Wednesday 14 June 2023

Cliveden Revisited

Eyes down, everyone - it's time for some more Scone Stats! Ever since I completed the National Trust Scone Quest back in March, I've been playing around with the data I'd gathered over my 10 years of scone eating - see my post on Which UK Counties Serve The Best Scones? for a taste of the important questions I've been able to answer.

Today I decided to crunch the numbers to solve a conundrum that has been plaguing me for ages, namely: are the most popular National Trust properties actually more likely to serve a lower quality scone? Are you more likely to find a great scone at a property that gets fewer visitors?

It's a shocking thought, I know. And it obviously doesn't stack up. Surely the bigger NT properties have more visitors, so they have better facilities and more staff, which means the scones should be better than the ones at smaller places?

But the evidence against the larger properties started unexpectedly accumulating back in 2014. I was only 10 months into this project when I went to Cliveden in Berkshire. It was (and is) a beautiful place, but I got into a Rumplestiltskin-esque rage about the miniscule scone that I was served (see original blog post about that first Cliveden scone experience.) 

The 2014 Cliveden scone. Get your microscopes out.

My rage against the Cliveden scone took on a new intensity, however, when I later discovered the National Trust annual report. In these annual reports, the NT includes the visitor numbers of properties with more than 50,000 visitors. The order of the properties changes every year (and dramatically so during COVID) but as far as I know, Cliveden has always been in the top five. In the 2021/2022 annual report, for example, Cliveden was the NT's second most popular property with almost 554,000 visitors. 

How? HOW? How could one of the biggest NT properties be serving up disappointing scones? It didn't make sense. 

So with 10 years of data in front of me, I decided to delve in and see if this was a wider issue or a one-off.

I have three pieces of analysis to share with you. Let's start  by looking at the top 5 NT properties that had the most visitors in 2021/2022 and what I scored them for their scone:

1. Attingham: 4 out of 5 (in 2015)
2. Cliveden: 3 out of 5 (in 2014)
3. Dunham Massey: 4.5 out of 5 (in 2015)
4. Clumber Park: 5 out of 5 (in 2017)
5. Calke Abbey: 4.5 out of 5 (in 2016)

Conclusion: The really popular properties could improve on their scones. Only one of the top 5 properties scored a 5. One (Cliveden) scored badly. But the other scores aren't dismal. And you have to take into consideration that all of the larger places were reviewed in the first four years of the quest.

Let's move on to analysis number two. Here I've worked out the average scone score for all of the properties that I visited that should have been able to provide a scone, divided into two groups:

  • Group 1 - properties with over 50,000 visitors that are listed in the report: average scone score 4.4
  • Group 2 - properties not listed in the report as they have fewer than 50,000 visitors: average scone score 3.7
Conclusion: The average scone score suggests that the most visited properties do actually provide better quality scones - the most visited properties had an average score of 4.4, compared with 3.7 in the properties with fewer visitors.

And finally, what percentage of the properties served a 5-star scone? Are visitors more likely to find a top class scone at the more popular places?

  • Percentage of properties with over 50,000 visitors that scored a 5 for their scones: 48%
  • Percentage of properties with fewer than 50,000 visitors that scored a 5 for their scones: 35%
Conclusion: Here we see compelling evidence that the more popular properties are more likely to serve a 5-star scone, with almost half of them doing so. In comparison, just over a third of less-visited properties were able to provide the top class scone that we all live for.

Overall verdict: the most popular National Trust properties tend to serve the best scones and Cliveden was just an outlier.

BUT! We also have to consider the timing of my visits. All of the top 5 scones were reviewed by me in the first four years of the quest. Had things changed in the years since?

On the 9th anniversary of my first visit to Cliveden, I decided to go back and find out if there had been any improvements.

Reader, the improvement was enormous. The Cliveden cafe is still one of the very nicest in the whole of the National Trust, with a really impressive array of cakes and a choice of scones. As ever, I stuck to the fruit scone and was delighted to see that it was about twice the size of the 2014 specimen.   

