Monday, September 24, 2018

V&A Dundee

Back in the late '80's the V&A ran a series of add posters describing itself as 'an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached'. It is quite a nice museum, the sort of place where you can spend days without exhausting its displays, and the kind of museum where despite hours of searching I've utterly failed to relocate galleries I've visited before. It's stuffed full of objects that cover any aspects of the decorative arts I can conceive of.

Which is hardly surprising when you consider that it has almost quarter of a million artifacts in its collection suitable for long term display. Those are only part of its more than two and a quarter million artifacts, of which around 60,000 are displayed between the V&A and the Museum of Childhood at any one time.

Initially I was really excited about the prospect of a V&A outpost in Dundee. I have very strong feelings about getting some of the national collection out of London and within reach of the sizeable portion of the population who don't live near it. It's also increasingly, and now prohibitively, expensive to get to the capital, at least it is for me thanks to East Midland Mainline.









I was even more pleased when I realised that it would be entirely feasible to stop in Dundee on the way north and that this trip was taking place a week after it opened. If you arrive by train, the station is literally opposite the new museum, if you're driving you turn up there before you know it and there's reasonably priced parking a couple of minutes walk away.

Then I read something about the South Kensington mothership having a rummage around to produce 300 loan items with a Scottish connection. 300 items out of almost quarter of a million. It made me wonder what exactly they would have in the way of content.

My first impression of the new building was that it's quite small as well - no chance of losing yourself or whole galleries in this one. Second impression is that Kengo Kuma has created something magical. The building twists around and doesn't have a bad side to see it from. As you drive past it the shape echoes a boat, an impression further underlined by RRS Discovery (Scott and Shackleton's ship that was built in Dundee) that sits beside her.

From other angles it looks like the sea cliffs that inspired Kuma, and again this impression is reinforced by the way the building leans out over the Tay along with pools of water that surround and reflect it. Inside the light is wonderful, especially on the sunny day I saw it on, with reflections off the water dancing all over the place.

The central atrium which has the (ace) cafe and gift shop on the ground floor, and a restaurant above is impressive, but it takes up a lot of the building. I didn't see the Ocean Liners exhibition but have read that it looks even better here than it did in London. Which leaves the Scottish Design Galleries.

This is where it all falls apart for me. The gallery is small, a good portion of it is taken up by Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Oak Room. I'm prejudiced here because I'm not a Mackintosh fan. With no natural light the Oak Room is dark and a little bit pokey. As a tea room it might have been very handy for illicit rendezvous, as an exhibit it's a lot of dimly lit wood. Some Mackintosh furniture would have made it more interesting, but it's empty.

Scotland has a long and rich design history, I don't think that's as little known as the gallery blurb suggests, but I certainly didn't come out of this feeling that I'd learnt much about it, or its influence around the world. It's more of a cabinet of curiosities than anything else.

A Vivienne Westwood suit near the entrance has a sign that declares she supports Harris tweed, an Alexander McQueen wedding dress near the end comes from a collection titled 'Widows of Culloden', they start hint at how a romanticised Scottish past has inspired fashion, but it's disjointed. A suit by Hardy Amis using Bernat Klein tweed doesn't explain much about who Bernat Klein was, why he's interesting, or how important the textile trade was (and still is) to the Borders.

Shetland knitwear is represented by a single fine lace shawl and a jumper, Orkney gets a chair, and so on. There's no depth to any of it, most provincial museums I've been in have more comprehensive collections, and do a better job of exploring their context. This will be a great place to see traveling exhibitions, it's a cracking cafe with a wonderful view, and a stunning building, but it's limited content makes it seem a wasted opportunity to me.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Elementum: A Journal of Nature & Story

It's good to be back in Scotland for a few days, the weather this weekend has been spectacular, or at least the clouds parted somewhere in Northumberland and since then it's been all blue skys, and golden light playing across russet hills. Even when there's been the odd rain shower they've been sweeping across majestic mountains and throwing rainbows around with gay abandon.


