Saturday, 22 October 2016


I have now been to 149 National Trust properties. I've seen houses built from the profits of cotton, sugar, coal, banking, shipping, guns, and marriage but Tyntesfield (pronounced Tintsfield) near Bristol is the first place I have visited that was funded by bird poo.

Yes, you read that correctly. Bird poo. In 1842, the Gibbs family started importing guano (that's dried bird poo to you and me) from Peru of all places. It was sold as fertiliser and it revolutionised Victorian agriculture, making William Gibbs wealthy enough to create this place: 


  • The house at Tyntesfield had originally been Georgian
  • William Gibbs bought the place in 1844 as a country residence for his wife and seven children
  • In 1863, William commissioned architect John Norton to enlarge and remodel it in High Victorian Gothic style
  • His son, Antony, created the farm at Tyntesfield and modernised the place with electricity when he inherited it in 1887
  • Antony's son, George, inherited in 1907 - he later became 1st Baron Wraxall 
  • The Gibbs firm had left the guano trade in 1861 and diversified into other products
  • However, the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression impacted on business and income gradually declined
  • George's son, Richard, inherited in 1949 - he never married and lived alone in the house while he ran the estate until he died in 2001 
  • In 2002, the National Trust acquired the house and the core of the estate

The house is undoubtedly beautiful, but the real show stopper at Tyntesfield is the chapel. It was the first part of the building that we saw and I was stunned by it- it's basically half a cathedral:

Tyntesfield chapel

The chapel is based on La Sainte Chapelle, a medieval royal chapel on the Île de la Cité in Paris. It had not been part of the original plan for Tyntesfield and was added a decade later, in 1875, by architect Arthur Blomfield. He managed to build it on sloping ground so that the family could access it from the first floor of the house. 

William was very religious. He was a Tractarian; in 1833, the Reverend John Keble had created the Oxford Movement, which called for a reform of the Church of England and a return to its Catholic roots. Supporters of the Oxford Movement were called Tractarians and they included William Gladstone as well as William and his wife, Blanche.

I'm now going to make myself sound like a right philistine by admitting that I was really disappointed not to see the chapel in its entirety. There's an art installation in there at the moment - it think it features people from different faiths praying - and it's enormous, covering up the whole altar. It's only there for two months, so we were just a bit unlucky with our timing, but it was really disappointing.

Art installation Tyntesfield chapel

And I hate myself for saying that, because I'm generally all for art installations at the NT - read about my love for the Singing Tree at Biddulph. I'm just not sure I'd have covered up one of the most important parts of the property - even the guide book says that the altar is the focal point of the chapel, so why obstruct it?  

Anyway. The same artist also has other pieces on display in the house itself. I have zero shame in saying that I thought they were horrible - a huge cast of a dead cow's head and two dead lambs would make most people feel uncomfortable. And they're supposed to do that - the website explains that they "will trigger us to consider mankind's complex relationship with breeding" - and I have no issue with that at all, but don't expect me to go home thinking it was lovely.

Emotional Archaeology Tyntesfield

More Emotional Archaeology Tyntesfield

The art isn't the only thing at Tyntesfield that is challenging - the tea room is one of the most stressful places I have been to in a long time. I hasten to add that we were there at 1pm on a Saturday when they were having a Hallowe'en event, so I'm not complaining. I think the main issue is the building itself - there are limitations on what they can do with it and space isn't used very effectively.

But kudos to the mainly young staff - they were efficient and friendly and unflappable. The scone looked fantastic and it was fresh and tasty - a definite 5 out of 5.

Tyntesfield scone

I'm going to end with Marketing Idea for the National Trust Number 3,231. For the first time, I was struck by how all of the NT properties fit together - so William Gibbs was commissioning work at Tyntesfield in 1863, the exact same year that William Armstrong was buying land near Newcastle to build Cragside. A book explaining the chain of events and similarities/differences would be great. Or maybe just a big jigsaw. I'd buy it anyway.

