Saturday, 29 March 2014

Avebury

My other half puts up with a lot. When I want to spend 3.5 hours on a train just so I can eat scones, he obligingly comes with me. For my birthday he spent months and loads of money planning a trip to Hadrian's Wall, in cold, wet February, because he knew that's where I wanted to go.  

But everyone has their limits and his limit is Stonehenge. He HATES it. I'm not exactly sure why but it's something to do with it being "a massive rip-off" (his words) rather than any issue with Neolithic builders. 

So I was really surprised when he agreed to go to Avebury. After all, Avebury is also about standing stones but they're more low-key, a bit Charlie Watts to Stonehenge's Mick Jagger. What if we drove the 80 miles to get there and it was rubbish?

Fortunately, there are lots of different things to see and do at Avebury:

1. Avebury stones
Avebury is the quintessential English village - it has houses and a pub and the usual road signs and cars and people buying the Daily Mail and eating bags of Quavers, just as you'd expect. But as you drive into that village, there they are - these big stones jutting out of the ground, just standing there for you to walk up and touch. It's quite a shock and I'm surprised there aren't loads of car accidents caused by drivers going "there it is! there's a stone!"...crunk.


Avebury Stones National Trust

The stones are part of Avebury henge. A henge is a Neolithic earthwork, usually round or oval and consisting of a bank and ditch surrounding a flat area of ground. Avebury's flat bit is 340 metres across, surrounded by a ditch that measures three quarters of a mile.

Once upon a time there would have been 100 stones in the Outer Circle at Avebury:


Avebury Henge

Today there are 36 stones standing within the henge. 15 of those have remained upright throughout time, so potentially since they were first put there in 2,600 BC or so. The other 21 were put back up by an archaeologist called Alexander Keiller during his excavations in the 1930s - they'd either fallen over or been buried.

And it's all a big mystery as to why it was created at all. Some think the stones are connected to the sky, the sun or moon, or to the seasons. They may have had religious uses. The henge may have been created for celebrating or contacting the dead. We just don't know. But it doesn't really matter - it's still a fascinating experience. 


Avebury stones

2. The museum 
The museum is good. It's housed in a pretty barn and it has a helpful timeline showing when the various sites around Avebury were created. The section on Alexander Keiller is great; there are some short videos which really bring him to life as a person. He was heir to the Keiller marmalade business and spent his fortune on all sorts of interests, but mainly women and archaeology. 

3. Avebury Manor 
The Manor is only a five minute walk from the stones and it's a delight. It's one of those properties, like Mompesson House or Hughenden, where I could happily hang around until 5.30pm, hide in a cupboard, and then lock the door from the inside, refuse to come out, and live there forever. 


Avebury Manor

Three years ago, Avebury Manor was empty - the National Trust had bought it but, pretty as it was from the outside, inside it was all gaudy 1970s paintwork. An empty manor house isn't very appealing, so the Trust teamed up with the BBC for a programme called To The Manor Reborn. They redecorated it and filled it with furnishings in various styles - so the kitchen is laid out as it would have been in 1912, for example. (I haven't watched it but I will do so and report back on whether it's any good.)

There has been some sort of building on the site of the manor from Norman times, although the current building is thought to date from the 1500s. In 1935 it was bought by Keiller who used it as a base for his excavations. It's a lovely little place and the volunteers are particularly friendly and full of information. Some of the rooms are closed due to the fact that the floor is potentially about to collapse, which seems sensible enough to me, but one volunteer was particularly forlorn about this turn of events. They should give him a collection bucket - he'd have made a fortune from people donating to the restoration just to stop him being sad.

Anyway. If Avebury itself was a bit of a surprise, then so were the scones. The tearoom was super-efficient and a cream tea of fruit scone, jam, and cream was served up very quickly. The scone was as fresh as could be with the perfect texture and it tasted...a bit odd, actually. I still for the life of me cannot work out what was in it but it had a really unusual tangy aftertaste. It was like strong cheese or balsamic vinegar or something - anyway, it wasn't a bad taste, it was just the first bite that was a bit of a shock. If anyone knows what the mystery ingredient is - let me know*.


