Saturday, 3 June 2017

Clumber Park

Did you know that 1,200 country houses have been demolished in England since 1900? I don't know exactly how many historic homes the National Trust owns - I'll guess at 200, which means that for every house the NT has saved, another 6* have been bulldozed.

Take Clumber Park near Worksop as an example. If you look at this photograph you'll see trees, daisies, geese, and some steps. What you won't see is Clumber House. It used to sit on this very spot but it was demolished in 1938.


Clumber Park house site

This is what it looked like:

Clumber Park aerial

Clumber Park had been created in 1707 by the Duke of Newcastle when he enclosed a 300 acre piece of Sherwood Forest.

In the 1760s, his descendent built a Palladian house at Clumber. It was destroyed by fire in 1879 and replaced with an Italianate house. That was then partially damaged by another fire in 1912. After the 7th Duke died in 1928, the family spent little time at Clumber and were facing a massive tax bill, so they sold it all off, stonework, drainpipes and all.

BUT if I was expecting Clumber Park to be a sad old ruin surrounded by a load of fields, then I was wrong. The National Trust took over Clumber in 1946 and have restored and maintained the surrounding estate.                                         

Here's a list of what there is to marvel at:

1. A lake that's two miles long!
The lake is undoubtedly the highlight of Clumber Park. It took 15 years to build - it was started in the 1770s with the damming of the River Poulter. It was extended in 1817 and again in 1885 until it covered 87 acres. 

The 5th Duke actually had a mini gun battery by the lake so he could stage battles with his miniature boat. You had to be there, presumably.

And the lake keeps growing; old coal mines below Clumber caused it to sink by several feet in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so it expanded to 104 acres. Amazing.


Clumber Park

2. An 18th century walled garden!
I keep walled gardens in a folder called "Things I will appreciate one day, but not just now" (also in the folder: porcelain). But without a house to visit today, I did have a wander around the walled garden at Clumber and very nice it was too:



In fact, it's one of the grandest surviving walled gardens from the 18th century. In its day it supplied asparagus, pineapples, and even strawberries at Christmas from its glasshouses.

3. 130 varieties of rhubarb!
I was doing my usual forensic pre-mission research (ie reading Wikipedia) when I saw that Clumber offers 135 varieties of rhubarb. I decided it had to be a joke - rhubarb is hideous stuff if you ask me and there surely can't be so many types of hideousness in the world - BUT NO! There in the Walled Garden was a sign explaining that Clumber is home of the National Rhubarb Collection, which is the second largest collection of culinary rhubarbs in the world! Admittedly the sign said 130 varieties, so Wikipedia was five out, but what's five rhubarb varieties amongst friends.

Clumber Park rhubarb
I can't promise that there are 135 varieties of rhubarb in this picture,
but there is quite a lot of rhubarb, I think you will agree.

4. 1,296 lime trees!
Clumber has the longest double row avenue of lime trees in Europe, with 1,296 trees! You can't see in the picture below but they all have black bands around their trunks, like they're in mourning. This is to stop the pesky winter moth; apparently hungry winter moths can strip a whole tree, but the female winter moth can't fly. She has to walk up the tree to lay her eggs - when she tries to walk up a Clumber Park lime tree, she gets stuck on the sticky black bands and probably wishes she hadn't bothered. 

Clumber Park lime avenue

5. One giant scone!
It's quite ironic that one of the reasons I started this blog was to help me fight off some small irritating anxieties. Let me tell you now that the first few minutes of me entering a National Trust tea room are among the most stressful of my life. 

My inner monologue (which becomes an externalised dialogue if the Sidekick is with me) goes something like this:

ARE THERE SCONES? Are there? I CAN'T SEE ANY, I CAN'T SEE ANY...wait, wait, wait, THERE ARE SCONES!...ARE THEY CHEESE THOUGH, ARE THEY CHEESE...no, they're not cheese...HOW BIG ARE THEY THOUGH, ARE THEY BIG ENOUGH, WILL IT BE LIKE CLIVEDEN WHERE I NEEDED A MICROSCOPE TO SEE THE SCONE, LET ME SEE...etc

I'd make a rubbish food critic, because I just can't stand it when things go wrong - I want every scone to be brilliant. 

