Saturday, 20 February 2016

Coleton Fishacre

I'm going to be honest with you, readers, I am not in a good place with this blog at the moment. It's supposed to be an affectionate and light-hearted diary of my National Trust adventures, with some scones thrown in as a common denominator. 

I want every scone to be a 5-star lump of gloriousness. I don't want to criticise anyone's work or make them annoyed or sad. And the very good news is that the secret of scone gloriousness is actually very, very simple; having now visited 110 NT properties, I can tell you that the one single factor that almost guarantees enjoyment of a scone is freshness. Scones need to be baked fresh on the day. That's the secret.

The National Trust has been standardising the scone recipe across all of its properties for some time. If this is to cut costs, then OK - it's a risk, because people will stop buying them if the quality drops, and it's kind of a shame to lose the individuality of each property - it's always been part of the fun for me. But I get the need to try for efficiency.

But if it's to improve quality, then it's failing. Both scones I had today were poor. The Coleton Fishacre scone was inedible. If the NT wants to standardise scones to improve quality, then don't worry about the recipe; focus on making sure they are fresh. If scones are not baked fresh on the day, a cream tea is not worth £4.20 in my mind and I'm not going to waste any more of my money on them.

Anyway - ENOUGH of this. This is a blog about scones, not the refugee crisis or Brexit.  

If there's one thing that can rescue a bad scone experience, it's a FANTASTIC house - and that's exactly what we got today at Coleton Fishacre:


Coleton Fishacre

Coleton Fishacre was built in 1923 by Rupert and Dorothy D'Oyly Carte. Rupert was the son of Richard D'Oyly Carte, the theatre impresario who made a huge success out of Gilbert and Sullivan, and who also built the Savoy Hotel.

Coleton is located near Kingswear, close to the Devon coast. Some factoids:

  • It was designed by Oswald Milne, a one-time assistant to Edwin Lutyens
  • The house was inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement - it is built out of stone that was quarried from the 24 acre garden
  • The interior, however, is Art Deco - some of the fixtures are original
  • Dorothy lived there permanently, while Rupert came down from London every weekend with friends and associates for entertaining
  • In 1932, the D'Oyly Carte's son, Michael, was killed in a car accident - they separated a few years later and Dorothy moved out
  • Rupert died in 1948 
  • His daughter, Bridget, sold Coleton to Rowland Smith, a very successful London car dealer, in 1949
  • When his widow Freda died in 1982, it was sold to the National Trust who opened the gardens to the public and tenanted the house
  • It was fully opened to the public in 1999

I loved Coleton Fishacre. Some of my highlights:

1. The building 
I loved the way that the building is curved towards you when you arrive - see picture above. It's very inviting. It was constructed to maximise its exposure to the sun on the seaward side, apparently. And although it's built in the Arts and Crafts style, using local materials to embrace the natural surroundings, the driveway was designed so the D'Oyly Cartes could turn their Bentley around.

2. The Saloon
The interior of the house is very striking but also quite austere. We had also been to Greenway today, which was Agatha Christie's summer home, and yet it was Coleton Fishacre that felt more like a temporary summer residence. 

The showpiece was the Saloon. It's huge and was built to take advantage of the change in levels - you enter down some steps, which creates a stage effect:


Coleton Fishacre Saloon

3. The wind dial
I had never seen a wind dial before and I was transfixed by it. It has gone on to the list of National Trust Things That I Would Like in my House. Also on that list: the Tudor donkey wheel from Greys Court.


4. The Loggia
The word 'loggia' is one of the thousands of words that I recognise but if you asked me to explain it, I'd be stumped. Coleton Fishacre has a loggia, so I looked it up and it's basically an outdoor sitting room. It's lovely. It has a huge table there for everyone to eat outside, while sheltered from the elements on three sides.

5. The garden
There's a theme developing here - see our visit to Greenway again - but we didn't see much of the garden at all. It was February, it was raining, but it's no excuse - we'll have to go back in the summer and marvel at the views out to sea.

The scone
I'm not going to say much more about this. It looks nice but if you look closely you can see that it doesn't look properly baked. And it was very dry.