Our first proper stop (it's more or less half way) was at the Mainstreet Trading Company in St Boswells. I've been going to this bookshop whenever I can, more or less since it opened a decade or so ago. It's changed and grown quite a lot in that time, it has a deli (an excellent one) and a home ware section now, the cafe has grown, and it no longer sells antiques (we kind of miss the antiques). The two things that have remained a constant are how very good the cake is, and how very good the book shop is.

The thing about really good independent bookshops is that even when they're quite small there's always something interesting for everyone, and my find this time was the current issue of Elementum . I've wanted to see one of these for a while now. I like journals (Slightly Foxed, Hortus, and Archipelago are all ones I'd recommend) but they're not particularly cheap and with money being tight at the moment I like to see what I'm buying.

The Jackie Morris article about painting otters and making an otter alphabet is worth the £18 cover price alone, and that's only the beginning. I'm so pleased with this that I'm now committed to ordering the back issues asap. I completely missed Alex Preston and Neil Gower's 'As Kingfishers Catch Fire when it came out last year, so that's gone on my wish list too - and that's all I've had time to read so far.

Visually this is the richest, most colourful, and downright inspiring journal I've had the pleasure of finding. Everything about it speaks of quality, it's going to be a joy to read - so just in case anyone else was dithering over subscribing - go for it!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Holiday reading plans - one book or lots of books?

I'm off up to Inverness at the weekend and whilst packing clothes is a simple enough matter packing books is not.

I used to read quite a bit on holiday, but have found over the last couple of years that I don't really get the chance to do that. It's part of staying with family - there are always people to talk to, and little jobs that need doing, never mind all the places to go or things to see. It also seems really rude to read in the car when there's only one other person in it (doing all the hard work of driving too) and so altogether there ris ally isn't much unaccounted for time.

I'll also inevitably buy books when I'm away, I always find time for that. And that's before I consider the hooks on my phone and iPad...

All of which means the sensible thing to do would be to only pack one paper book - and that had been my sensible intention for the last couple of weeks, for which time I've been telling myself I could do that. I often have 2 paperbacks in my work bag in case I finish one at lunchtime and have nothing for the bus ride home, despite the reality that lunch is mostly spent getting annoyed by stuff on twitter and the bus ride takes 15 minutes, 20 on a bad day. The idea that I might only pack one book is sensible, it's just probably not realistic.

And which book - honestly, how do you choose one book when you have maybe 50 (maybe more) all clamouring to be read Right Now. Actually that's a question I need an answer to because at the moment the number of books that I want to read right away is leaving me in such an indecisive state that it's just much easier to turn to twitter and choose between 50 (maybe more) things to be outraged by.

Meanwhile 3 particularly exciting review copies have landed on my doorstep. They're all short story collections and that seems particularly desirable for holiday reading. 'Kingdoms of Elfin' should be interesting, not least because Sylvia Townsend Warner is someone I keep meaning to read, but haven't, and fairy tales fascinate me.

I've been looking forward to the British Library collections, both anthologies look like they've got some great stuff in them. Tanya Kirk's last collection The Haunted Library was brilliant, but as both editors were responsible for curating the Terror and Wonder exhibition about the gothic imagination a couple of years ago - which is one of the best things I've seen in recent years - these were always going to be great books. The weather tonight (both dark and stormy) is just perfect for them as well. I'll probably pack the lot.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

From the Depths and Other Strange Tales of the Sea - edited by Mike Ashley

For the last couple of years the British Library have been publishing collections of weird tales. (Lost in a Pyramid is a particular favourite; the stories are excellent, and it's also a fascinating insight into the late Victorian preoccupation with death and the afterlife - but they've all been excellent.) this s year however, they've really gone for it with a whole lot of titles and a really nice set of jackets to match.

The first of these, out for a month or two now, was 'From The Depths and Other Strange Tales of the Sea' and it's everything you might hope that it could be. What I particularly like about these collections are the way specific themes emerge that she'd odd sidelights on contemporary pre-occupations or interests.

