Dreadful Dust!

Firstly I must apologise for the gap between posts lately, I have not been my usual bouncy self at the moment as I have torn a muscle in my side (ouch!). How did I do this you may be wondering? Was it thought my physical and active job? No. How about my fairly dangerous hobby of Medieval re-enactment and sword play? Nope. Then how? Coughing! You heard it here folks, coughing is bad for your health! So I was unfortunately off work most of last week resting and repairing and therefore didn’t have much to report (other than five days with my feet up made me feel a little stir-crazy!).

This week however I am back at work and busy again (in a very careful manner) and today we have been tackling a huge problem of Hardwick’s. Unfortunately we do get a few comments about dust levels in the Hall from some visitors. We had one a couple of weeks ago that at first caught the House Team by surprise. Dust!? In our Hall? But we dust almost everyday, there is no way there is that much dust in our Hall. Then when we were told the visitor was talking about dust on our textiles we all went; ‘well yeah, we know about that!’. Not because we know and don’t care, of course we care! But because we are already doing all we can do.

Uh oh, some one touched!

Uh oh, some one touched!

Although we do dust the Hall practically every day, there are many objects that we do not touch on a day-to-day basis. We have objects that are cleaned weekly, bi-weekly, three months, six months, annually, every so often, when they need doing or as little as once in 400 years if you’re talking about our Gideon tapestries! What some people do not know is that over-cleaning an object can be just as damaging as under-cleaning it, and therefore we must draw a balance between the two.

The Dining Room table after two weeks

The Dining Room table after two weeks

However this balance is getting harder and harder to maintain. Hardwick Hall gets around 150,000 visitors a year, five years ago that number was less than 100,000. Although we love showing our house to more and more of the public this dust generate lots of added dust! The dust at Hardwick has been analysed and found to be around %50 made up from human skin (ick), so the more visitors the more of this is going to be coming into the Hall.

Me cleaning one of the velvet cushions

Me cleaning one of the velvet cushions

A close up of the fine suction tool

A close up of the fine suction tool

You would think the answer to more dust would be simple: more cleaning! We dust most of the flat surfaces in the hall daily when we are open and do a deeper clean on a weekly basis during our closed days. Then we have the deep annual clean where pretty much everything gets done, and a Summer Works Program as well. We cannot clean a lot of the objects in the collection more than we are already doing so, especially the textiles where every act of cleaning is also removing some of the fibers and therefore damaging the object. This is why we have to leave certain objects looking dusty, it’s not that we are neglecting them, we are looking after them by leaving them.

A lovely line of dust on the base of the stool

A lovely line of dust on the base of the stool

Today we were taking the dust off the 17th Century red velvet stools that live in the Long Gallery, they have been looking pretty dusty lately and are part of our Summer Clean Program. This is the rota of items we clean during the open season, the objects that are sturdy enough to be cleaned every three or six months. We clean this with a museum-vac on a low suction through an ironing net, and then use a fine tool on the edges to get as much dust of as we can, without pulling any of the fibers up. The process will take two of us the best part of two days, and requires a lot of patience. It is very relaxing work and gives you plenty of time to think (for instance today I was rehearsing this blog post). However I do not think it will be long until the poor stools, which sit on the visitor route, will be dusty again as we are gearing up for the busiest part of the year!

The stools in the High Great Chamber

The stools in the High Great Chamber

We are looking at different ways to prevent against dust without having to increase cleaning, such as with the stool in the High Great Chamber. These beautiful stools and there fabulous embroidery are very delicate, and also right on the visitor route, so they get dusty. However we cannot clean them more often than we already do, so we are trailing putting a voil over the stool. The idea is that now the dust will land on the voil rather than on the velvet of the stool, and the voil can be cleaned much more regularly, as it is modern fabric. However this solution does change the look of the stools, so it is something we have to weigh up against the look of the dust, and the damage of cleaning.

The voil on the left hand stool

The voil on the left hand stool

So when you go visiting heritage properties and you see a bit of dust, it is not usually a sign of neglect but a sign of a difficult juggling act the conservation team are trying to balance every day. At Hardwick we are working very hard to educate visitors about the work that goes in to looking after our Hall, with our ‘Conservation Station’ Activity Trail, the ‘Last One Out’ Tours we run daily, and ‘Conservation Week’ which we are running next week.

I am really looking forward to Conservation Week, as it will involve more talking to the public, which I love. The Conservation Assistants will be out and about in the Hall all day chatting about what our job entails and answering questions. We will also be delivering talks, that I have help write, on conservation issues and projects we are undertaking. It should be good fun and hopefully we will have lots of interest!