Cliveden scone
The 2023 Cliveden scone - a beauty

But to truly appreciate the difference, you need to see a side-by-side comparison, which I have provided below: 

I think you will agree that progress had been made.

Trusty research assistant providing adjudication on top scone quality

Cliveden itself is a stunning property. You can read about Cliveden's scandalous history in my first post so I won't repeat it here. The house is a hotel today so you can't wander in waving your NT membership card but the extensive grounds are enough of a reason to visit.  

I won't be starting a series of 'Where Are They Now And Have They Improved The Scones?' as I only ever had a handful of disappointments over the 10 years of my project, so it wouldn't make a very good series. But I'm glad I did the analysis - it means I can stop my annual rant against the Cliveden scone.

Thursday 11 May 2023

Birmingham Back to Backs

For the past 10 years, I've had two lists of National Trust properties. The first of those lists is called "National Trust Places That Serve Scones". 

The second list is called "National Trust Places That Sound Brilliant But Don't Serve Scones And I Have To Visit The Scone Ones First." 

Birmingham Back to Backs, a set of working class houses in the centre of Birmingham, was always very high up on List #2. So when I recently completed all 244 properties on List #1 (read about my final trip to the Giant's Causeway here), I booked my tour slot and set off for the West Midlands.

Back to Backs Birmingham

But before I tell you about the very fascinating Birmingham Back to Backs, I have to correct a previous oversight of mine. 

One of the publications that recently covered the completion of this National Trust Scone Quest was the New York Times. The writer quoted a few lines from this blog, in which I had talked about different types of National Trust visitor. I had mentioned the "Expert Visitor", the one who thinks they know more than the guide and keeps correcting them on details, usually getting on everyone's nerves.

But I had failed to include the very best type of National Trust visitor: the "Lived-It Visitor". These are the people who have first hand experience of what you're looking at, which means they ask brilliant questions or make really insightful comments. They're very rare - you don't often find yourself in a tour group with the current Earl of Lichfield - but when you do bump into one, your entire experience is so greatly improved by their insights that you feel like you should be paying them for sharing their knowledge. My best example is when I went to Souter Lighthouse and met a woman whose husband had grown up in the lighthouse keeper's cottage. 

Anyway: today I was lucky enough to encounter some Lived-It visitors. They hadn't grown up in these specific back to back houses, but they remembered some of what we were seeing, which made it all the more interesting. 

(I have to add, though, that our tour guide had clearly met a few Expert Visitors in her time. She was by far the most knowledgeable and accomplished tour guide I've met at the NT, yet the fear was never far from her eyes that someone was going to question the width of the candles or something similar. It must be quite trying.)

But let me tell you a bit about the Back to Backs:

Back to Back Courtyard

What are back to backs?

  • Back to back courts were a type of urban housing built mainly in the Midlands and the North during the 19th century
  • A back to back court features a group of houses built around a central courtyard that contains the shared toilet and laundry facilities
  • Back to backs were different to terraced houses. Terraced housing was often made up of homes containing two rooms upstairs and two downstairs. In contrast, a back to back house was usually only one room deep. If you imagine a terraced house split down the middle by a wall, you'd get a back to back - one house looked out onto the street, while the house behind it looked into the courtyard.
  • Tenements were different again - they were more like houses split into multiple horizontal dwellings, flat-style, with a shared stairs.

How old are the Birmingham Back to Backs?

Known as Court 15, this set of back to backs had been built by 1831. There were three houses on Inge Street, five on Hurst Street, and three back houses. 

The last residents moved out in the 1960s but the court managed to survive because many of the houses fronting onto Hurst Street had become shops and some stayed in business until the 21st century. 

Who lived in the Birmingham Back to Backs?

Back to backs provided cheap-to-build housing in a city that was rapidly growing. The population of Birmingham was 70,000 in 1801. By 1851 it was over 200,000 and by the end of the century it was 500,000 as industrialisation attracted people from the countryside as well as immigrants. Some back to backs were populated by a certain type of immigrants, becoming a mini Warsaw or a little Roscommon (after the Irish county). 