Avebury National Trust Scone

3. Silbury Hill
We ended our trip with a quick detour up the road to Silbury Hill. Silbury is 37 metres high, the largest prehistoric mound in Europe, and was created in 2,400-2000 BC. It really is a bit Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You stand there wondering what on earth is inside it - giant ants? a Bond villain? Vladmir Putin? - until you read the signs, which explain that archaeologists have tried to tunnel into it expecting to find treasures galore, but all they found was mud. And as a result of the tunnels, the whole thing started eroding and they had to fill in the tunnels and tell the burrowing archaeologists to go away.

Silbury Hill

So Avebury gets a big thumbs up - put it on your list if you haven't been.

Avebury: 5 out of 5
Scones: 4 out of 5 
Vladimir Putin's secret UK lair: 5 of out 5

* The very lovely people manning the Avebury Twitter feed investigated the mystery ingredient for me the next day. They concluded that it was actually a cheese scone and the tangy stuff was mustard. However, both of our scones had fruit in and both tasted the same - maybe the mustard has snuck into the sweet dough? Like Avebury, it will probably remain a mystery.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Mompesson House

It's a well-known fact that good things come in small packages. I, for example, am 5'3". Mompesson House in Salisbury is also proof of it.

I had very low expectations of Mompesson. I spent yesterday at the stupendous Hardwick Hall where you couldn't move for grandeur and historical connections with the great and the good of Elizabethan society, from Bess of Hardwick to Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I herself.

Mompesson is very different. It was built in 1701 by Charles Mompesson, an MP in Salisbury. It was passed down through various families over the years, before being handed over to the National Trust in 1952. It's also much smaller in size - you could probably fit the whole house into one of Hardwick's rooms. 


Mompesson House

But Mompesson is a fabulous little place. Its rooms are so neat and cosy, I could happily move in tomorrow if they'd let me. 

I headed straight out into the garden to find the scones, and what a lovely little garden it was. The scones were fresh and delicious, the sun was out, the staff were very friendly - it was the perfect place to be on a Sunday morning.


Mompesson House scones

Mompesson also has three other advantages:

1. Salisbury Cathedral 
Mompesson House is located in Cathedral Close, snugly tucked away just in front of the gigantic and stunning Salisbury Cathedral. It is quite literally awe-inspiring and it went straight in at number three on the Scone Blogger's Top 10 Cathedrals of the World (Strasburg is number one. I've never met anyone else who has been to Strasburg though, so maybe I'm imagining how good it was. I'll have to go back and check.)


Salisbury Cathedral

2. Magna Carta 
I went to Runnymede once. Every single other person there was American. It's strange but the British don't really seem to care about Magna Carta as much as other nations. Maybe it's because we aren't taught about it at school (I wasn't, anyway. But if you want to know anything about Sino-Soviet relations during the Cold War, I'm your woman.) Anyway, there's a copy of Magna Carta at Salisbury - it was brought there by Elias of Dereham, who was present when it was signed and who was also involved in the construction of the Cathedral. Every single other person looking at it was non-British.

3. Salisbury
Salisbury is a lovely place. If you haven't been, GO.

Mompesson House: 4 out of 5
Scones: 4.5 out of 5
Salisbury/Cathedral/Magna Carta: 5 out of 5

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Hardwick Hall

If the National Trust has taught me anything at all, it is that the Tudors and Stuarts totally kick ass when it comes to being the most interesting people in British history. The Victorians give them a run for their money, but having one moody monarch for so long denied them the edge. The Tudors and Stuarts lived in far more interesting times. If I had to go and live in another era I'd choose the 1500s any day of the week, as long as I could take the internet and a flushing toilet with me.

The National Trust owns a lot of Tudor buildings but it was Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire that I really wanted to see. It was built by Bess of Hardwick, who was a major player in Elizabethan society. 

Bess was an extraordinary woman. Here are my top five Bess facts, gleaned from Bess of Hardwick by Mary Lovell: 
1. She had four husbands. 
2. She built Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth.
3. Her brother-in-law once tried to kill her by poisoning her.  
4. She and her final husband were responsible for keeping Mary Queen of Scots under lock and key for 15 years before Mary eventually had her head cut off.  
5. She was a great friend of Lady Jane Grey before Jane also had her head cut off. 

When you hear that someone had four husbands you immediately think of a black widow type eating men for breakfast (well, I do anyway) but Bess wasn't like that. Her first husband, Robert Barlow, died when she was 16 - they'd only been married 15 months. She had 6 children with Sir William Cavendish, before he died after 10 years of marriage. Then William St Loe died after 6 years together - it was his brother who had tried to kill Bess, and the same brother was with William when he died, so it was all very suspicious, frankly. 

