A few week ago me and my fellow Conservation Assistants escaped Hardwick for a day out at another National Trust property, Upton House.
We had decided to visit Upton because they have some large-scale interpretation going on at the moment, called ‘Banking for Victory’. During the Second World War the owners of Upton House, the Bearsted family, moved all the employees for their bank, M. Samuel & Co., in London to the safety of Upton. The family themselves actually stayed at their London residence as they were heavily involved in war work that required them to be in the capital.
As we walked towards the house from the car park the first thing visitors come across is a tent playing a Pathe news style video explaining why the bank came to move to Upton House. You can watch this video on the Upton House page of the National Trust website. I really liked this touch, it is a fun way of making sure visitors understand why Upton has been transformed.
It was very generous of the family to open their home to the bank staff for their safety, and so they could continue doing their important work. The people working in the bank were all in a reserved occupation, meaning they were exempt from conscription as the work they were doing was essential to keeping Britain running and keeping the war effort moving.
The house is opened by timed tickets, so we had some time to wander around the gardens first. The gardens at Upton hold much more than meets the eye. Firstly, tucked around a corner is a beautiful outdoor swimming pool. It’s probably freezing cold but I think the setting would make up for that.
The next hidden surprise lies at the end of the lawn. A sudden drop down reveals a huge garden, which is currently filled with veg. It must have been a huge undertaking to replant the garden for the new theme but it is actually one of the gardens I have most enjoyed walking round. The whole thing had an added benefit of smelling very tasty too, and had lots of interesting insect life flitting around.
At the end of the giant veg garden is a lake, with fish in! Huge trees line the edges of the gardens making the whole site pretty spectacular, and most of it can’t even be seen from the house.
When we entered the house we were taking into the kitchen, into an introductory space which I personally thought was very boring, especially since we were told to wait in there until we could move on to the next room. Luckily that was the only part of the tour that was a little bit dull, and I found the rest of the house really interesting.
Next we were taken into the Dining Room, where they played a short video setting the scene. The video started with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war that was broadcast over the wireless on the 3rd September 1939. I have heard the broadcast many times before but it still gives me goosebumps and brings tears to my eyes. The speech played over black and white images of war and was a really moving reminder of just how much the war impacted everyone, and changed the world forever.
After the Dining Room we were allowed to tour the rest of the house free flow, starting with the typing pool. This was also where the bank workers ate so at the first end was a table with some fake food on. The food was made of paper mache and it looked really good, especially the Blackbird pie.
The typing pool was really good fun. We were encouraged to explore by opening drawers and each draw held something that filled out the picture of life during WWII. As well as opening drawers we were allowed to
play type on the typewriters, which was very cool!
After all our hard work in the typing pool we had a but of a sit down and relax in what would have been the staff room. There was a basket full of knitting needles and wool so we all had a go. We decided the room could have done with a bit of music to add to the atmosphere, but in the true spirit of the era we made do and provided our own. I’m not entirely sure the other visitors were on board but we were enjoying ourselves.
The stairs to the second floor had beautifully carved banisters wither side, and each window around the stairs and up had a piece of stained glass displayed in it.
Upstairs we came to the dormitories, men on one side and women on the other. The bedrooms give visitors an opportunity to learn more about the people who lived and worked at Upton House during the war.
After the staff dormitories there are the family rooms, which give more information about the family, their war work and the sons who were fighting. In several of the bedrooms they had fab trunks with their clothes in. The trunks, drawers and cupboards full of items tell visitors a lot about the people in a really visually interesting way.
Now we come to the weirdest bathroom I have even been in. It looks like it’s trying to be a spaceship. Most of the walls are covered in silver leaf and the bits that aren’t have been painted bright red. Everyone’s reaction was the same, people just stared in confused awe at such a departure from the rest of the house’s decor.
There are three stories being told at Upton about the Second World War, the family’s story, the bank staff and finally the story of the family’s art collection. Walter Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearsted, collected a lot of very fine art work, which lived at Upton until the war. Lord Bearsted was a trustee of the National Gallery so when they moved many of the galleries paintings to a quarry in Wales he managed to have much of his own priceless collection stored alongside them.
The paintings were lovely but I am not really one to stare at art for art’s sake. I like to see historical depictions of costumes for different eras however and the collection at Upton does have some lovely images of medieval dress.
The interpretation was very well done, immersive and to a continuous standard throughout our entire visit. I really enjoyed all the hands on elements and Upton are very keen to emphasize that they want visitors to explore the house. All the little details in the rooms give a much fuller picture than just having information boards around could do.
Things like this and the hospital at Dunham Massey really bring history to life and I love being able to walk through history and engage with it like you can at these properties at the moment. I hope this is something more and more Trust properties will work towards. When you have an engaging story to tell doing it like this really does it justice, and makes for a really interesting experience for visitors.