Today, visitors to the Birmingham Back to Backs see the rooms presented as they would have existed for four real-life families in different eras:
  • 1840s: The Levy family was living in Court 15 in 1851, having moved from London. The family was Jewish, and there was a synogogue and a Hebrew School nearby. Lawrence Levy was a watchmaker.
Back to Back Kitchen
The Levys' kitchen
  • 1870s: The Oldfield family moved in during the 1860s and comprised of Herbert and Ann with their 10 children. Herbert was a glassworker, making glass eyes as well as eyes for dolls and stuffed toys.
  • 1930s: The Mitchell family lived in Court 15 for 95 years, which is unusual as most families moved around a lot. The Mitchells were locksmiths. 
  • 1970s: George Saunders ran his tailoring business from the houses fronting onto Hurst Street. George had come to Birmingham from St Kitts in the Caribbean. He moved out in 2002 and was instrumental in helping to protect the buildings. 
The guide book points out that many other stories exist from other residents, including the intriguing Bunny Bunroe, the fortune-teller. 

Why did these Back to Backs survive?

Even by the 1870s, there was pressure to get rid of the back to backs. They were seen as unsanitary. But removing them was not an easy task - in 1875, almost half the population of Birmingham was living in a back to back. New houses were built, however, and back to backs were emptied and demolished. Court 15 was condemned for domestic habitation in 1966 but it was never knocked down, probably due to the shops that existed on Hurst Street. The Birmingham Conservation Trust took on the properties in the 1990s, with the National Trust taking over once renovations were complete. 

Back to Back Toilets

You need to see the Back to Backs for yourself to appreciate how miraculous it is that they've survived. I grew up in a small town with streets of Victorian terraced houses and today I was fully expecting to find myself walking down row upon row of red brick buildings. But it's not like that at all - you're in a world of casinos and modern developments and then suddenly this little pocket of working class housing appears in front of you.

Birmingham Back to Backs

The Birmingham Back to Backs are without doubt one of the very best National Trust properties that I've been to. The property is really well set out and organised so you get a real sense for how the back to backs evolved over the 130 years when people lived in them. My tour guide was excellent - she talked for over an hour an a half, but the time flew by. I highly recommend a visit.

Birmingham Back to Backs: 5 out of 5
Scone: There's no cafe at Birmingham Back to Backs. I did take a Ginger & Treacle scone with me that I'd made myself using the recipe from the National Trust Book of Scones. It's always a winner, as it's a fiery little bake. 

Ginger and Treacle Scone

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!

Sunday 26 March 2023

Best National Trust Scones 2013-2023

The National Trust Scone Quest is complete! I found my final scone on March 1st 2023 at the Giant's Causeway, and very relieved I was to see it too.

This project has taken almost 10 years. Every August, I've celebrated the anniversary of its creation by producing the National Trust Scone Blog Birthday Honours List. These lists contain all of the National Trust properties that scored top marks when I visited, achieving 5 out of 5 for their scones.  

And so the time has come to produce ONE LIST TO RULE THEM ALL: the definitive list of all the 5-star National Trust scones that I encountered during my odyssey.

The final scores on the doors are as follows:

  • 244 National Trust properties visited!
  • 46 counties covered!
  • 99 scones scored a 5 out of 5 top rating!