So I can't tell you how delighted I was to see this GIANT of a scone today. As soon as I cut into it, I knew it was going to be good and it was DIVINE. One of the best scones I've had in ages.

Clumber Park scone

And there's other stuff at Clumber Park - there's a kids playground, a bike hire place, and more besides. Like Tatton Park, it has become a spot for local people to get their daily exercise or walk their dogs, which always makes a place feel loved.

I thought today I would get to see what the world would be like without the National Trust, but that didn't pan out. The work of the NT is very much in evidence at Clumber, even without a house - and not just in the brilliant scones but in their care of the gardens and the surroundings. A lovely place.

Clumber Park; 5 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
130 varieties of rhubarb - who knew?: 5 out of 5

*This has been altered since it was first published, as my maths was a bit dodgy

Monday, 1 May 2017

Greyfriars House and Garden

I think I was in my late 20s when I developed an unexpected passion for Countryfile. It's not the rare breeds of sheep that I love, nor the farmers finding a lucrative sideline in making crisps out of turnips. It's the people they interview - the people that have devoted their ENTIRE LIVES to protecting a certain species of moss, or a specific type of bat that I've never even heard of.

And I know what you're thinking. You're thinking: "But Scone Blogger! You yourself have selflessly devoted your ENTIRE LIFE to a noble cause - the noble cause of scones!" To which I reply: "This is undoubtedly true, and at times it is very challenging, but sitting in tea rooms eating jam is not the same as standing in a freezing barn with a torch, looking for a colony of greater horseshoes that might not be there". 

ANYWAY. I mention this because Greyfriars House and Garden in Worcester would 100% be a car park today if a group of extremely determined individuals had not devoted their lives to opposing the council and saving it from destruction.

Greyfriars House

Greyfriars - the happier history:
  • Greyfriars House was originally built in the 1480s for a Thomas Grene
  • He was High Bailiff of Worcester and wanted to show off his wealth
  • After Grene died, it was passed through various owners and tenants
  • It was acquired by Francis Street who sold it to the council for £100 and rented it back for £5 a year
  • The Streets were staunch Royalists, as was most of Worcester - the Streets ended up leaving Greyfriars during Cromwell's rule
  • The house was subsequently divided up with various residents and tenants moving in - it was used as a pub, and was home to a greengrocer, a milliner, a book dealer, an umbrella maker, a tinsmith, and even a fish fryer
But then came tough times:
  • By 1912 Greyfriars was in a poor state and by the 1930s it was derelict
  • The Worcestershire Archaelogical Society tried to rescue the building but no deal could be reached with the owner
  • In 1936 the council ordered its demolition
  • However, the archaelogical society was not deterred and fought on
  • In 1939, all demolition work was stopped because of the outbreak of war
  • In 1943, a man called William John Thompson bought the property and carried out emergency repairs but he couldn't continue to fund it long-term
The Moores to the rescue:
  • Matley and Elsie Moore were siblings who offered to restore Greyfriars at their own expense as long as they could live it in
  • They collected the contents of the house that we see today
  • They were interesting characters - Alan the guide told us that they often held tea parties and if you didn't show up or send a thank you letter afterwards, you didn't get invited back
  • They were very frugal, so the house was bitterly cold in winter
  • Matley didn't like televisions or radios or anything that made a noise - Elsie had to keep her radio in her bedroom
  • They had a controlling mother - after she died in 1953, Elsie used her money to buy three shops opposite Greyfriars to save them from demolition
  • The Moores left the contents to the NT in their wills, with the stipulation that no ropes or barriers would be used and visitors could roam freely
Parlour at Greyfriars
The Parlour, where Matley and Elsie Moore used to sit.
No TV = no Countryfile, which is very sad
Other things I learned today that I didn't know:
  • In the 1400s, all men were required by law to practice archery every Sunday
  • Worcester is a really, really lovely little city - why didn't I know this?

But onto the bad news. I'm afraid I let you all down on this scone mission. Greyfriars did have a little tea room and they probably had scones, but I didn't stop for any. They were short-staffed and not really supposed to be open on a Monday and, well, I just couldn't face being the only one dinging a little bell for service and demanding that someone come running to bring me tea. I know. Pathetic.