The limits of scientific knowledge come up a few times, and with pleasing synchronicity there was a story in this weeks Guardian which echoes one from this collection. In 'From the Darkness and the Depths' a professor manages to take a photograph of a beast that's picking off the crew of a stricken ship. They can feel it, but they can't see it, which they decide must be because it normally lives at depths where there's no light (or something like that). These translucent Snailfish sound much more benign than the monster Morgan Robertson came up with, but they're a startling reminder that over 100 years later we still don't really know what's down there.

There are stories that capture the transition from sail to steam as well, where wooden ships are imbued with a sort of sentience that their steam powered successors lack. And a couple, including the title story 'From the Depths' that dwell on the then new horror of ships being sunk by submarines.

Perhaps the most atmospheric stories are the ones where ships find themselves stranded in sargasso weed, but the most frightening is the final entry 'No Ships Pass' about a mysterious island that picks up shipwrecked sailors. There's a handful of people trapped on it, seemingly for eternity.

Altogether it's a splendid collection which does an excellent job of bringing together the sort of strange tales of the sea that you would probably expect, along with a couple that you might not. The rest of the series mean there's a lot to look forward to in the next few months.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Lillie O'Brien's Fig and Earl Grey Jam

The worst of my cold has passed, I would have been back at work today, but it was my normal day off - annoyingly punctuated by a doctors appointment at midday and having to wear a blood pressure cuff for the next 24 hours. I've never had to do this before so wasn't really prepared for how uncomfortable or annoying it would be. It seems to have been set incorrectly too, only going off every hour, not half hour, so I have to do the whole thing again next week. It had better only go off the promised once every 2 hours overnight (I'm not hopeful on this score) or it's going to be an unhappy return to work tomorrow.


Meanwhile as I was passing the market, and figs were cheap, it seemed like making the fig and Earl grey Jam from 'Five Seasons of Jam' would be a nice gentle way to celebrate feeling a bit better. Obviously it's a while since I made Jam, or I'm nowhere near as far along the road to recent very as I supposed. Jam making is not really a stress free occupation, and making this one certainly wasn't.

There are two reasons for that, neither have anything to do with O'Brien's recipe which I was attracted to partly for it's elegant simplicity (1.5 kgs of ripe figs - which came to just over £5 on my local market, would have been about £8 in M&S, and a whopping £20+ in Sainsbury's) 10g of loose Earl Grey tea, the juice of a lemon, and a kilo of caster sugar. You take the stalks off the figs, cut them in half, then cut them into roughly 5 mm slices. Stick in a jam pan with the tea and gently heat for 5 minutes to release the tea flavour and some of the juices from the figs. Add the rest of the ingredients, stir well to help the sugar dissolve, up the heat, and boil until setting point is reached (220°F on a jam thermometer). Bottle into sterilised jars.

Simple, easy, no problem - or so you'd think. My first, and possibly biggest problem, certainly the messiest one is that although most the figs were perfectly ripe, some a bit over ripe even, a few clearly weren't. The last time I had such an extreme reaction was with some deceptive, but in the end distinctly under ripe greengages a few years back. They spat. They spat like crazy in fact, sending molten fig and sugar (in this case, greengage that other time) everywhere. I was particularly impressed that it managed to reach my phone, that I had thought was a safe 4 feet away. The walls, work surface, hob, and floor, are obviously all as sticky as anything. So was I. Gloves would have been useful.

I assume slightly under ripe fruit is responsible for this phenomenon because that always seems to be the common denominator, I've made fig jams before so I know they're not a specifically violent or spiteful fruit in this regard.

The other problem is easier to fix - I think my sugar thermometer is lying to me. It refused to admit the jam was anywhere near setting point, but I could tell from the way it was sticking to everything in solid gobs that it had definitely set. It was taking on an increasingly tar like hue and consistency so I bottled it regardless. That's something else to add to the shopping list - I'm not so worried about a thermometer for jam, or marmalade. I've made enough of it to know from how it's behaving if it's near enough ready, and can use the wrinkle test after that, but for fudge or toffee I don't want to make mistakes.

