of the National Trust back then depended on the success of the Alfriston Clergy House project - if the latter had failed, the National Trust could have failed with it. (I didn't want to appear selfish or shallow so I didn't say "and I wouldn't have had 244 National Trust scones or been interviewed by Phillip Schofield on This Morning!" but it was what I was thinking.)

Thank God for the National Trust.
This is what they took on in 1896 to restore it and save it from demolition.

The NT lets the property to tenants

Once the purchase was complete, restoration got underway and the NT let the house to a series of tenants. The longest tenancy was Sir Robert Witt, a solicitor with a passion for art. He co-founded the Courtauld Institute and was a trustee of the Tate and the National Gallery. The garden was acquired in 1950 and the building fully opened to the public in 1977.

Scones make a surprise appearance!

I wasn't being completely honest earlier when I told you there was no Scone Stress today. On my previous visits, the sight of a cafe serving scones brought me huge relief and joy. Today's stress was inverted: having gone on national TV to tell everyone that I'd eaten a scone at every National Trust property that sells them, I carried terror in my heart that I'd walk round the corner and find an NT cafe at Alfriston. 

Luckily for me, I didn't find an NT cafe (although there is a very friendly non-NT coffee shop across the green called The Gun Room). But I did give a little cheer for this stunt scone that I found in the Parlour, bravely teetering on the edge of a plate:  

National Trust Stunt Scone
National Trust stunt scone seen bravely doing its thing in the Parlour.

I become a founder member of the BYOSS (Bring Your Own Scone Society)

I had decided to make Alfriston my very first BYOS (Bring Your Own Scone) outing. This was for two reasons: firstly, to prevent Scone Withdrawal Symptoms in places where there is no NT cafe. Secondly, I absolutely love the Lemon & Coconut recipe from the National Trust Book of Scones and decided to bake some for my spring day out. Unfortunately, I overdid it with the lemon juice and forgot that wet scone dough doesn't rise. BUT - it was extremely tasty:

Lemon and Coconut Scone
The Lemon & Coconut Scone from the National Trust
Book of Scones. Verdict on my bake: flat but delicious.

If I'm being honest about my Scone Sommelier skills, I'm not sure Lemon & Coconut was the right pairing for a medieval clergy house. I can't imagine there were a lot of lemons or coconuts knocking around the place in 1370. But nevermind! Onwards to the next outing!

Alfriston Clergy House: 5 out of 5
Scones: The quest is officially complete, so no more scone scoring required for properties that don't serve them!