Greyfriars Garden
The garden at Greyfriars - you can sit and drink your tea on the patio
when it's not pouring down, as it was when I went
So I basically need you all to go to Greyfriars and do my job for me - let me know how you get on?

Greyfriars House: 5 out of 5
Scones: 0 out of 5 because I didn't ask for any. I'm so sorry, everyone. 
Chances of me being sacked as Scone Blogger: 5 out of 5

Friday, 14 April 2017

Bodnant Garden

I went to Cardiff a few years ago for a meeting. I got chatting to the receptionist about the FA Cup, which was being played the following day at the Millenium Stadium, as Wembley was being rebuilt. I apologised, saying that it must be a total hassle for the people of Cardiff, as the stadium is right in the city centre. "OH NO!" she said (you need to adopt a Welsh accent to get the full effect of this story) "We don't mind at all. We love it. Everyone should come and have a good time." 

And that sums up the Welsh for me. If things had been reversed and Twickenham was hosting an Eistedfodd, we'd all be moaning about it for weeks: "The A316 is going to be a total NIGHTMARE! And it'll be IMPOSSIBLE to get on or off a train at Richmond station that day! Luckily I don't live anywhere near Richmond or require any train services. Why can't they just hold it in Newport?"

What has this got to do with Bodnant Garden near Llandudno, I hear you ask? The answer is that they have a huge laburnum arch that bursts into beautiful bloom every year. And the Bodnant team go ALL OUT to encourage people to come and see it. They have 'Laburnum Archers' guiding visitors around, they stay open until 8pm - they even have Wag Wednesdays so dogs don't miss out. Apparently 50,000 people visit Bodnant in 3 short laburnumy weeks to see it. The staff don't get worked up that so many visitors might traumatise the laburnum, they don't worry that articles will appear in the Daily Mail screaming 'HAS THE NATIONAL TRUST LOST THE PLOT?' They just say 'it's marvellous - everyone should come and enjoy it'. I love them for it. 

Now I've shared all of that, you might be asking why I went to Bodnant Garden in April when the laburnum is not in bloom. The answer is: I'm not sure. This was the laburnum arch today:

Bodnant laburnam arch in April

And this is what it will look like in a few weeks' time:


To paraphrase Sir Alex Ferguson: Mother Nature. Bloody hell.

ANYWAY. The good news for me is that the laburnum arch is just one of many highlights of Bodnant. In fact, Bodnant Garden was not what I was expecting at all. 

My route began as I expected, with prettily ordered flower beds and a house you're not allowed into (it still belongs to the McLaren family, the gardening-mad descendants of Henry Pochin, the industrialist that bought Bodnant in 1874).


Bodnant tulips

Then you come to the five terraces, which continue the orderly theme, albeit with the backdrop of wild Snowdonia.

This is the Canal Terrace, with its long pond. The building on the left is the Pin Mill. It originated in Gloucestershire, where it was used as a pin mill and a tannery before it fell into disrepair. Henry McLaren bought it and had it moved brick-by-brick to Bodnant.



But then you descend into a whole different landscape. The dells and water gardens are amazing - you can follow little paths hither and thither:



There's also an old mill:



And a waterfall bridge:



...as well as a boathouse and and a little church-like building called The Poem, where Henry Pochin and his wife Agnes are buried along with their children, including the four that died in infancy. 

I also learned about champion trees today. I had absolutely no idea that the concept of champion trees even existed, or that there that is a database of champion trees. A champion tree is basically the tallest or widest of its kind in the British Isles, and Bodnant has several champions.

I know nothing about trees but I do love to bump into a sequoia, or Californian Redwood, on my scone travels - I explain why I love them in my post about Sunnycroft

The sequoia at Bodnant is 49 metres high and the tallest in Britain. It was planted in 1886 though, which was bad news for the Scone Sidekick who is currently attempting to grow a sequoia from a seed:


The sequoia at Bodnant - planted 1886, now 49 metres high

The Sidekick's sequoia - planted 2015, not 49 metres high
Anyway. Let's move on to the all-important scone. The scone at Bodnant was very good - it was a little bit soft for my liking, but it was tasty and I ate every crumb.