Coleton Fishacre scone

But Coleton Fishacre itself is a fantastic place and I highly recommend it. Go early in the summer is my advice.

I'm disappearing for a while, but I've got a big NT trip planned in March and another extravaganza in April, so we'll see how they turn out! 

Greenway

It sometimes takes a bit of effort to persuade the Scone Sidekick to join me on my scone missions. And then on other occasions, I only need four words - in the case of Greenway "it's Agatha Christie's house" - and he's got his coat on. 


Greenway House

And although I forced him to get up at 5.30am on a Saturday and travel for several hours to get there, he wasn't disappointed by Greenway. We loved it. Here are my five highlights:

1. The location
Greenway is situated near Dartmouth, on a promontory above the River Dart. The views are stunning - this is what Agatha Christie used to be able to see from her bedroom window:



Greenway view of River Dart

I assume it looks a bit nicer on a sunny day but you get the idea.

2. The history
Greenway actually had a long and fascinating history before Agatha came along:
  • There has been a house on the site for over 400 years
  • A Tudor mansion was built for Otto Gilbert, part of a Devon sea-faring family
  • In 1588, a Spanish flagship that had been part of the Armada was captured - 160 Spanish prisoners were put in Gilbert's care and he had them building walls and pathways at Greenway
  • In 1700 the Gilberts relocated to nearby Compton Castle
  • Greenway then passed through various families
  • A man called Roope Harris Roope started work on the Greenway House we see today, after he inherited in 1771
  • Roope went bankrupt and the estate passed to the Eltons, the Carlyons, the Harveys, the Bolithos and Williamses
  • In 1938, Agatha Christie (or Mallowan, as she was known - her married name) bought the place with her husband, Max
  • The house was requisitioned during WWII

2. The Agatha Christie connection
Greenway was given to the National Trust in 2000 by Agatha's daughter and grandson. They stipulated that they didn't want it to become an Agatha Christie theme park and the Trust has stuck to their wishes. It's not a museum or a shrine - it's her house.

It was actually her summer home - her main house was in Oxfordshire - but it doesn't feel like a summer home. I was expecting something small and ramshackle, but it's quite large and sturdy.

I did feel like a bit of a snoop looking inside her wardrobe, I have to say. However, I'm sure Miss Marple would have had a shufti if she'd had the chance so I'm not going to lose any sleep over it:


Greenway wardrobe Agatha Christie

Greenway features in two of Agatha's books; Dead Man's Folly and Five Little Pigs. The final episode of Poirot was also filmed at Greenway - one of the only areas of the house dedicated to her work features a script signed by David Suchet:


Books at Greenway

4. The gardens
I'm going to be completely honest with you: I saw very little of the gardens today. And I could give you many credible excuses: it's February, so there was very little to see. The boathouse was shut. However, it was only when I got home and saw that a full ten pages of the guidebook are dedicated to the gardens that I realised I probably should have made more effort. I'll go back. 

5. The lovely people
It's 187 miles from my house to Greenway and we were practically on its doorstep when I realised that you have to book your parking space in advance. I tried not to show my panic to the Scone Sidekick while I hastily looked for a number I could ring. 

To my eternal discredit, I fully expected the phone to be answered by a harassed house administrator - one that was answering the phone while also trying to open the house, fix the heating, and deal with three volunteers ringing in sick.

But it wasn't. The loveliest woman in the world answered and sorted us a space. And then when we got there we were greeted by a very friendly man at the car park entrance, followed by a lovely woman called Linda at reception. The man at the house entrance was really helpful and the staff in the tea-room were lovely too. Even the Sidekick agreed that the people at Greenway were the best NT volunteers he'd ever come across.

And so it pains me a bit to move on to more contentious matters. HOWEVER, I think that the Trust might be responsible for these things, and not Linda or the woman on the phone or the man on the door or the friendly young things in the cafe:

The tea-room
I was given a little bit of paper as we drove into Greenway. I glanced at it, saw the words 'cafe' and 'refurbishment' and stuffed it into my pocket quickly without reading any further - if I had dragged us 190 miles to a property with no tearoom, I needed to hear this at the exact same moment as the Sidekick. 