The 99 first class scones in reverse order of when I visited:
  • Giant's Causeway - the final scone that completed the quest! I'll be honest: my overriding emotion on the day was relief that there was a scone at all. The fact that it was a 5-star beauty was a giant-sized bonus.
  • Divis & the Black Mountain - Divis didn't sell scones when I visited in 2019. I got a tip-off that "a mean cherry scone" was now on the menu, so I went back. My sources were correct: it was on the menu and it was mean (in a good way).
  • Greyfriars House & Garden - being a) British and b) not posh, I couldn't bring myself to ring a little bell for service first time I visited - which meant no scone. So I went back and the scone was ring-a-ding-a-ding-dong excellent.
  • Prior Park - I'd had to settle for carrot cake in 2015 when I first visited, but I went back and boy am I glad I did: a first class scone for the park built by the man who was Deputy Postmaster.
  • Crook Hall Gardens: the National Trust kept things interesting for me in my final year by opening new cafes - this one in Durham involved a long day-trip but it was worth it for a brilliant scone.
  • Castle Drogo: I spotted some stunt scones in the drawing room at Castle Drogo - always a sign that they take scones seriously. And they did: the ones in the cafe were excellent. 
  • Dunstable Downs - the town of Dunstable and I had fallen out many years ago, but stunning views and stunning scones means all is forgiven.
  • Carnewas at Bedruthan - it's not strictly an NT scone as it's a tenant-run cafe but it was excellent so I'm including it.
  • Godolphin - an absolute showstopper of a scone served in a former pigsty in a fantastic property. If Godolphin isn't on your list, add it immediately!
  • Brean Down - never trust a bus timetable on Good Friday but you can trust the Brean Down scones to be brilliant.
  • Aira Force and Ullswater - William Wordsworth wrote a poem about Aira Force and he'd have written one about the scone if he'd known about them. 
  • Claife Viewing Station - the scone was triangular, suggesting it was a tenant-run scone and not strictly NT. But it was so good it deserves to be included anyway.
  • Ormesby Hall - a scone needs to be good when you travel all the way from London to Middlesbrough and back in a day for it. And it was spectacular.
  • East Riddlesden Hall - another excellent scone that was snatched from the jaws of disaster when another cafe closed early, this time due to Storm Eunice.
  • Ilam, Dovedale and the White Peak - people ask if I'm jam first or cream first. I never divulge but I will tell you that when I visit a property, I'm scone first. None of this earning it lark. It paid off at Ilam as the tea room closed due to Storm Malik and we only just got our excellent scone.
  • Stackpole - after six months of lockdown, I made a bid for freedom in September 2020 and made it to Pembrokeshire for a fantastic scone. 
  • Wentworth Castle Gardens - little did I know when I set off for Barnsley in March that it would be my last National Trust scone for months. Lucky I ate two.
  • Lavenham Guildhall - it hasn't always had the happiest of histories but the scones made me very cheerful indeed. Absolute perfection.
  • Fell Foot - my attempt to eat three scones in one day in the Lake District got off to a promising start at Fell Foot. It subsequently won Scone of the Year 2019.
  • Cotehele - here's a top tip: it always bodes well when the property has a mill that produces flour for the scones. 
  • Buckland Abbey - previous owner Sir Francis Drake might have a bit of a questionable history but there was nothing questionable about the scones.
  • Antony: I loved Antony. I loved the name, I loved the house, I loved the scones, and I loved the fact that there's a street called Sconner Road nearby (check the photos).
  • Florence Court - located near a mountain where a legendary horse appears every July to talk to people (and have a scone I hope, as they're good).
  • The Argory - you can get there by canoe but however you get there, make sure you have one of their superb scones. 
  • Dudmaston - there was a wand workshop going on when I visited and the scones had indeed been touched by magic.
  • Kinver Edge and the Rock Houses - people lived in these caves until the 1960s and although rock buns may have been more apposite, the scones were super.
  • Arlington Court - see the house, visit the National Trust Carriage Museum, but definitely don't miss the excellent scones.