Tyntesfield: 4 out of 5
Scones: 5 out of 5
Calmness and serenity: 0 out of 5

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Sudbury Hall

I don't know what I was expecting from Sudbury Hall and the National Trust Museum of Childhood in Derbyshire. I think I was expecting it to be the National Trust Museum of MY childhood, which would basically be the set of Saturday Superstore with Enid Blyton as the presenter and a cartoon sausage on a fork appearing out of nowhere every few minutes.

Sudbury Hall and the Museum of Childhood are in the same building, but they are separate entities so you can visit one or the other as you prefer.

Sudbury Hall
Can you just pretend the car is not there - it's cheaper than Photoshop 
We started off in the Museum. It begins with a really good replica of a chimney that little kids can actually climb into to see what life might have been like for them 170 years ago - quite handy if your offspring ever need reminding that a broken iPad is not the worst thing that ever happened to any child ever. 

Then there are loads of toys from olden times - I loved these cat skittles:

Cat nine-pins Steiff

And there were a few faces that I recognised from my own childhood days, although I don't remember Sooty looking this depressed:

Sooty at Sudbury
Poor old Sooty - maybe that rat stole his jumper
HOWEVER. I knew - I just knew - that there would be SOMETHING unexpected in that museum that would stop me dead in my tracks and throw me back to my younger days. 

And here it is. It wasn't Grange Hill, or Claire and Friends singing 'It's 'Orrible Being In Love When You're 8 and Half' in Search for a Superstar, - it was this orange Sindy bathroom suite, which I hadn't seen for at least 35 years. I can't recall which of my friends it belonged to, but I remembered every single bit of it, from the little white taps to the brown bath mat. I take my hat off to whoever got Sindy's hair into this Betty Draper do though - I remember her barnet just sticking up in the air and being impossible. 

Sindy Bathroom Sudbury
Proust had his madeleines to remind him of the past -
it's a little fringed brown bath mat that does it for me
ANYWAY. Once we'd looked round the museum we went next door to the actual house itself. This is a rear view of it:

Sudbury Hall rear view

A bit of history for you:

  • The Vernons arrived in Britain with the Norman Conquest
  • There are many branches of the Vernon clan, including the slightly mad lot at Hanbury Hall
  • However, the Sudbury branch inherited the Sudbury estate in 1513, when John Vernon married a local heiress
  • John left his property to his two sons - John Jnr inherited Sudbury and Henry got an estate in Staffordshire
  • The brothers appear to have been great pals, until Henry married a woman called Dorothy - John did not approve
  • John was a bachelor in his forties when Henry died in 1592, but he wanted to stop Dorothy getting her hands on all of the family estates - so he married a woman called Mary, the widow of his cousin, who handily already had a son called Edward Vernon
  • John died in 1600 without an heir of this own, and so Dorothy and Mary went into battle for the property
  • It was all sorted out in time-honoured fashion - Mary's son, Edward, and Dorothy's daughter, Margaret, were married off to each other (it's not known what they thought of this) and they were given a house at Sudbury
  • However, the house we see today was actually built by their grandson, George, after he inherited in 1660
  • The house was handed over to the National Trust by the 10th Lord Vernon in 1967, although he built himself a house on the estate and his family still live there apparently

The house has a Long Gallery, which was quite unusual for its time:

Long Gallery Sudbury Hall

In the Long Gallery there are a number of portraits, including these two. The first is Nell Gwyn, mistress of Charles II. The second is Barbara Villiers, mistress of Charles II. Do you get the feeling that he had a thing for shepherdesses whose clothes kept falling off?

Nell Gwynn Sudbury

Barbara Villiers at Sudbury

Anyway, let's move on to more important matters. It took us a while to get to Sudbury today and we were both REALLY looking forward to our scones. I spotted a pile of them sitting on the counter as I walked past the tea room window - I think I may have broken into an actual sprint at that point. 