The clean up job is daunting - but at least the jam is good.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Cookbooks - a wish list

I've spent the last few days more or less sofa bound with a particularly horrible cold - which has had its upside. The hacking cough, vicious headache, blocked and snotty nose, and complete lack of energy has forced me to do nothing more strenuous than drink honey and lemon and alternate between browsing Amazon or twitter. Both have provided a wish list of forthcoming cookbooks that suggest there's a lot to look forward to over the next few months.

This is by no means an exhaustive list - even of the books I'd quite like, there are so many at this time of year - but they're definitely the ones that I'll be looking out for first.

'Lateral Cooking' by Niki Segnit is officially out on the 20th September from Bloomsbury, but the Waterstones app suggests my local branch already has copies, so when I can face the walk I'm going to investigate. Her Flavour Thesaurus is brilliant, and was something really different when it appeared. This is apparently a sort of companion which takes base recipes (say for a custard) and then builds on it with different varietons and tweaks until you have a considerable repertoire to call on. I really want to see how Segnit approaches this, if it's even half as good as her last book it'll be worth having.

Time: a Year and a Day in the Kitchen by Gill Meller, also out on the 20th of September, published by Quadrille. When Gather came out a couple of years ago it felt like a really important milestone in defining modern British cookery. With its roots deep in the Dorset countryside where Meller lives it also set a benchmark for what I want from cookbooks that focus on a particular locality. I'm really looking forward to more of his recipes and philosophy about food.

Quadrilles list is quite something for this autumn; 'Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes Through Darkness and Light' by Caroline Eden (Samarkand was another winner from 2016, as enjoyable to read as to use) has one a particularly beautiful looking cover, I'm told by those who have actually seen it that it's even more wonderful when you get your hands on a copy. I'd buy this book for the cover alone, and on the strength of Samarkand would buy anything Eden wrote - even if it was covered in crisp packets, so yes, I'm excited by this one.

Also from Quadrille is Trine Hahnemann's 'Copenhagen Food' due on the 4th October. Her Scandinavian Christmas book is one of the best bargains I've ever picked up in a clearance sale (it now comes with a much nicer cover than my copy has and is good for far more than Christmas) and I really liked her Scandinavian Baking and Comfort Food books too. This one promises to explore the food culture and customs of Copenhagen district by district as well as provide recipes. It's the sort of book I should probably resist for lack of space, and probably won't because I have no self control.

Looking at 'Copenhagen Food' led to 'The Nordic Baking Book' by Magnus Nilsson. It's out on the 15th October from Phaidon and looks enormous. I have various books that cover as much Scandinavian style baking as I'm ever likely to do, but.... I really like his Nordic Cookbook from the same series. It's got fabulous photography and explores all sorts of things that other books gloss over (I don't want to eat puffin or whale but that doesn't mean I'm not interested in how important it's been to the food culture of places like Iceland or the Faroes). In the end this might just be hard to resist.

Also from Phaidon, and an inevitable result of showing an interest in Nordic Baking, I found 'The German Cookbook' by Alfons Schubeck. I've waited years for something good on German cooking to appear in English and it finally seems to be happening. I don't know if this is exactly the book I'm looking for, but it certainly looks comprehensive. My interest in this is that my Grandmother was German, she ended up here just after the war which wasn't easy, and she never talked about her past. She's gone now and perhaps belatedly I want to know more about that culinary heritage (she wasn't much of a cook, so this is a purely romantic quest without even memory to explain it).

Which brings me to Anja Dunk's 'Strudel, Noodles and Dumplings: The New Taste of German Cooking' published by Fourth Estate last week. I have actually seen this one, and want it a lot. The flavours are not ones I'm used to, and I'm intrigued by them. Do I need both I wonder (I know I don't, and whilst I want both, this is probably the one to buy).