  • Dunster Castle - a very old estate with a working water mill, a leather room, and very good scones.
  • Watersmeet - the beautiful place that inspired me to keep going with the National Trust Scone Blog did not disappoint. Excellent scones.
  • Mottistone Gardens - Benedict Cumberbatch wasn't there but we did find some very superb scones.
  • Kinder, Edale, and the Dark Peak - the Pennypot Cafe is next door to Edale station. Kinder Scout is not. But we all know which part of the property is most important.
  • Erddig - donkeys, a thief housekeeper who stole £30,000, and fantastic scones can all be found at Erddig.
  • Oxburgh Hall - everybody loves a moat and everybody good scones. Oxburgh has both.
  • Croft Castle - Owain Glynd┼Ár may be buried under the floor but they don't bury the scone baking talent at this cosy castle.
  • Nunnington Hall - I went to try and solve a mysterious peacock murder case and found some very excellent scones.
  • The Workhouse - I was certainly tempted to say "please, sir, I want some more" but I restrained myself, although the scones were excellent.
  • Shugborough Estate - the ancestral home of society photographer Patrick Lichfield was a picture! Ha ha!
  • Chirk Castle - murder, scandal, adultery, violence, great's all going on at Chirk.
  • Longshaw Estate and Eastern Moors - I thought the mud might defeat me, but no - I finally found my Peak District scone and marvellous it was too.
  • Mount Stewart - was Castlereagh a great statesman or a despicable murderer? I don't know but I do know that the scones at Mount Stewart were fantastic.
  • Peckover House & Garden - Lonely Planet has just announced that a cream tea at Peckover is one of the top eating experiences in the world! I concur!
  • Clumber Park - it might have lost its house to the demolition men but Clumber offers beautiful gardens, a beautiful lake, and beautiful scones!
  • The Needles Old Battery - chalk rocks, guns, secret missile testing. And now - outstanding scones!
  • Wicken Fen - home to 9,000 species of wildlife, flora, fauna and a first-class species of scone! Bravo.
  • Berrington Hall - even Capability Brown couldn't improve the scones at Berrington Hall - they were berri-good!
  • Tyntesfield - maybe one day someone will describe Tyntesfield without saying "the man who built it made his money from Peruvian bird poo" but that day isn't today. The scones were a bird poo-free zone.
  • Sudbury Hall - a great house AND the Museum of Childhood starring Sooty and Sindy AND an outstanding scone! What more do you want from life.
  • Melford Hall - famed for its celebrity resident, the original Jemima Puddleduck! Her views on scones are not known.
  • Wallington - the former home of Charles Edward Trevelyan, the third most hated man in Ireland (after Oliver Cromwell and Thierry Henry), who was name-checked in The Fields of Athenry.
  • Belton House - the kids book and 80s TV show, Moondial, was set at Belton! And when I tweeted that I'd been there, the actor who played Tom responded! Fantastic.
  • Felbrigg Hall - poor old William Frederick 'Mad' Windham - all he wanted to do was dress up as a train guard and blow a whistle on the station platform at inopportune moments. Instead he ran up huge debts and lost Felbrigg. Amazing scone. 
  • Hidcote - a beautiful garden built by "a dull little man" according to James Lees-Milne but we loved it AND we loved the scones!
  • Plas Newydd - a fantastic scone on Anglesey! We only really went there to see the Victorian dude who dressed like Noddy Holder 50 years before Nodders was born!
  • Dyrham Park - superb scones AND free 17th century hot chocolate (the recipe is from the 17th century, not the actual hot chocolate)!
  • Trengwainton Garden - the 5th NT scone we'd eaten in 48 hours during our Tour of Cornwall and it was FAB!
  • Trerice - a quiet little manor house near the not-so-quiet town of Newquay, with AMAZING scones!
  • Trelissick - the house may be relatively new to the NT but they've certainly got to grips with the scones!
  • Boscastle - a little Cornish fishing village that was almost washed away in 2004 - unusual scones but absolutely top-rate!
  • Acorn Bank - the third top-class scone on the Spring Tour to the Lake District!
  • Sizergh Castle - amazing scone AND a copy of Wham!'s Greatest Hits!
  • Wordsworth House - I was moved to compose a poem about the Wordsworth House scone - I expect a call about being Poet Laureate any day!
  • Saltram - everything went wrong on our first trip of 2016, apart from the scone!