We were rewarded though, because the Sudbury Hall scone was fantastic. It looked perfect, it felt a tiny bit warm, and it was light and delicious. It even looked happy to see me. Definitely one of the best NT scones ever.

Sudbury scone
Maybe it's me, but I'm sure this scone was smiling for the camera

Sudbury Hall: 4 out of 5
Scones: 5 out of 5
Ability of 1980s children to be wildly jealous of anyone with an orange doll's toilet and a rubbish mirror: 5 out of 5 

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Melford Hall

I absolutely love watching National Trust room guides interact with the British public. At one extreme you have the room guide that sits in a dark corner and doesn't say a word, and none of the visitors ask them anything, because we're British. Occasionally a German visitor will walk in and say "What is this?" and the room guide jumps a mile. 

At the other extreme is the room guide that talks without drawing a breath - I hasten to add that I now know EXACTLY why they do this: they have a mortal dread of the Expert Visitor. We've all seen them - the architectural expert or professional historian that knows more than the guide and spends the whole time tutting and saying "well, that's not EXACTLY right - the horse that threw him in 1532 was actually called Archibald, because his other horse, Geoffrey, was lame that day" until everybody just wants to shove Expert Visitor out of a top floor window.

But the best room guides are the ones that don't wait to be asked questions and don't fear the know-it-all visitor - they just go for it. And that's exactly what the room guides at Melford Hall did today. They were ALL brilliant - really enthusiastic and happy to show off the property. I wanted to take a quick picture of the library door and the guide walked the full length of the room to shut it for me, so it looked its best - I know this doesn't sound like much, but it really helps to make you feel welcome.


But let me tell you a bit about Melford Hall itself:

1. The Hyde Parkers still live there!
  • Melford Hall was bought by Sir Harry Parker in 1786 
  • His dad was a real character; as Vice Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, he resigned after the Battle of Dogger Bank in disgust at the terrible condition of the fleet's ships and officers
  • Unfortunately for him, he came out of retirement in 1782 and went to sea again with his grandson, but they both drowned in a storm off the Maldives
  • Sir Harry's second son, William, inherited Melford in 1812 - he designed the fantastic library with its hidden door: 
Melford library
The hidden door is very successful at its job -
it's the third panel from the left.
  • William was succeeded by his brother, Hyde, who also had an interesting naval career; during the bombardment of Copenhagen he gave the signal to withdraw, but his second in command - one Horatio Nelson - lifted his telescope to his blind eye and said "I really do not see the signal" and continued until the Danish surrendered. I doubt that Hyde was very pleased about this.
  • Sir Richard Hyde Parker still lives at Melford today, although the estate was given to the NT in 1960
2. Beatrix Potter was a regular visitor!
  • William Parker, the 10th baronet, was married to an Ethel Leech, the cousin of Beatrix Potter
  • Beatrix often stayed at Melford, reading her stories to the Hyde Parker children - they called her Cousin Beatie
  • She gave them the duck that had inspired Jemima Puddleduck, and it is still at Melford today! I commented on how new she looked and the guide said "well, she had to go to be restuffed last year". It's sad that in today's society even toy stars have to have 'work' done to stay young-looking. Or maybe she had a drug problem? Who knows with these celebrities.
Jemima Puddleduck: ask her to wrinkle her forehead. She can't.

3. The Cordells built the place!
  • Melford was originally a manor owned by the abbots of St Edmondsbury
  • The Dissolution of the Monasteries put paid to that and after 500 years of monastic rule, the estate was passed to the King 
  • He sold it to William Cordell, who had worked his way up and was eventually Speaker in Queen Mary's Parliament
  • William built the hall between 1554 and 1578, although he probably used bits of the original abbots' manor
  • Elizabeth I visited Melford Hall in 1578
4. The Savages inherited in 1602, then it went back to the Cordells!
  • Thomas Savage, great-nephew of Sir William Cordell, extended the house after he inherited 
  • Descendants of the Savages apparently include Princess Diana, Camilla Duchess of Cornwall, Sarah Ferguson, the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, the scientist Sir Francis Galton, Bertrand Russell, and Lord Lucan - you couldn't make it up
  • Elizabeth Savage had to mortgage Melford to a John Cordell - the Cordells were back at Melford again, becoming Firebraces before they left Melford for good
But let's move on to the all-important scone. I think I've been letting the Scone Sidekick watch too much reality TV; today when I asked him for his scone verdict he looked very serious but then said "the best scone I've had in a long time" in the same tone of voice I would expect him to use when sending somebody to the gallows. 

