Wed. Mar 8th, 2023


LONDON — Few things are more quintessentially British than afternoon tea.

Center stage of the delicious treat is usually a pile of warm, fluffy scones — round, doughy, baked desserts — topped with thick dollops of clotted cream and smothered in sweet strawberry jam. Not, dear reader, to be confused with American biscuits that are often savory, flaky rather than crumbly, and drowning in gravy.

Frequently featured in shows such as the “Great British Bake Off” or nibbled alongside tea sipped with pinkies raised on “Downton Abbey,” scones are a sentimental piece of British life.

One British woman was so passionate about scones, and U.K. heritage sites, that she combined her love of the two, spending 10 years on a personal mission to visit 244 sites recognized by the National Trust, a century-old conservation charity, and sampling a scone at every location.

Sarah Merker, 49, delighted Britons and made national headlines on Wednesday when she completed what she called her decade-long “odyssey” and bit into her final scone — amid a backdrop of the ocean facing Giant’s Causeway, a historic site in Northern Ireland.

“It’s been absolutely unbelievable,” the global marketing executive from London told The Washington Post in an interview Saturday about her long journey and the attention it’s received. “I’m never, ever sick of scones.”

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Merker’s journey began for a practical reason — she and her husband had joined the National Trust charity as annual members in 2013, and Merker set herself the project of visiting every site with catering facilities to ensure her membership would not go unused, like her gym membership.

However, over the years, her mission also took on emotional significance — her husband Peter died of cancer in 2018, and since the couple had enjoyed visiting the National Trust sites together, Merker also saw completing the journey as a way to pay tribute to him.

Throughout her journey, she wrote a personal blog detailing what she learned — as well as scoring the scones she tasted out of five. The blog was even turned into a book, highlighting scone recipes by National Trust chefs across the country — as well as eventually gaining her national news coverage.

“People equate the National Trust with the scone — it’s quaint and a bit old fashioned,” she joked, calling her journey a “double whammy of Britishness.”

The National Trust, a conservation charity founded in 1895, works to preserve natural heritage sites such as beaches, castles, stately homes and acres of rolling countryside.

It is a sentimental part of the British national psyche and associated with volunteers, stately homes and cups of tea. Independent of government, it looks after more than 250,000 hectares of countryside, 780 miles of coastline and 500 historic properties, gardens and nature reserves — last year it received 20 million visitors.

Despite being championed by royal family members and celebrities, the charity has come under political fire in recent years after right-leaning Conservative lawmakers accused it of being “unpatriotic” and “woke” when it took steps to publicly acknowledge links to slavery and colonialism at its historic sites.

“We’re touched that visiting our places meant so much to Sarah and her husband and that the humble scone has such a special place in her memories of their time together,” a spokeswoman for the National Trust told The Post in an email.

“We know that for many visitors a trip into the cafe for a treat is the favourite part of their visit,” she said, adding that “it raises vital funds for us to do the work we do looking after the places they love.”

The trust says scones are its best selling dish, with more than 3 million sold each year and many of the ingredients sourced from their tenant farmers.

So which scone was Merker’s favorite?

Well, that would be a slightly unusual seasonal “Christmas pudding scone” topped with brandy butter that she tasted in Yorkshire, northern England, at the 1897 Treasurer’s House National Trust site. “It was just off the charts amazing,” she said. “The most memorable one.”

She’s less talkative about her poor scone experiences, acknowledging that it’s all “very subjective” but the baseline for a good scone is “it has to be fresh. It takes a lot to ruin a fresh scone.”

“Then you have other factors. A good scone has a good rise in it and looks like it’s separated into two … it has to be fluffy, a nice crisp outside,” she continues, before concluding: “You know one, when you see one.”

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Sometimes, her scone mission didn’t always go to plan.

When visiting the tiny medieval home of George Washington’s ancestors, at Washington Old Hall in northeast England, “they only had teacakes,” she recalls. On another occasion, at the childhood home of physicist Isaac Newton at Woolsthorpe Manor, a Lincolnshire farmhouse where he was said to have “worked in solitude, experimenting obsessively,” Merker found that, aptly, in place of scones they served only apple cake.

She chose to end at the Giant’s Causeway for her final scone, alongside her mother and sister, because it was a location she had first visited with her late husband. “In my head he was finishing it with me,” she said.

“When he was sick, I didn’t get as much done,” she added. “After he died, it didn’t even occur to me to give up, it gave me something to get out and about for … Everywhere I went, I was looking at it through his eyes,” she said, noting that he would be “delighted” with her mission completed.

What’s next for Merker?

There is a separate National Trust for Scotland, which she may check off next. Or, she may do something “completely different,” she says. Regardless, “I’m determined to keep flying the flag for the scone,” she said. “I will love them forever.”

But her most immediate goal: “It’s on my bucket list to try an American biscuit.”

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