Our poor floors!

Although we love people visiting Hardwick there is a danger it can get too much! From a conservation point of view we could do without 500+ people coming through the Hall everyday, because the more visitors we have the more dust and dirt and wear and tear we expose our lovely collection too! However the whole reason we care for the Hall and collection is so that people can come in a visit, and we love sharing it with you. Also from a very boring, practical point of view it is our visitors that pay our wages and fund our conservation work! So we will always let people in, but we have to work on making people aware of the challenges we face by doing so, and the biggest challenge at the moment for Hardwick is our poor floor!

The High Great Chamber

The High Great Chamber

I have always loved the fact that the floors at Hardwick are, for the most part, covered in rush matting. This is what Bess would have covered the floors in so it is very authentic and I love that the Hall is keeping that tradition alive. The smell and textures, and the look of a new rush mat floor, are fantastic. However in Bess’ day she did not get anywhere near the number of visitors we do today. Even at its peak of use before it came to the Trust the Hall never got anywhere near the numbers of visitors we do, and we are at a peak number of visitors for the Trust too! I was told at Powis that for every one year the Trust open a property, it is equivalent to the wear of at least 25 years domestic use! At the moment we are getting at least 500 people through the Hall everyday, not to mention how much we staff are back and forth, so I would say it could be even more. I don’t know how much extra wear the House Team’s activity creates on the floors but it’s certainly enough to wear me out!

Because of this our rush matting is disintegrating, especially in areas of high traffic, like outside of Bess’ bedroom where people walk back and forth on one narrow strip. The matting is costly to replace, which means we have to take care of it and try to get the matting to last as long as possible. We do this in several ways.

Firstly our brilliant volunteers come in a water the matting once a week. This involves taking a watering can and sprinkling a mist of water over the areas of the floor that having matting on them. Keeping the matting waters increases int’s durability, as dry matting would become brittle and break apart under people’s feet much more readily. The second thing we do it put rugs down in areas that may get a lot of activity, like in-front of our children’s activity stations. The rug protects the floor underneath, and keeps the area nice and tidy for the kids.

We also patch any areas where the rushes have broken and created a hole in the matting. This can take up a lot of our time, and does not look brilliant, but will prevent any holes from getting bigger, and elongate the life of the matting as well. This process is done in several steps. First we find the hole in the matting. These are created when the individual rushed in the plait of the matting wear away and break, causing the plait to come undone. Once the hole has started the action of people walking over it exacerbates the problem further, causing more of the rushes to break and the hole gets bigger.

The hole

The broken rushed are trimmed to create a neat edge to work with, and one that is easier the tape down.


The first layer of strong white tape is the put over the hole. We make sure that the whole and any worn areas immediately next to it are covered.



Then brown parcel tape is put on top of the white tape. This firstly disguises the taped area a little more, as the brown blends in to the matting better than  the white. It also provides a second layer of cover over the hole.


Lastly to neaten the edges of the taped area strips of brown tape are places the opposite way over the first strips, to try to keep the patch stuck down.


A lot of the taping we do on a weekly basis is re-taping patches that already exist, as the action of people walking over the top peels the tape off the matting and we need to stick it down again. It is time-consuming, and has to be re-done regularly, but looks much better when it has been done.

If a strip of matting is really damaged, or a small area consisting of a couple of strips, we can take these out and replace them with other strips we keep spare. This works best in narrow areas, such as when I helped replace the strips in the corridor by the Blue Bedroom, as it is a time-consuming effort. The strip has to be unpicked and removed and the new strips then cut to size and put in place. These are then sewn in by hand, with a large curved needle usually used for leather work. This is back-breaking work as we are hunched over making sure the strips are sewn securely, and that the stitches will keep the floor together under the pressure of the flow of traffic.

We have a couple of problem areas, like near Bess’ Bedroom, but the one that is plaguing us the most at the moment, when it shouldn’t be, is the matting in the High Great Chamber. We have hoped to replace this matting entirely last month however last year’s rubbish summer meant there was a problem with the rushed harvested. As the summer was so wet the rushed were much more likely to go mouldy, something we’re very keen to keep out of the Hall as it could then spread to the objects in the collection. So it was decided that we would wait for the next harvest this summer and use the rushes currently growing for our new matting.