But he was right - it was a fantastic scone. Fresh as a daisy, superb texture, and great taste. Great job, Melford.

Melford Hall scone

I'll end with this, the winner of Creepiest Thing I Have Ever Seen at the NT. I'm still not sure exactly what it is or what it's for, but it was acquired by Sir Harry Parker's dad after he captured a Spanish galleon full of gold and porcelain in 1762. This was one of the things he was allowed to keep. I'd have been locking my bedroom door at night, personally.
As someone on Twitter said, you just totally know
that this thing gets down and runs around at night

Melford Hall: 5 out of 5
Scones: 5 out of 5
Celebrity ducks: 5 out of 5

Sunday, 18 September 2016


It was never going to work out between me and Wallington. I knew we were doomed from the minute I realised it had once been the home of Charles Edward Trevelyan, the Trevelyan mentioned in the Irish folk song, The Fields of Athenry. 

But before I get on to that, I'm going to start by focusing on Wallington itself, because it's a lovely house. 


Here are a few factoids:

  • Wallington was owned by the Fenwicks from the 15th century - they were known for being quite fierce and doing frequent battle with the Scots during various Border skirmishes
  • Sir John Fenwick, a favourite of Charles II, was wildly extravagant and had to sell Wallington to Sir William Blackett, a wealthy mine owner, in 1688
  • Sir William built the house that we see today 
  • His son, also William, left the place to his nephew, Walter Calverley, on the condition that Walter a) changed his name to Blackett and b) married William's illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth
  • Walter Calverley Blackett died in 1777 and left the place to his nephew, Sir John Trevelyan
  • The Trevelyans were originally from Cornwall, as the name suggests, and for a long time they retained their estates at opposite ends of the country

The Central Hall is very impressive - it was built in 1853 by covering the original open courtyard that the house was built around. The walls are covered in paintings of Northumbrian history, including Bede, Grace Darling, St Cuthbert (of Lindisfarne fame), the Vikings, and Alan Shearer (I might be joking about the last one).

The Drawing Room gives you an example of the warmth of the house - it felt quite homely:

But let me come back to Charles Edward Trevelyan. He inherited Wallington in 1879. It was left to him by his cousin, Sir Walter Calverley Trevelyan - Sir Walter was close to Charles' son, George Otto Trevelyan, and that's who Walter had in mind as his eventual successor.

I was doing my usual quick read-up on Wikipedia before I went to Wallington when I noticed this paragraph about Charles Edward:

Trevelyan is referred to in the modern Irish folk song "The Fields of Athenry" about the Great Irish Famine: "Michael, they have taken you away / for you stole Trevelyan's corn / so the young might see the morn / now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay." Because of Trevelyan's policies, the Irish consider him one of the most detested figures in their history, along with Oliver Cromwell, who conquered the country in the 17th century.

Charles Edward Trevelyan
Charles Edward Trevelyan -  in  the words of the Arctic Monkeys,
perhaps vampire is a bit strong but...
I was stunned. I'm half-Irish and although I'm normally pragmatic about history and our incapacity to change the past, I knew that this visit would be different - it was potentially the answer to the question of why 25% of the Irish population had either died or emigrated between 1846 and 1850.