Her last husband was George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. During their marriage, he was put in charge of keeping Mary Queen of Scots under house arrest so she couldn't stage any sort of coup against her cousin, Elizabeth I. The pressures of this led to Bess and George splitting up and having great big spats that Elizabeth sometimes had to step in and referee.

But although Bess loved her husbands, she was very canny. Her father had died when she was 7 months old and her mother had had a terrible time keeping hold of his assets, as his heir (Bess's brother) was not old enough to inherit, being only 2 at the time. Bess learned from this and as a result each marriage left her richer and richer until she was the second richest woman in Britain, after the Queen.

Hardwick Hall was built in 1590, after the Earl's death. Bess had been born at Hardwick, in the Old Hall, and she wanted to build something new and stupendous to show her wealth, power and status.

And the new Hardwick Hall is certainly stupendous. Bess's initials 'ES' feature on top of every turret, making it clear who built the place. It was designed by Robert Smythson and it was very unusual for its time:
1. It's symmetrical and most Tudor buildings were not
2. The private rooms are on the ground floor, with the public rooms up top
3. It contains a lot of windows. Glass was very expensive at the time and having a lot of windows was another statement of Bess's wealth. There was even a rhyme about it - "Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall". 


Hardwick Hall

It's a very large house and many of the rooms are true show-stoppers that make you gape. There are also tapestries that have been in the house since the 1590s - because Chatsworth was the main family residence, Hardwick wasn't modernised as much as it might have been.  

Hardwick also has a really distinct smell, which comes from the rush-matting that covers the floors. It was used back in Bess's time and is still used today. You can see it in this admittedly-not-great photo of the Long Gallery:


Hardwick Hall Long Gallery

And the scones? There's a really nice modern restaurant to the side of the Hall itself where a cream tea consists of two whopping scones, fruit, plain or cherry. A bit of eavesdropping led me to conclude that everyone - EVERYONE - in the tea room was discussing either the enormity of the scones or the missing plane in Malaysia. But the scones were very tasty - raspberry jam is not really my thing and they looked a tad dry when I cut them but they were actually very soft and chewy.


Hardwick Hall National Trust Scones

But you know what? I also had two less-than-great things happen to me today and I am going to tell you about them. 

1. Visiting National Trust properties alone is not very enjoyable
This depresses me but I have to say it: I was on a solo mission today, as my other half was in Rome at the rugby, and it really wasn't much fun. I know that part of this is having no-one to talk to as you walk round and that's not the National Trust's fault - that applies wherever you are. However, why do NT staff have to say "Is it just you then?" when you're showing your pass at the entrance? It happened to me today at Hardwick and it happened at Lyme House last year (on three separate occasions in fact as I went round the house). Are they expecting me to suddenly remember that I left my husband and 3 children in the car? Or that I have secreted my mother under my coat? 

2. My taxi driver on the way there was like Fred West 
I am not an uncharitable person but he was horrible. My conversation with him went like this: 
Him: "I couldn't be doing with stately homes."
Me: "Oh?"
Him: "Do you know how much they charge you to get in here?"
Me: "No."
Him: "An arm and a leg. More than £10 anyway. And then a cup of tea is £3 and all it is is a tea bag and water."
Me: "Right."
Him: "Do you know the only stately home I would go to?"
Me: "No."
Him: "Blenheim. Do you know who lived there?"
Me: (lying) "No."
Him: "Winston Churchill. Or Obersalzburg. Do you know who lived there?"
Me: (warily) "No."
Him: "Hitler."
(At this point I start seriously assessing whether I would be irreparably injured if I threw myself out of the moving car.)
Him: "Or The Kremlin, where Stalin lived. These houses here were just owned by the second cousin of some toff. And we pay for it! I would rather see where war leaders lived, someone who had actually done summat."
Me: (trying not to cry) "Right."
Him: "Look at it, there's nothing here but a few trees. They've not even put any deer in it! Mind you, you could bring a bird up here for nookie I suppose."
Me: "OK! Here's all my money! Thankyoubye!"

But even Fred West and being made to feel like a no-mates couldn't ruin the amazing experience of Hardwick. I definitely recommend it.