  • Fountains Abbey - it was in the video for Maid of Orleans by OMD! And it had fantastic scones!
  • Lanhydrock - our first foray into Cornwall and we were not disappointed! Fantastic scone!
  • Biddulph Grange Garden - they had a singing tree and a golden water buffalo but nothing could upstage the scones!
  • Nostell Priory - one of the best properties EVER with THREE types of scone!
  • Coughton Court - 7 of the 13 Gunpowder Plotters were Throckmortons! Somehow they kept hold of Coughton and are still there today! 
  • Tredegar House - fantastic scones AND they keep a Dalek in the stables (Doctor Who is filmed there)! 
  • Anglesey Abbey - they have a working flour mill! You can buy bags of flour that you transform into scones that won't be as good as the ones here!
  • Montacute House - they filmed Wolf Hall here! If only Anne Boleyn had been able to bake scones like these, it could all have turned out differently!
  • Goddards - brilliant scones at the house once owned by Noel Terry, of Chocolate Orange fame! There used to be a Terry's Chocolate Apple as well! 
  • Beningbrough Hall - spectacular works of art (and a few pictures on loan from the National Portrait Gallery as well, boom, boom!)
  • Sissinghurst Castle - did you see the scones, Orlando? They were great - and fantastic gardens too, in the former home of Vita Sackville-West!
  • South Foreland Lighthouse - excellent sconeage in this 'shining' example of a National Trust property HA HA! 
  • The White Cliffs of Dover - I really was inspired to ransack the Vera Lynn back catalogue and sing "we'll meet again" to the WCoD scone - it was that good. 
  • Speke Hall - it has the River Mersey, it has a priest hole, it has a baker on Twitter, it has fantastic scones, I LOVED it!
  • Studland Beach - famous for the UK's most popular naturist beach, for inspiring Noddy's Toytown, and now for very good scones!
  • A la Ronde - a round house full of trinkets AND fantastic scones, what more do you want from life? 
  • Upton House and Gardens - a lot of pictures, an outdoor swimming pool, and truly excellent scones!
  • Treasurer's House, York - they had a Christmas pudding scone with brandy butter that I literally still dream about!
  • Hinton Ampner - lots of sheep and fantastic scones!
  • Uppark - burned to the ground a few years ago while it was open to visitors, but now restored and serving very excellent scones!
  • Stowe - it costs £30,000 a year to attend Stowe school - I'd rather spend that on scones, personally!
  • Charlecote Park - William Shakespeare was once caught stealing a scone from Charlecote Park. Did I say scone? I meant deer.
  • Bateman's - "Well I'm the king of the sconers/the tea-room VIP", as Rudyard Kipling would have written if he'd had scones at Batemans!
  • Claremont Landscape Garden - more of a park than a garden but who's counting - the scones were fantastic!
  • Standen - tests proved that the Standen scone was genetically closer to a cloud than a baked foodstuff!
  • Nymans - another place that burned down (before the National Trust was involved), now serving amazing scones!
  • Waddesdon Manor - they have a mechanical elephant that flaps its ears at Waddesdon but as an attraction it's no match for the top-class scones!
  • Scotney Castle - the scones were EPIC. Scotney also had a Banana and Walnut Scone of the Month and Richard Gere, who filmed Yanks there!
  • Dunwich Heath - they had 20 TYPES OF SCONE at the Sconeathon we attended! Sticky Toffee, Chocolate Orange, Apple & Cinnamon, Malteser...!
  • Morden Hall Park - big, warm, and glazed. 'Morden enough' to warrant a five out of five (ha ha ha! Sorry.)
  • Sutton House - Sir Ralph Sadleir of Wolf Hall fame built Sutton House - go along and see them bring out the sconies!
  • Quarry Bank Mill - amazing scones in one of the most fascinating NT properties ever - you can even buy a tea towel made in the cotton mill!
  • Flatford Bridge Cottage - we helped bake the scones at Flatford but we gave them 5 because they were mince pie scones and they were ruddy delicious! 
  • Winkworth Arboretum - a very understated place - not a fridge magnet to be had - but serving fantastic scones!
  • Houghton Mill - the Scone Blogger was very hungover but she soldiered on and tried the scone made from home-milled flour, which was DELICIOUS!
  • Brownsea Island - we didn't see any red squirrels, which shows that they don't have very good taste as there was a Sconeathon on the day we visited!
  • Bodiam Castle - our very first 5 out of 5, setting the benchmark for all!  