More unfamiliar flavour combinations from Nik Sharma and 'Season: Big Flavours, Beautiful Food' out 2nd of October from Chronicle Books. Nik is an American (San Francisco area) food blogger who I was completely unaware of until yesterday, but this looks very good. American books mean odd ingredients and measures, the measuring thing is easy enough to work out, but some of the ingredients might be difficult to source. On the other hand this does look like a great book for helping me find a use for some of the interesting looking Asian ingredients Leicester abounds in.

Meanwhile there's Tom Parker-Bowles 'Fortnum and Mason: Christmas and Other Winter Feasts' out in the 18th of October from Fourth Estate to look forward too. I have a soft spot for Fortnum and Masons. It's one of my happy places, possibly because of their canelés, also because there's always something interesting to look at in there, and definitely because it's such an institution. If it's anything like his last Cookbook for them I won't use it a lot, but it'll have a few absolute winners in it that I'll keep coming back to. I also expect it'll be fun, and pretty to look at - which seems perfect for getting in a Christmassy mood when the time comes.

'The Beer Kitchen: The Art and Science of Cooking with Beer' by Mellisa Cole, out on the 4th of October from Hardie Grant is one I need for work, as well as wanting anyway. Beer is where my product knowledge sometimes lets me down, it's not my passion (compared to the wine and spirits part of what I sell) but beer is great for cooking with, and theoretically much easier to pair food with than wine is. This one should really help me do that and it's a book I've been happily anticipating for a while.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Gallows Court - Martin Edwards

In the general way of things I avoid crime fiction set in the past, especially the first half of the twentieth century. There was more than enough of it written then anyway if contemporary detail is the attraction, and I prefer the whodunnit approach of those earlier books to the current interest in why.

Still, there are exceptions to every rule, so when I was asked if I'd like a review copy of Martin Edwards new book, 'Gallows Court', set in 1930's London I said yes please. There can't be many people who know more about actual 1930's crime fiction than Edwards so if nothing else it was always going to be interesting to see how he would evoke the period.

Mostly he does it with music, you could happily make a playlist of the tunes he mentions, and crucially it doesn't feel intrusive to mention them - this isn't a 1930's pastiche. As Harriet Devine says, it's not cosy crime either - there's more than a touch of noir to it all. Rather it's a clever use of the period setting to explore a particular sort of crime - which works well.

It's 1930, and very rich Rachel Savernake has turned up in London where she's set herself up in a west end mansion, is spending lavishly on contemporary art, but is otherwise oddly reclusive. Meanwhile men connected to her father, a notorious hanging judge, keep dying, and who is the Juliet Brentano? A 1919 entry from her journal opens the book and unfolds throughout it.

What too is the shadowy Damnation society, and how far does the influence of its members extend? Also how much of it will young journalist, Jacob Flint, work out before his luck deserts him?

The mysteries all unfold in a satisfactory way, with plenty of twists and surprises - the whole thing is a terrific page turner. As horrendous as some of the allegations about the activities of the Damnation club are, they're perfectly plausible given what we now know about cover ups in the Catholic Church and other institutions. If towards the end some of the crimes alluded to are more than I particularly like to contemplate, they're more or less necessary to justify the actions of those seeking vengeance. And at least there's mercifully few details.

There's a moral ambiguity that runs through proceedings that I also really liked, it meant I wasn't entirely sure where my sympathies lay right until the end of the book when the last few details were cleared up (I'm also the sort of reader who likes to skip to the end for spoilers, but Edwards mostly thwarted me on this, for it all to make sense you need both threads to come together, so no shortcuts).

Basically I really enjoyed this, and look forward to any sequels, it will be fun to see what Edwards does next with his characters - and thoroughly recommend it to anyone looking for a darkly atmospheric thriller.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Daylight Gate - Jeanette Winterson

After reading 'Weight' I spent a bit of time looking up Jeanette Winterson's books to see what else might particularly appeal to me, 'The Daylight Gate' seemed very much like it would, so it was serendipitous to find it in the first second hand bookshop I found myself in.