Bodnant Garden scone

The one good thing about me missing the laburnum's big moment is that I'm giving you a few weeks' notice to go and see it for yourselves. If you can get there in May, I highly recommend it - Bodnant Garden is lovely anyway but with the laburnum as well, it's a fantastic place.

Bodnant Garden: 5 out of 5
Scone: 4.5 out of 5
Sidekick's dreams of one day seeing his sequoia towering above him: squashed to 0 out of 5.

Friday, 17 March 2017

The Needles Old Battery

The Isle of Wight has been calling me for years, metaphorically speaking. I remember at primary school there were always kids coming back from holidays wielding little glass objects in the shape of boots or swans filled with amazing coloured sand that they'd got from the IoW. Although, now I come to think of it, I never owned a glass swan filled with coloured sand, which probably means I didn't have any friends. 

Anyway. If you look at the map you could be forgiven for thinking that the NT owns the Isle of Wight. They have several properties there and they're all lovely and everything but only one does scones. And so we found ourselves at The Needles Old Battery

Five things we saw today:

1. The Needles!
The Needles are a row of three chalk rocks sticking up out of the sea, just off the west coast of the Isle of Wight. The Needles Lighthouse stands at the end of the row. It was built in 1859 and is still working today.

There used to be four chalk rocks. One apparently looked like a needle, hence the name. That pillar (known as Lot's Wife) collapsed during a storm in 1764, leaving the non-needle-like Needles. They look more like jaggedy shark fins to me, but I appreciate that jaggedy shark fins doesn't have the same ring to it.


The Needles

This is apparently how The Needles used to look when the actual Needle-like rock was still there.


2. The Old Battery!
The Old Battery was built in the 1860s. It was part of a chain of forts that was constructed to protect against a French invasion. The forts were hugely expensive and France never got round to invading, so they're known as 'Palmerston's follies', after the Prime Minister who ordered them.

I apologise for the lack of photos of the Old Battery. I was too busy taking 600 pictures of the Jagged Shark Fins/Needles from every possible angle but here's a snap of the tunnels:




3. The New Battery!
Not content with an Old Battery that hadn't exactly earned its keep, the British government decided to build the New Battery in the 1890s to house larger guns. The site saw no major action in World War I but anti-aircraft guns were fired from the Battery in World War II.

But what is very exciting indeed is that from 1954 to 1972 the New Battery was used as a secret missile test site called Highdown. 60 ft rockets, called Black Knight and Black Arrow, were built up the road in East Cowes and tested at Highdown. They were then taken to Woomera near Adelaide in Australia to be launched into space. 

I was expecting the New Battery to be like something out of Thunderbirds, and it probably was a bit James Bondian back in the 1950s and 1960s when the control rooms and laboratories were filled with boffins. 

It's not quite like that today - the British rocket program ended very suddenly in 1971 and the site was dismantled - but the replicas of the rockets and of this satellite called Prospero (the only British satellite ever launched, which still passes overhead twice a day and will do so for another 200+ years) did lend a bit of rocket science excitement.



4. Alum Bay!
I also got to see my coloured sand, albeit from afar. This is a rubbish picture, but you can just about see the different colours in the cliff. You used to be able to go and shovel up your own sand, but that was stopped because of erosion. 


Alum Bay

5. Scones!
I was a tad worried about this scone mission, to tell you the truth. Our last outing, to Chedworth Roman Villa, had resulted in no scones at all (nice fruit cake though) and the Isle of Wight involves a ferry and a bit of effort.  

But I need not have worried, scone fans, because The Old Battery delivered the goods. The tearoom is smashing - it's set out in 1940s style with lovely teapots and teacups. It reminded me of the similarly lovely tea room at South Foreland Lighthouse


The Needles Old Battery scone

The scone was fresh, light, and tasty with lovely jam and cream. A unanimous five out of five from me and the Scone Sidekick.

So there you have it - you can add 'Cold War missile testing site' to the list of things that the NT looks after. I'll have to go to Dolaucothi Gold Mines next to get the full set of quirky places.