There's also a National Trust Book of Scones, which is available in NT shops or on the internet.

As ever, I send my ever-lasting affection and thanks to all of the fantastic Sconepals that have sent in photos and shown ongoing support and enthusiasm for this project. 

Keep sharing your National Trust scone sightings, either on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. I love them!

Friday 17 March 2023

Giant's Causeway

And so we come to the final National Trust scone of this project. After almost 10 years, 243 NT properties, thousands of miles, and more scones, jam and cream than I can even contemplate, I completed my quest by going to the only NT cafe that I hadn't already covered on this blog.

I left the Giant's Causeway til last for three reasons. Firstly, I wanted to be sure of getting a scone on my final mission. I've only actually ever had a few scone no-shows, but I couldn't risk it happening at the grand finale. Before the pandemic, the Giant's Causeway was attracting over 700,000 visitors a year and it has a big, modern visitor centre and cafeteria - I figured this would give me the best possible chance of success.

Secondly, I'd started this project with my husband, Pete (aka the Scone Sidekick). We'd visited a lot of NT properties together before I lost him to cancer in 2018. But we'd also been to the Giant's Causeway in 2006, long before we'd joined the National Trust. So although I knew he couldn't be physically present for this last mission, I knew he'd been there and seen it and loved it.

And then, finally, I chose the Giant's Causeway as it's the only National Trust property that looks like it's MADE out of scones:

Giant's Causeway

I might as well break it to you now, though, that the Giant's Causeway is not made of scones. Here's some background:

The story of Finn McCool and the Giant's Causeway
My interest in the Giant's Causeway started at primary school. Our head teacher used to tell us the story of how Finn McCool, the Irish giant, had built the causeway so he could challenge the Scottish giant, Benandonner, to a fight. One day Finn saw Benandonner coming over the stones and was shocked at how big he was. He rushed home to his wife, Oonagh, who came up with a plan: Finn dressed up as a baby and climbed into the child's cot. When Benandonner knocked on the door, Oonagh told him Finn was out but he was welcome to wait. Benandonner saw the size of the baby and took fright, wondering how big Finn must be. He rushed back home across the causeway, pulling it up as he went so Finn couldn't follow him.

As with all good stories, there are numerous spin-offs. The 'camel' below was pointed out by our guide. Finn used it when he needed to get around in a hurry, apparently:

Giants Causeway Camel

The story of Finn McCool and the Giant's Causeway became properly world-famous when tourists started visiting the area. However, Finn McCool (or Fionn mac Cumhaill to use his proper Irish name) was a mythical hero whose many other adventures were documented in the 12th century.

It was actually formed by lava flows 60 million years ago
Much as I'd love to stick with the scone or giant theories, the columns at the Giant's Causeway are actually made of basalt, which is a fine-grained rock formed by the rapid cooling of lava. 60 million years ago, lava spilled over what is now County Antrim as a result of tectonic plates moving around. The lava was cooled by the sea and the air, which caused it to split and form hexagonal columns.  
Giants Causeway Columns

The Giant's Causeway is (almost) unique 
There are other rock columns around the world - Fingal's Cave on the Isle of Staffa in Scotland for example (which is also named after Finn McCool), or Los Organos in the Canary Islands. But our guide explained that whereas many of these other columns are topped with a layer of rock, at the Giants Causeway that layer of rock was knocked off during the Ice Age. This means that the tops of the columns are exposed and you can walk on them, which makes them special.    