So I bought the book A Very British Family: The Trevelyans and Their World to get myself fully up to speed. It was written by BBC journalist Laura Trevelyan, the great-great-great granddaughter of CET himself. And now I can tell you about him:
  • Charles Edward Trevelyan was born in 1807
  • He joined the civil service where he was a zealous reformer - he blew the whistle on his superior in India for corruption, and he eventually overhauled the way that the Civil Service recruited its staff - competitive exams replaced the usual 'jobs for toffs' arrangement
  • In 1846, a Relief Commission was created in response to the growing crisis in Ireland, where a potato blight was destroying the population's main source of food - the Commission bought in Indian corn, which was being sold cheaply to those in need
  • The head of the Relief Commission was Charles Edward. However, he had a very strange way of relieving things; on being told that the corn was being bought up too quickly from the depots, and that it wouldn't last until the next potato crop in September, he closed the depots. 
  • In July 1846, word reached London that the September potato crop had also been blighted and further disaster loomed. Charles's response? He closed the Relief Commission. In his own words "The only way to prevent people from becoming habitually dependent on government is to bring operations to a close. The uncertainty about the new crop makes it more necessary."
  • In 1847 the potato crop succeeded, but so little had been planted by starving people during a terrible winter that it wasn't enough. In 1848 the crop failed again as badly as before. This time there were no depots or relief commissions - the Poor Law was all that was left.
  • In April 1848 - ie in the middle of soup kitchens being shut down in Ireland while a total of one million people starved to death in a part of the United Kingdom less than 500 miles from London - he was made Sir Charles Trevelyan and awarded £2500. He paid it back following an outcry.
Nearly all of the above comes from Laura Trevelyan's book. She argues that Charles Edward has been personally vilified to an unfair extent and that he cared a lot more than is apparent from some of his more heartless letters, but even so - even she admits that at best he was guilty of a laissez-faire attitude, prevalent among the entire governing class, that people should be self-reliant, when those people had absolutely nothing to rely on.

By the way, you won't find any of this in the Wallington guide book. It says; "He visited Ireland and showed great sympathy for the starving, organising relief...with total integrity. He has been attacked, not always justly, for not having done more to help the victims of the Famine." So make your own mind up about that.

Anyway. The man who believed in people standing on their own two feet, who fought against nepotism in the civil service, ended up returning to India where he conveniently forgot all of his principles and got his son a job as his secretary. 

I really do recommend Laura's book, by the way. It's very well written and covers how the other Trevelyans that followed CET were an interesting bunch that occasionally shared his hypocrisy. His grandson, Charles Phillips Trevelyan, decided that Wallington belonged in public ownership and handed it over to the National Trust - but not until he was dead. He continued to live the landed life and decided that his children would be the ones to make the sacrifice. He also had an affair with his secretary and fathered a child with her when he was 72, utterly humiliating his poor wife.

But here's something I love about the Trevelyans; I absolutely love their coat of arms. It's basically a horse having a fabulous time at the seaside: 

And I'll tell you something else I loved - THE WALLINGTON SCONE. This was our fourth NT scone of the day, following George Stephenson's Birthplace, Seaton Delaval, and Washington Old Hall, and it was the best one by far. It was light and tasty and well worth battling a few wasps.

Wallington scone

So I recommend Wallington, for its scone and its friendly staff, and I recommend Laura Trevelyan's book as well - it's a fascinating and very honest insight. 

Wallington: 5 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Charles Edward Trevelyan: 0 out of 5

George Stephenson Birthplace

If I ever went on Mastermind, my specialist subject would be Negative TripAdvisor Reviews of NT Properties. It's a niche topic, I grant you, but I love them - the property was shut, my dog wasn't allowed in, it rained etc.

George Stephenson's Birthplace, however, is an exception. It has a small number of negative comments and they all say the same thing; it's hard to find the place and there's only one room open to the public.