But, to my relief, the cafe was open. I bought two cream teas, put them down, collected some milk, and went back to the table. The Sidekick was looking absolutely murderous. I thought maybe his boss had rung him and sacked him, or he'd found out about the alternative route to Greenway by steam train. But no; "This has ruined it. This has absolutely ruined it," he thundered. "Do you know what this is like? MCDONALDS."

And then I read the piece of paper and realised that Greenway is conducting a two year experiment with disposable plates, knives, forks, spoons, and cups.

I really admire experiments, I really do. And although I don't see how throwing away thousands of little wooden knives and forks is better for the environment than washing up steel ones, if the Trust tells me that it's true then I believe them.

But it doesn't change the fact that sitting in a tea room eating off a paper plate with a chip fork is not a very enjoyable experience. It just isn't. The German woman next to us was eating a salad off a paper plate and it looked so unappetising - I wouldn't have touched it. 

There isn't much more I can say. We'll just have to wait and see what happens when the experiment is over. 

The scone
The scone itself was OK. It was a bit dry, and trying to cut it with a wooden knife was more difficult than I expected. But I ate it, and the tea was great, even if it did come in a paper cup.


Greenway scone

So in summary, I would highly recommend Greenway; it's a lovely place that doesn't overdo the Agatha Christie connection, with fantastic staff. 

Greenway: 5 out of 5
Scone: 3.5 out of 5 (please note that I originally gave a 4 but slept on it and changed it)
Friendliest staff ever: 5 out of 5

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Stoneywell

Leicester is famous for many things: Gary Lineker. Gok Wan. Showaddywaddy. But its greatest claim to fame must surely be the discovery of Richard III beneath a car park in 2012. That must be the kind of thing that heritage professionals dream about. Although my favourite moment in the Channel 4 documentary was the heritage professional saying "I am doing this so I can PROVE that Richard III was NOT an evil hunch-bank" and then being told by a bone expert "he was definitely a hunch-back". 

Anyway. I was pleased to see Leicester having its moment in the heritage spotlight. The National Trust owns only three places in Leicestershire - Ulverscroft Nature Reserve, Staunton Harold church, and Stoneywell. The latter is the only one that does cake, so that's where we went today.


Stoneywell

A few factoids about Stoneywell:

  • It was built in 1898-9 as a summer home for Sydney and Jeannie Gimson
  • Sydney was a Leicester industrialist and owner of an engineering firm
  • Sydney asked his brother, the architect Ernest Gimson, to build the house
  • Ernest was a leading light in the second generation of the Arts and Crafts movement - he had met William Morris and shared his belief in traditional craftsmanship over industrial mass production
  • Detmar Blow was the head mason on the job
  • Ernest chose the spot so that the house 'emerges' from the ground - the design means that you can step from the main bedroom window right out onto the garden
  • It was furnished with pieces that could withstand the cold and damp - there was no central heating until 1969, two years after the place was connected to mains water- and the result is solid, practical items that are nonetheless very beautiful
  • The original thatch roof caught fire in 1939 and replaced by slate 
  • Basil, the son of Sydney and Jeannie, moved to the house full-time in 1947
  • His son Donald lived there until 2012 when the National Trust bought it
  • It was opened to the public in February 2015

An advance booking is essential at Stoneywell - you can't just turn up - and a mini-bus takes you from the car park to the actual house.

But what about the scones? The tea-room at Stoneywell is tiny - there are only three tables and it was standing room only while we were there. To be fair, nobody seemed to mind balancing their cup on a barrel, but it did make me wonder if they could have laid the room out a bit differently, maybe with shelving around the walls to make it easier to fit more people in?

Anyway. I'm always overjoyed to see home-made scones at smaller properties, and the Stoneywell scone was really tasty. They'd run out of cream - the woman running the place was really apologetic and said that they hadn't been expecting 90 people. I'm still a bit confused about that - surely Stoneywell knows exactly how many people are coming each day - but NEVER MIND! The scone was tasty, if a little bit dry.

Stoneywell scone

Stoneywell: 4 out of 5
Scone: 4 out of 5
Impressive automatic gate to let the mini-bus out: 5 out of 5