Giant's Causeway stones

It's been a tourist destination since the 18th century
The Royal Society in London started taking an interest in the Giant's Causeway in 1688 and its origins were much debated during the Age of Enlightenment (1620s-1780s). An artist called Susanna Drury painted two famous pictures of the Causeway in 1739-40 and those paintings were scrutinised across Europe. The Vulcanists believed that the stones came from the earth, while the Neptunists thought they came from the sea. The area also attracted writers, artists and other tourists as well as scientists. The author Thackeray paid to join a boat trip and see the rocks from the sea, writing: "I paid ten shillings for mine, and ten minutes before would cheerfully have paid five full pounds to be allowed to quit it."

The Giant's Causeway Scone

I must have either been very optimistic or deranged by stress on this trip, because I broke my usual rule of 'scone first'. I've always been paranoid that a plague of scone-loving locusts will descend on the tea room while I'm walking around a property. But today I waited until after we'd done our tour, and by the time I got to the cafe my stress levels were through the roof.

The relief of finding a scone - and there was a choice of plain, fruit or cheese - was enormous. They only had whipped cream rather than clotted, but this is a scone blog and not a cream tea blog so it didn't really matter.

Strangely, one thing I wasn't worried about at all was the quality of the scone. I had decided that as long as I got a scone, I could cope with it not being excellent. But it was excellent. It was very fresh and fluffy with a good amount of fruit. In a world first, I even went back the following day - and the second scone was excellent as well. Consistency abounds at the Giant's Causeway.

Giant's Causeway scone

With the quest complete, we got back in the car and headed off to nearby Mussenden Temple and Portstewart Strand - both NT properties without scones that I hadn't been to before. I hadn't really given much thought to what would happen at the end of the project. I'd hoped I might get a round of applause from the brilliant people on Twitter that had been following the project - and I did, which was lovely. 

A nice man from the Press Association had been keeping tabs on my progress in recent months and I did an interview with them that night. I know enough about the Press Association to know that these things often come to nothing, so I was delighted in the morning when they texted me a link to an article that had appeared in the Independent. Then I started to get texts from friends saying they'd seen it on the BBC. And then everything went absolutely crazy: I was invited on Five Live Drive, Radio 4 The World Tonight, and Radio Ulster amongst others. I was also interviewed by the Telegraph. The following day it was everywhere. Over the next week I was on BBC Breakfast, This Morning with Holly and Phil, and the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2. Even the Washington Post covered it.

The huge amount of media coverage delivered a completely unexpected bonus: it was like Pete came back for a week. Seeing his picture on TV and in the papers felt completely right - he had also put a lot of miles into this project and now here he was at the end getting the attention he deserved. It was so totally unexpected and I literally could not have asked for anything nicer.

Giant's Causeway
Pete at the Giant's Causeway in 2006

So what's next? I'll definitely continue to add to this blog. I might go north of the border and try out some National Trust of Scotland scones. There are also lots of other National Trust properties in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that might not serve scones but deserve a mention. So you haven't heard the last of me.

Finally, I need to say THANK YOU. To all of the Sconepals on social media that have shared photos, encouragement and amusement. To all of the scone fans that I got to meet in person - especially Natalie, Abby, Helen, Corinne, Simon and the marvellous Ole. To the National Trust employees that I got to meet in person along the way (there weren't many as I kept a low profile), especially Jemma, Russell, Sarah, Sarah, Rob, Clive, Karla, Devon. To everyone that has read this blog. Most of all, my thanks go to my brilliant friends and family who have given up days, weekends, even weeks to join me on scone missions - Thelma, Fay, Pam, SJ, Steph, Hilary, John, Sarah, Lara, Kathy, Justin, Olivia, Amy, Lisa, Amalia, John, Justine, Tracey, Tim, my brilliant mum, and, of course, Pete the original Scone Sidekick. Thank you all, from the bottom of my heart.

Giant's Causeway: 5 out of 5
Scones: 5 out of 5
Consistency of scone quality: 5 out of 5