The daylight gate of the title refers to dusk/twilight, and the story uses the Pendle witches as it's base. My copy is just over 200 pages long, but it has quite large type and margins, and only took a couple of hours to read so basically it's a novella - which I'm seeing as a bonus, because there's something particularly satisfying about a book you can devour as quickly as this. In this case it makes it feel like a gothic tale that might be told on a dark evening as much as it is a book to be read.

My paperback is a Hammer horror one, which promises a film (announced in 2013) which doesn't seem to have happened . I'm not sure if this is a shame or not, but there are moments in the book that feel like they could be an homage to some of those 70's films - though that might be the suggestive
power of the branding.

It's 1612 and James (the 1st of England, 6th of Scotland) is on the throne quality preoccupied with stamping out witchcraft and popery, both of which he saw as a clear and present threat. Lancashire seems to have remained a catholic stronghold and that makes it a dangerous place to be.

Initially the action opens with a description of two possible witches cursing a peddler. He dies with their name in his lips. Then we meet Alice Nutter, wealthy, independent, and not quite conventional in her habits and for just a moment it feels like these women are untouchable. But they're not, the next chapter has Sarah Device (relative of the first two witches) being raped by the local constable and his companion as they accuse her of witchcraft.

It's a brutal scene described with a matter of fact economy that heightens its impact, and underscores how powerless women are in this world. When Alice intervenes she seals her own fate, finally making more enemies than her wealth and position can be proof against.

Alice has been a colleague of John Dee (Queen Elizabeth's astronomer and alchemist) and has more than a bit of mystery about her despite her avowed disbelief in magic. When she's pulled, unwillingly, into a black mass and asked to lead an attempt to free some of the imprisoned women any chance of a peaceful old age for her is done for.

What we know for sure is that these people were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. The real Alice  Nutter was a gentle woman, and protested her innocence until she was hung, her main accuser was a 9 year old girl.

Winterson plays with our scepticism which seems to be shared by Alice, and the absolute belief in witchcraft and the supernatural of the seventeenth century, until it's far from clear what's real and what's not. Does Alice have witchcraft, or science, at her service, and in the end does it matter?

Once accused there's no chance of escape anyway, at which point it might be as well to fantasise about the relative power of the supernatural, and blame the devil for being false in the end, as to contemplate the fact that the word of a child, or indeed anyone with a score to settle would be enough to get you hung.


Thursday, September 6, 2018

Five Seasons of Jam - Lillie O'Brien

There's not much I like about autumn generally, or September specifically. I find it a time for regrets and worry. It's also a month when it seems every item of clothing I own is either too warm or not warm enough. I'm not very enthusiastic about the huge spiders that start appearing either.

One thing I do like about this time of year though is the launch of all the books ready for Christmas. Super Thursday might still be a month away but there are a few front runners making an appearance already, including a crop of cookbooks, and let's face it, it's the cookbooks I'm particularly excited about right now anyway.

Apparently the roof of the garage attached to my flats, which I cannot use because I didn't buy a parking space when I moved in, but which I'm still partly financially responsible for, has asbestos in it. The panels have been damaged and work needs to be done, but nobody is being very forthcoming about when, or how much it will cost. I'm assuming it won't be cheap, and that the bill will land at the most inconvenient moment possible (probably just before Christmas) so I'm trying very hard not to spend at the moment.

Even so, today really demanded a treat of some sort, and with a new book from Ottolenghi ('Simple') and the release of James and Tom Morton's 'Shetland' a trip to the bookshop seemed in order. I really like the look of the Ottolenghi book, but it didn't feel like the right treat for a wet Thursday.

'Shetland: Cooking on the Edge of the World' is one I've been anticipating for a while, but now it's here I'm in two minds about it. The photography is beautiful, and in the end I'll happily buy it for that alone. What I'd hoped for however was more cookbook, it's light on recipes though, and there's very little here that I don't already know.