The Needles Old Battery: 4 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Coloured sand-scooping opportunities: 0 out of 5

Friday, 24 February 2017

Chedworth Roman Villa

Did you know that there are over 450 Roman villa remains in the UK? I did not know this. I very stupidly thought that about 20 Romans came over to Britain; a few of them stayed in London and built a couple of things there, a few went north to sort out Hadrian's Wall, and a few went to Bath. 

But I was wrong, as usual. A quick look on Wikipedia shows that even in my home county of Northamptonshire there are several villages that I thought were entirely featureless that actually have the remains of a Roman villa in them. Amazing.

Thanks to a lovely tour guide called Julian, I learned a lot more at Chedworth Roman Villa near Cheltenham today. We hadn't planned to join a tour, but one was starting as we arrived so we tagged along expecting to wander off at some point. But an hour later, I was still hanging on Julian's every word as he pointed things out that we would never have noticed without him. So Chedworth Tip One: join the tour.


Chedworth Roman Villa Mosaic

1. Who discovered Chedworth?
  • The villa was discovered in 1864 by a man called James Farrer 
  • His nephew owned the estate, and one day a gamekeeper found some tesserae (little cubes that were used to make Roman mosaics), which he showed to James
  • Jimbo wasted no time - he was a keen antiquarian and he soon had a band of men digging the place up
  • In one summer they uncovered pretty much everything that we see today
  • He built a museum in the middle of the excavated site on the spoils from the clearance - I was really disappointed by this, as I thought someone had accidentally built a house here and then discovered it was bang in the middle of a Roman villa. But no.

Chedworth Museum


2. When was it built?
  • Some simple structures were built on the site in the 2nd century AD
  • From the 330s to the 380s, the villa was extended and had its heyday - the west range and north wing housed the main reception rooms, while the south wing was a service area with a kitchen and a toilet
  • But then in the early 5th century, Britain ceased to be part of the Roman Empire - the collapse of the Roman system brought the decline of luxurious villas like the one at Chedworth
  • The once beautiful, elegant rooms would have been used for keeping animals until eventually the buildings started to collapse and rot away

3. Who lived there?
  • The short answer: nobody knows
  • However, it would have been someone of consequence - it was a big, luxurious villa that would probably have been owned by someone involved in the administration of nearby Cirencester
  • Hairpins and children's bracelets have been found, suggesting that a family lived there

4. What is there to see?
  • The outline of parts of the villa is visible - the Victorians used what stones were left to reconstruct the general footprint
  • The nymphaeum, or shrine to the nymphs, is situated in the top corner of the villa - Julian's pictures came in handy at this point:
Nymphaeum at Chedworth
Good old Julian showing us what the shrine
would have looked like in the 4th century
  • But the real show-stopper is the mosaic work in the west range - the pictures below really don't do it justice:
Chedworth mosaic in dining room
The huge mosaic in the dining room with its scantily clad ladies -
Julian got a lot of interest in those


The west bath house

  • We also got to see the pilae that would have been used to create the hypocaust system for heating the rooms - they're in their puffa jackets to protect them from the elements at the moment:
Pilae for the hypocaust

5. What didn't we see?
  • Snails. Apparently the Romans liked eating snails and brought some of their favoured variety with them. A few plucky gastropods made a run for it and escaped the cooking pot, taking up residence in the vicinity AND THEY'RE STILL THERE TODAY! Not the same ones obviously, but their descendants continue to squelch their way around the villa 1700 years later. 
  • More mosaics. Amazingly, some of the mosaics were covered over again post-excavation, as they'd be destroyed if left open to the elements. So you walk round on grass verges knowing that there are stunning patterns beneath your feet.
  • Scones.

I was very disappointed by the lack of scones but let's be clear; this was scone mission #153. My rough guess is that of 153 properties visited, only five have failed to deliver scones when I would have expected some to have been available. That's not too bad.

Anyway. I had dragged the Sidekick some distance and we were both hungry, so he had carrot cake and I had fruit cake. And they were both DELICIOUS.

Chedworth Roman Villa Cake
I was so disappointed that I couldn't even be bothered to turn it the right way up
for the photo. Then I tried it and it was absolutely lovely.