Hardwick Hall: 4.5 out of 5
Scones: 4.5 out of 5

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Dunwich Heath

I love National Trust guidebooks. I always buy them and read them when I get home though, and this has its dangers. National Trust guidebooks invariably contain some little factoid that would have been useful when you were on-site, so you find yourself wailing "I didn't know there was a crypt containing the bones of 1,000 peasants!" or "I didn't see the carousel that plays Bat Out Of Hell!" (I did see one of those once).

I bought a guidebook at Dunwich Heath today and, sure enough, there it was on page 5, the stop-you-in-your-tracks factoid: in 56 years' time, in 2070, much of Dunwich will be gone. The beautiful coastguard cottages (which house the tearoom and shop), the approach road, the village - the coast will have eroded and it'll all have plopped down into the sea. And that, my friends, is a very sobering thought.

Luckily for us, of course, the National Trust team at Dunwich will have some warning of this (I presume they will anyway, it'd be a bit mean otherwise). Because while the loss of wildlife habitat is a tragedy, the loss of scones, the likes of which I saw today, would be unthinkable. 

Today, readers, I saw with my own eyes 20 DIFFERENT TYPES OF SCONE. TWENTY. I can't even IMAGINE 20 different types of scone, never mind bake them.

But that's exactly what Rob, the lovely chef at Dunwich, managed to do at their Sconeathon. He very kindly invited me along - I'd love to say that the scone blogger intuitively senses when a Sconeathon is going down but I don't - so off we trotted, half expecting to find a man crying on his knees in the kitchen with 400 burnt scones scattered around him, wishing he'd never thought of the idea. 

This is what greeted us:


Sweet National Trust scones Dunwich

If you click on the image you can see it better, but to summarise: you're looking (left to right) at Chocolate Orange, Raspberry & White Chocolate, Lemon & Ginger (I think), Sticky Toffee, Malteser, Apple & Cinnamon, Pistachio & Nutella, Apricot & Almond, Cherry, Chocolate & Coconut, and to the right there was a gluten-free option.

It got better - there was a savoury selection too. Cheese & Chive, Bacon & Maple, Cheese & Bacon, Stilton, Sundried Tomato & Red Onion:


Savoury National Trust Scones Dunwich

On the way there, I'd been talking tough about trying all of them but in the end I only managed three, while the Scone Sidekick snaffled down two. Here they are up close:


Sticky Toffee Scone Dunwich Heath
Sticky Toffee Scone

Chocolate Orange Scone Dunwich
Chocolate Orange Scone


Malteser Scone
Apple Cinnamon Scone
Apple & Cinnamon Scone


Raspberry & White Chocolate Scone
Raspberry & White Chocolate Scone

I can honestly say that the Sticky Toffee scone was one of the most sublime things I have ever eaten. It was absolutely 100% a scone but it was also absolutely sticky toffee, complete with dates and everything. The Chocolate Orange scone was out of this world too - a really fresh and tasty scone with divine extra flavours. Malteser was lovely too and Scone Sidekick assures me that his were fantastic but he'd eaten them before I got a chance to taste them. 

Rob created the Dunwich Sconeathon because he wanted to give his regular customers something different. The regulars are the ones that come along in the depths of winter and so an ever-changing variety of scones gives them something a little bit special.

He then bravely invited me into the kitchen to help him bake some of the Sticky Toffee scones. I found it fascinating - every chef has their own approach to making scones and Rob let me into one of his secrets; the faster you make them, the nicer they are. 

The tearoom was completely mobbed and I'm pleased to report that the scones were a massive hit. 

Dunwich itself is an absolutely beautiful spot. It's in between Southwold and Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast and is tucked away in its own little corner. At the time of The Domesday Book, Dunwich was twice the size of Ipswich but it was gradually lost to coastal erosion, which continues today at a rate of 1m per year. The heath is rare coastal lowland heath (thanks, guidebook) and is home to Dartford Warblers, adders, and other rare species that the National Trust works hard to conserve and protect.


Dunwich Heath

The beach is perfect for walking - in fact there are countless walks around the area to help you burn off the effects of 20 types of scone:


Dunwich Beach

I'm going to finish with a picture of the lovely Rob holding a tray of his Lemon & Ginger scones. The people of Dunwich are so lucky to have him. Thank you for a lovely day, Rob - the world of scones salutes you.


Dunwich Heath Rob

Dunwich Heath: 5 out of 5
Scones: 5 out of 5 x 20