Then I saw 'Five Seasons of Jam'. This actually came out in June, but it's been such a hot summer that the idea of preserving hasn't been very attractive. Its cold and wet outside right now though, and this is a book full of intriguing flavour combinations - which I love.

The 5 seasons are mid to late spring, summer, early autumn, late autumn, and winter to early spring, and there's quite a few ingredients in here it would be very hard to source, certainly outside of London and away from a fruit growing area. I don't believe I've ever seen a loquat, and don't have a garden to grow sweet cicely in - so that ones out for a start, but that doesn't worry me.

At least if I ever see a green almond, or some wild fennel, never mind sea buckthorn, I'll know what to do with it. On the other hand medjool dates and chestnuts, persimmons with saffron and vanilla, salted manderines, clementine and Fino, cranberry and Sherry vinegar, Mirabelle plum (I might get lucky and find some of these) with tokay, fig and Earl grey, greengage and pecan, peach and fig leaf, green gooseberry with fig leaf - these are all things that sound amazing.

I'm always keen on any cook who can find me different things to do with Sherry or dessert wines, and I'm curious about the way O'Brian uses nuts in her jams. I've never done this, or tried anything quite like it so it will be interesting to see what the texture is like. Overall it's the way she combines flavours which grabs me though. These things sound magical, as much food for the imagination, as for the body - so just what's needed to look forward to autumn instead of wondering where the summer went.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Charlecote Park and Upton House

I have wanted to return to Charlecote park for what turns out to be 3 years, mostly because of happy memories of the really excellent farm shop it had. Well, I went back yesterday with a friend to whom I'd waxed lyrical about the farm shop, and was just as excited about visiting it.
 Charlecote, beautiful alabaster doves. And wasps.

Reader, the farm shop was gone, which quite frankly was a disappointment. The hose s still lovely, the park still full of deer, the cafe had an excellent scone (though wasps were out in full force) but none of that was quite enough without the chance to buy some purple carrots. The National Trust had let us down.

Charlecote is just a few miles outside of Stratford, and easily one of the most family friendly Trust properties I've been too. There's lots of outdoor space for running around or picnicking on, the dairy, brew house, coach house, and kitchens are nice to see, and because of that family friendliness it was busy. I love seeing places like this full of people but it's not ideal for quiet contemplation, so we decided to go to Upton House as well, which was new to both of us.

Upton was a revelation. No farm shop there either, but a really spectacular art collection. We got there relatively late in the day, and are determined to go back soon rather earlier, so I didn't buy a guidebook, and am now hazy on the exact details but it's something like this.

Upton is a charming William and Mary country house on the edge of the Cotswolds, it changed hands a number of times other the years, before being bought by some wealthy brewers in the 1890's, and then sold to Lord Bearsted in 1927. His family owned Shell, so he had all the money he needed to turn it into his ideal country home and a gallery for his art collection. He was a notable philanthropist heavily involved in helping get Jews out of Germany in the 1930's, as well as making sure there was employment for those who needed it in the local villages. He sounds like a remarkable man.

Eventually he gave Upton, along with his art collection to the Trust, partly with the intention of creating a really good art gallery in the depths of the country. Once again I really don't know how I didn't know about Upton before now. It's not so far away from here (Warwickshire going towards Oxfordshire) and it's a fantasy house.

I think we really and truly fell in love with it when we saw the silver and scarlet bathroom - it looked like Fred and Ginger out to be dancing around it, and is the most perfectly glamorous, decadent, bit of nonsense you could imagine.

The real point of Upton though is it's art collection - it's an eclectic mix with some real gems in it, and it's gardens, which are beautiful. It wasn't as busy as Charlcote, and real garden buffs will carry on to Hidcote which isn't so far away either, which made it perfect for us. There were plenty of people about but never too many in the same place so we could really take our time looking at things. There were also plenty of comfortable chairs and benches to sit on, and the attendants were particularly knowledgeable, especially when it came to the paintings. The whole place is a total gem.