The turn-around from harvesting, through drying and then plaiting is surprisingly quick and we are now expecting to be putting in our new flooring in September. Until then we just have to keep patching the matting and explaining to people why there is tape on the floor. It is far from ideal but what else can we do. Managing a historic property is a constant juggling act so it is not surprising there will always be less-than-perfect areas, especially when the weather is against us as well! Watch this space for what happens in September and how fabulous our new matting is going to look!

Day to Day Differences

After a series of very busy weeks we have had a couple of almost normal weeks at Hardwick. While Gideons week, and all the prep, was really interesting work and good fun it did disrupt our normal routines!

A normal weeks at Hardwick Hall means we are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and we use this time to do a deep weekly clean. Since there are four of us in the team two people take the top floor, and one each on the middle and ground floors. These are our responsibility for the rest of the week then. We vacuum the whole floor, except for any rugs, and then we give it a deep dust.

Hardwick Hall

A deep weekly dust consist of dusting pretty much all objects in the house, unless they are gilded or covered in textiles. Flat surfaces are dusted with a blue duster and carved areas, chair and table legs are dusted with a banister brush and so are textured surfaces like many of the large traveling chests we have.

At Powis Castle since we were open every day, but the Castle is smaller than Hardwick the routine was different in several ways. Monday was deep vacuum day, when every where is vacuumed, not just the visitor route like other days. Windows and fireplaces are also vacuumed, as these areas let in a lot of dirt from outside. Mondays is also when the door mats are taken outside and beaten.


Tuesday is deep dust day, as Powis has a lot of different materials out in the house, and as the show rooms are smaller than at Hardwick there is usually more time to do a somewhat deeper clean. At Powis we used two different dusters (one especially for polished wood and one for everything else), a banister brush and a set of pony hairs. There was a different pony hair for each different type of material; copper/brass, ceramics, wood and gilding.

At Hardwick once the weekly clean is finished (usually by the end of Monday) we continue with our annual deep clean. This is the winter clean, but since at Hardwick it continues all year round it seems more fitting to call it the annual clean. I really enjoyed the winter clean at Powis, which we did during the winter even though we were not fully closed, once we had cleaned the rooms all the items got covered up and they got a rest. However at Hardwick since we are open the rooms do not get the same rest, but we do get to talk to the public while we are working, and share with them what we are doing.

Out front of HH

Different types of collections require different care but the basic techniques are the same, through and careful work to give all the objects a deep clean, and checking them for any deterioration or damage. Working through the winter clean is a nice way to get to know the collection, and expand my skills base and experience.

Mornings before opening at Hardwick involve vacuuming the Entrance Hall and both sets of stairs, if time allows. Then we dust the flat surfaces around the house, but we do not usually have time to do any more. Schools are often in at half ten, or tours at half eleven so we have to be quick! Even more so on weekends when it is just one person in!

The roof of HH

At Powis mornings involved vacuuming the visitor route on each floor, and doing a quick dust of the rooms, changing how much we did depending on how much time we had. It is important that whatever routines are in place they are flexible, every day is different so we try to do what we can, but it is no use us bending over backwards to attempt the impossible when we simple don’t have enough time to do everything!

Afternoons at both Powis and Hardwick are spent continuing with project work. At Hardwick when we are all in we spend the afternoons continuing the deep annual clean, in front of the public. If not, I have been working on a project to make character biographies for our Living the History volunteers. These will be displayed when the vols are in, so the public will have a bit of background info about who they might meet in the Hall.


The main difference I have found between Hardwick and Powis are all the tours and talks that are always taking place at Hardwick. Every day is different depending on which volunteers have singed up to come and do which talks ect. And the House Team offer our ‘Last One Out’ Tour most days, which I really enjoy giving.

This week I also took my mum, my gran and a good friend round Hardwick. My mum has visited many times before, Bess is one of her role models and my mum is one of the main reasons I have the interests and passions I do. It was brilliant for me to be able to take my mum round the Hall, and show her it from an insiders point of view (with even a few behind the scenes bits throw in!). It was a lovely sunny day and I had a really nice day off, even though I spent it where I work! It did make me laugh that when my friend was looking at the Tobit Table Carpet in its display case, I was spotting the fingerprints. When I mentioned it however, she said ‘what fingerprints?’. It just goes to show the different thing you see when your looking at something from a different mindset!

Visitor looking at the wooden drawers in the Muniment or Evidence Room at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire.

I’ve really enjoyed the challenge of moving to a new property and learning so many new things, I am still working on learning the history but feel confident enough that I can take people on tours or answer peoples questions when I am walking around the Hall. So for the next few weeks it seems like everything is back to the usual, but I’m sure that we will find plenty to keep us on our toes!