I've been pretty lucky with this Scone Odyssey so far. Every time a scone fails to materialise or impress, the property turns out to be brilliant - see also Penrhyn Castle and Coleton Fishacre. With 100 properties left to go, long may that continue.

Finally - a word about guided tours at the NT. I rarely join them and I really don't know why, because they are always useful. Red House, Acorn Bank, Quebec House - all of these properties were brought to life by an NT tour guide. So take my advice, readers: IT'S NOT A CHORE, SO DO THE TOUR. (You can have that for free, National Trust marketing team.)

Chedworth Roman Villa if you do the tour*: 5 out of 5
Scones: 0 out of 5 - there weren't any
Fruit cake: 5 out of 5

* I don't know what it would be like if you didn't follow a tour guide, but I'm guessing it wouldn't be as good.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Wicken Fen

I was extremely excited about going to Wicken Fen near Cambridge today, mainly because it has a windmill. I suspect that anyone born in the UK in the 1970s loves a windmill, thanks to legendary TV show Camberwick Green and its triangular-haired hero, Windy Miller. 

Wicken Fen wind pump

But two problems cropped up very early on:

1. The 'windmill' at Wicken is actually a wind pump - more on this later

2. Wicken Fen is renowned and revered for being home to 9,000 species of fauna, flora and wildlife, but you'll struggle to spot 8,999 of them if you visit on a sleet-ridden day in February (we saw a robin). That's a heinous exaggeration, before anyone complains, but to get the best out of Wicken you probably need take your binoculars on a spring or summer or autumn day, which I will do when I return.


Wicken Fen

Before we set off for Wicken, I knew what The Fens were, but I didn't know what they were, if that makes sense. Luckily they have a really good visitor centre and a very helpful guide book that explains it all, even if the guide book does contain about 20 words that I have never heard before in my life - "lode" anyone? "Carr"?

As you can tell, the guide book had its work cut out and this is what it taught me:
  • The Fens were created as a result of peat bogs, laid millennia ago, in the lowlands of East Anglia - because the of peat bogs, the area was part land, part water
  • Humans originally settled on the land areas - nearby Ely being one - and lived off the fish, the fuel (peat and sedge), and the building materials that were available in abundance
  • Efforts to drain the fens to make them usable for agriculture have been going on for years - the Romans tried to do it and so did just about everybody else since then
  • It was the Victorians that saved Wicken Fen from being drained - local naturalists had bought up parcels of the fen to protect the wildlife, and the National Trust stepped in as early as 1899 to take on the role of protector
  • The wind pump is the only one left - there used to be 1000s of them in the area, pumping water out of the turf pits so that the peat could be dug. Amazingly, it's still in working order.
Fen
*proudly* This plant is called sedge and it saved Wicken Fen -
it was too valuable to lose to drainage in the 19th century
and then, as the sedge market collapsed, the Victorians recognised
the value of the insects and wildlife that it attracted. Well done, sedge.
I read later that there are boat trips you can do on the fen from Easter to October - read about them here, as they sound fantastic and you should try and go on one.

But while the Victorians might have come to Wicken looking for a long-winged conehead cricket, or a marsh dagger moth, my sights were firmly set on finding a tasty scone. 

I was accompanied to Wicken by my trainee sconeologist mum and sister. There was only one fruit scone left on the counter when we arrived in the tea room and we all looked at it, them presumably wondering how we were going to cut it into three and me wondering how I was going to break the bad news to them.

However, the lovely assistant checked the oven and said more scones would be available in 5 minutes' time, so a fist fight was averted.

The delivery of three hot scones to our table meant that Wicken Fen walks away with the award for Freshest National Trust Scone EVER. It was tasty as anything and it looked fantastic - a big chunk of a golden scone befitting a cold and gloomy day. I've always said that it's hard to ruin a fresh scone but even when I tried really hard to find something wrong with it, I couldn't. A triumph. 


Wicken Fen scone

So there you have it - if you head to Wicken Fen on a nice day, you could see everything from a water vole or an otter to a hairy dragon-fly AND you'll get a fantastic scone.