George Stephenson's Birthplace

The first of those complaints was debunked early on. "It's REALLY hard to find this place," I warned the Scone Sidekick. "We're probably going to get lost and then you're going to get annoyed with me, but let's definitely not have an argument about it." We had just started having an argument about me saying that we were going to have an argument when we drove around a corner and saw a sign saying 'George Stephenson's Birthplace', so we parked, followed another sign saying 'George Stephenson's Birthplace' and walked along until we found it. And I'm not exactly Sir Ranulph Fiennes when it comes to map-reading, if you know what I mean.

The second complaint is more justified - there is admittedly only one room in the house open to the public. However, George's family only lived in one room, so it is authentic.

George Stephenson Birthplace Interior

However, there's no space for explaining George's achievements, so I learned nothing about him from the property itself. It's probably just as well though, as I subsequently discovered that his life was incredibly sad in places, so I'd have been sobbing my eyes out:

  • George Stephenson was born in 1781
  • His parents were illiterate and so was he until he was 18
  • He worked in a nearby coal mine as an engine man, paying to study at night 
  • He met a girl called Betty Hindmarsh, but her dad refused to let them marry as George wasn't good enough for her 
  • He married a woman called Frances and their son Robert was born in 1803
  • A baby daughter followed in 1805 but she died aged 3 weeks - George's wife then died of consumption in 1806
  • George went to find work in Scotland, leaving Robert with a local woman
  • He returned, probably because his father was blinded in a mining accident
  • In 1811 he offered to fix a pumping engine at a pit and was so successful that he was promoted and became an expert in steam-powered machinery
  • He invented the 'Geordie Lamp', a safety lamp for miners, which was similar to Humphry Davy's Davy lamp - people (including Davy) couldn't believe that an uneducated man could invent something so useful and George was accused of copying
  • This is partly why Robert was educated privately, to give him the credibility that George lacked
  • In 1814, George designed his first steam locomotive, the Blücher, for transporting coal at a local pit
  • He then set up a company with Robert and two other men to build the Stockton and Darlington Railway - it opened in 1825
  • They then built the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, with Robert's design for the actual train winning the competition - this was called Rocket
  • George spent the rest of his life building railroads in the UK and advising people from the US and other countries on how to build theirs
  • He married Betty Hindmarsh in 1820 - his increased wealth probably made her dad a bit more supportive this time
  • George died in 1848

The tea room behind GSB is tiny, but it seems to be a big favourite with the local dogs, many of whom had taken their owners out for a cup of tea on a Sunday afternoon. I don't think the scones were homemade but it was tasty and I enjoyed it. 

George Stephenson Birthplace Scone

It's amazing to think that a man that achieved so much in engineering started life in such a small place with no education. It's a lovely little spot.

George Stephenson's Birthplace: 5 out of 5
Scone: 3 out of 5
Information on George: 1 out of 5

Seaton Delaval

I have never watched a single minute of Game of Thrones, but I am led to believe that it is a hugely successful TV series involving a load of bonkers families dying bizarre deaths and getting up to all sorts of scandalous shenanigans.

Now, let's think - who else do we know that has loads of bonkers families dying bizarre deaths and getting up to scandalous shenanigans...wait a minute, it's THE NATIONAL TRUST. If I was marketing director at the NT, I'd be camped outside the office of the commissioning editor at Netflix right now - when GoT finally ends with everybody getting eaten by dragons or whatever and the viewing public says "NOOOO! What will I do with my life?" they will be ready with the next TV sensation, and the NT will be RICH beyond their wildest dreams. Don't thank me, NT, it's fine. 

And they would have PLENTY to choose from. I've come across some very rum families during my 146 visits to NT properties, but the Delavals of Seaton Delaval near Newcastle-upon-Tyne take the absolute Hob-nob. 

Seaton Delaval

Here are my four favourite Delavals: 

1. Francis Delaval 
He was a right cad, basically. He was the rightful heir to Seaton Delaval when his dad died in 1752 but he had zero interest in running the place. He had moved to London aged 20 and fallen in with a bunch of dissolute actors. On his return to Seaton he seduced his cousin's young companion, a Betty Roach, but he soon got bored and returned to London. She followed him and had two illegitimate children with him, Francis and Frances  - clearly she was taking no chances on everyone knowing who their dad was. 