WICKEN FEN: 3 out of 5 in winter but I'll be BAAAAACK
SCONE: 5 out of 5
Wind pump making that "pum-eerrk-er-pah-dum" noise that Windy Miller's windmill made (oh, just watch it here from 0.20 seconds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyz_jv_xiB80 out of 5 as it wasn't making any noise

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Berrington Hall

I've always had an inexplicable dislike of Capability Brown, the man responsible for designing so many estates now owned by the National Trust. 

He got his name because he would visit a place and tell the owner that it had "capabilities". They would then pay him a substantial amount of money and he would move some hills or install a lake to brighten the place up.

Today, at Berrington Hall in Herefordshire, I realised where that instinctive dislike comes from. For A Level English, I had to study Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. The characters go and visit a stately home belonging to Mr Rushworth, whose head is full of "improvements" and his desire to hire Humphry Repton to give the place a makeover. 

(Apparently, Austen had relatives whose home was remodelled by Humphry Repton. In Mansfield Park, she even quotes the rate that he charged them; five guineas a day.)

But the point is that Mansfield Park's prim little heroine, Fanny Price, is aghast at all of this improvements talk. And so I've always assumed that Jane Austen didn't approve of improvements either, and she's usually right about everything. Ergo, without realising it, I decided in 1990 that 'improvers' were bad and this dislike resurfaced, like Godzilla, 25 years later when I finally came across any.

You might well be wondering why I took against Capability Brown when it was actually Humphry Repton that she mentions. I am wondering the same thing. But Repton is often regarded as Brown's successor, so there you are. Let's not split hairs.


Berrington Hall

ANYWAY. What has all of this got to do with Berrington? The answer is that Thomas Harley commissioned Capability B to design the grounds and CB's son-in-law, Henry Holland, to design the house.

Here's a bit of history:

The Harleys
  • Berrington was bought by Thomas Harley in 1776
  • Thomas had made his money through marriage and by winning the contract to provide clothing and wages to the British army in America - according to the guidebook "in 1777 alone he supplied over 40,000 pairs of mittens"
  • He moved to Herefordshire to set himself up as a country gent, commissioning Capability Brown to landscape the grounds, and Henry Holland to build the house
  • Holland delivered a house in the French Neo-classical style - it's quite a plain house without a lot of external decoration
  • Harley had also planned a plain interior, until his daughter married George Rodney, son of Admiral Rodney who was a famous seaman of his age
  • The Admiral was beset by financial problems and in a letter to his son, he tells him to visit the (very wealthy) Thomas Harley "and if your heart is touched by either of his Daughters, indulge the Flame"
  • Luckily, George's heart was indeed touched and he did indeed indulge the flame, marrying Anne Harley
  • The Rodneys moved in to Berrington, with Thomas eventually bequeathing it to his grandson, the 3rd Lord Rodney
  • It then passed sideways through the family until the 7th Lord Rodney, who ran up gambling debts and had to sell the contents and eventually the estate in 1901

Berrington Drawing Room

The Cawleys
  • Frederick Cawley was also a rich man - he owned the patent for a black dye, which became very lucrative in 1901 when Queen Victoria died and the world went into mourning in black crepe
  • He bought Berrington as a country retreat and installed electricity and other mod cons, while also replacing ugly Victorian fixtures
  • The Cawleys lost three of their four sons in the First World War
  • Robert Cawley, the surviving son, lost one of his sons in World War II, when Berrington had been requisitioned as a convalescent hospital
  • It was handed to the National Trust in 1954

Berrington stairway hall

But of course there is one area where I am always happy to see improvements, and that is the area of SCONES. I didn't have high hopes for the Berrington scone - it looked a bit ordinary and underwhelming (a bit like Fanny Price). But it was absolutely delicious - fresh and tasty. First 5 out of 5 of the year! Hurray!

Berrington scone
I just noticed Capability Brown photobombing my scone picture -
he had to get his face in somehow. 

I'll end by sharing this link. It lists all of the properties connected to Capability Brown. There are 240 of them!!! I'm surprised there was anything left for Repton to improve for his 5 guineas a day.

Berrington Hall: 4 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Ubiquitousness of Capability Brown: 5 out of 5