His dissolute actor friend, Samuel Foote, then persuaded him to marry a rich but senile 60 year-old called Isabella. They staged an elaborate ruse involving a fortune teller to get her to fall for Francis, which worked, but it turned out that she only had £24,000 and not £100,000. 

He then managed to become an MP - he fired a cannon filled with 500 golden guineas across the town square in Andover so people would vote for him (it worked). He also became great friends with Prince Edward, brother of George III, but got bored of his social circle and joined the army for about five minutes (long enough for an act of reckless heroism that got him knighted). He returned to the theatrical world and fell in love with an actress called Ann Catley. Her father sued him for debauching her and it went to court - Francis lost but Ann left the court with him instead of her livid dad (she was also very pregnant). 

Unsurprisingly, Francis ended up massively in debt. When Prince Edward died, Francis took it very badly and he collapsed and died after a huge meal in 1771 aged just 44. 

Francis Delaval

2. John Delaval
Francis's brother was the Bobby Ewing of the family - he basically sorted everything out for everyone, while his big brother caused chaos. John did love his theatrics, though. When Francis built a bedroom at Seaton where the bed could be lowered into a tank of cold water, thus soaking the poor unsuspecting guest that was in it, it was John and another brother, Thomas, who engineered it. 

But even John had his moments. His wife died in 1783, when he was 60, and he took up with an Elizabeth Hicks, who was barely a teenager, AND a Susanna Knight. The ménage a trois continued for a while until Elizabeth did the decent thing and died of consumption, so he married Susanna. He died in 1808 without an heir.

3. Jack Delaval 
Jack was John's son, but he died before John in very bizarre circumstances. He liked molesting servant girls and while visiting some springs to cure an illness, he tried it on with a maid who kicked him in the crotch and he died of his injuries. I am not making this up - I copied that almost word for word from the book.

4. Sarah Delaval
John's favourite daughter was a daredevil as a youngster, riding horses nobody else would touch and so on - you know what's coming. At 16, she caught the eye of Frederick, second son of George III, so her dad married her off pronto to the Earl of Tyrconnel to avoid any shenanigans. 

Seven years later, Fred returned from the army and within three months he was having an affair with Sarah. The Earl of Tyrconnel turned a blind eye apparently. Frederick was eventually married off to some poor Prussian, but the Delavals had continued to put on plays after Francis's demise and Sarah acted in one, catching the eye of Lord Strathmore from nearby Gibside. Within weeks they were an item and the Earl was turning another blind eye. But Sarah became ill and died aged just 37. 

And if you needed a gob-smacking postscript to that: Lord Strathmore was said to be absolutely devastated by Sarah's death, but he soon took up with a replacement: Sarah's 19 year old daughter, Susan. You couldn't make it up. 

Sarah Delaval

So I REST MY CASE that the NT is full of debauched dynasties that would make a blockbuster of a TV show. AND they helpfully overlap - just go and read my Gibside blog post if you want proof of that. 

ANYWAY. I learned all of this from a book called The Delavals: A Family History. As book titles go, it's not the most exciting, but it belies the contents. I recommend it. 

But let's move on to the Seaton Delaval house itself, as that's a whole other story. It's a fascinating place, although it actually made me very sad.

Seaton Delaval Main Hall
  • The hall was built between 1719 and 1730 for Admiral George Delaval, great uncle of Francis and John
  • It was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, who also built Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard
  • In 1822, the central part of the house was devastated by fire - by then, the Delavals had died out and John's nephew, Jacob Astley, had inherited Seaton Delaval but he didn't live there permanently 
  • In 1841, the roof on the burnt out central wing was fixed but it remained an empty shell
  • The NT took over the house, gardens and much of the estate in 2009
It made me feel sad for two reasons; firstly, the central wing had clearly been hugely impressive in its heyday when Delavals were marauding through it, and now it looks so empty and abandoned.

But secondly, the Astleys did eventually come and live at Seaton Delaval. Edward Astley and his wife lived in the West Wing of the house until their deaths in 2007. I would hate to live in a building that was half burnt out and full of bats (I don't actually know if it was full of bats, I'm just guessing), even if the other half was bat-free and perfectly comfortable:

One thing Seaton Delaval does have is fantastic room guides. Some properties are just very lucky with having brilliant people to tell their stories - Nostell Priory and Tredegar are two others - and Seaton has several great volunteers. 

We were the first visitors into the tea room on the day we visited and I had a moment of panic when I couldn't see any scones. But we found some and I ate mine out in the sunshine - I don't think it was home-made but it was tasty and I enjoyed it.

I shall end by offering my consultancy services to the NT in getting Games of Scones commissioned. In return, I will want a short but very good part - maybe Dame Mary Bankes defending Corfe Castle from the Roundheads, or Queen Ælfthryth arranging the murder of her stepson at Corfe. I will also insist on cameos for all the Sconepals, so start thinking about which part you would want. There could be a BAFTA in it.

Seaton Delaval: 5 out of 5
Scone: 3.5 out of 5
Entertainment value of the Delavals: 5 out of 5 and surely worthy of a few Emmys/Baftas

Washington Old Hall

I was expecting Washington Old Hall to be a complete disappointment. It's the ancestral home of George Washington - ancestral being the killer word in that sentence. He never actually lived there. 

Washington Old Hall

So I was expecting to find the odd American wandering around the place saying "Gee, Mary-Ellen, I wonder where he slept?" and a guide having to say "well, he didn't actually ever live here, but over there we have a lovely cushion cover belonging to his great-great grandmother..." "WHADDYA MEAN HE DIDN'T LIVE HERE? We've come all the way from Cheesetown, Wisconsin to see his house! Get me my lawyer!"

But there was none of that. And the reasons are pretty simple:
  • Washington Old Hall is undoubtedly the ancestral home of George Washington, first President of the United States of America
  • His ancestors came to Wessyngtonlands in the 12th century and changed their name from 'de Hertburne' to 'de Wessyngton', which later became Washington - just as well really, as Hertburne DC doesn't have the same ring to it
  • In 1613 the Washington family moved south and the estate was sold to the Bishop of Durham
George Washington was born in 1732, so he never actually spent any time in the Old Hall, nor in Washington itself, nor actually in Britain. When the Washingtons set off for Virginia, they did so from Hertfordshire. 

But the fact remains that the capital city of the USA was named after this little Northumbrian village and the Americans are very proud of it. There's a video showing footage of Jimmy Carter coming for a visit in 1977:

Jimmy Carter Washington Old Hall

The Hall eventually became tenement flats, with nine famillies stuffed into it (God knows how). There's a room set up in the style of a tenement flat: 

Washington Old Hall tenement flat

And there are some BRILLIANT stories from people who lived in the tenements. One man remembered it being a good place to live, apart from the cockroaches. Mind you, his expectations of life were admittedly low - when he got his first job down the pit he had to borrow his dad's trousers until he got his own. Another remembered passing the 'White Lady', the resident ghost, on the stairs. And another talked about how every family had a cat to kill the vermin - his mother used to say that the mice sat on the windowsill waiting for her to bake the bread. 

But then the Hall fell into disrepair and was declared unfit for human habitation. A local teacher named Fred Hill rescued it from demolition and raised funds for its preservation and restoration. In 1957 the National Trust assumed responsibility for the building.

There were no scones at Washington Old Hall - the tea room is very small but they serve teacakes and other cakes, so we had a cup of tea and sat in the lovely sunshine.

So instead of a picture of a scone, here's a nice photo of the Scone Sidekick with some eagles:

Washington Old Hall: 5 out of 5
Scones: 0 out of 5 (there weren't any)
Chutzpah of the mice in the tenement days: 5 out of 5