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House Team on the loose!

A few week ago me and my fellow Conservation Assistants escaped Hardwick for a day out at another National Trust property, Upton House.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A Hardwick update

I know it sounds like all I’ve been doing recently is gallivanting round Trust properties and not actually doing any work at my own but that’s not the case, I promise we have been as busy at Hardwick as ever.

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We have totally finished the Deep Clean of the show rooms, with the Below Stairs rooms the last ones we tackled. We moved the huge wooden tree trunk that the mortar stands on in the corner of the kitchen, and found a bit of a mess underneath, mould, dust and a few creepy crawlies.

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This is why it is so important we move objects every year, because who knows what could be happening underneath them! Luckily it wasn’t too difficult to get cleaned up and I kept it laying on its side to dry it out.

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Meanwhile we have had quite a few guests over the past couple of weeks, film crews, authors and even the National Trust Council! While this meant a long day and late night for us it is always nice to get to show our property off, especially as we were stationed in the attics. I met some nice people and had some very interesting conversations.

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We are also starting to get busier, and unfortunately the more visitors we have, the more incidences of wandering hands. One of our objects that gets touched the most is the coral bed in the Paved Room, because we don’t often have enough volunteers to man that room. I guess it’s just too tempting but every time someone does touch anything they leave a trace of oil from their fingers on it.

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This oil builds up and will end up corroding metal, staining textiles and blemishing surfaces. Not to mention the physical damage that can be done to objects when people keep touching them! We try not to have too many notices reminding people not to touch but we decided we needed another one to protect this beautiful bed, especially while we’re busy.

Occasionally we have enthusiastic experts come to Hardwick to take a closer look at items in our collection. Sometimes this is very easily done, and sometimes accessing them is a little trickier. Recently we were asked for two pictures, and they just happened to be the ones at the top in the corner of the alcove.

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Getting them down with a ladder was not as simple as we first though, so we took a different route and built our small scaffolding to get them back up again. Now we just have to wait to hear what conclusions the experts have come too.

The next visitors we had were a film crew from America filming a documentary about Arbella. They were very efficient to work with, getting all the filming done in one day. This included an interview with our resident Arbella expert, House and Collections Manager Nigel Wright. I’m looking forward to watching the DVD they promised to send. It’s quite a buzz to look at footage or photos and know that you were stood just out of shot observing and assisting with the whole process.

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We had to change a light-bulb the other week, something that should not be a big deal, but in a big room really is! So we got out the big ladder and I went up to see if I could reach, but I couldn’t. Luckily for us we have a very tall colleague who was willing to come up and help us, and so the lights are back on in the High Great Chamber.

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We have also have mirrors installed in the gardens to tie in with the Arbella exhibition we are running this year. The mirrors are in pretty ‘gilded’ frames and have quotes on them relating to Arbella’s life.

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They work really well, sitting in the borders glinting in the sunlight and drawing people over to discover them. On a sunny day they look so lovely!

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We also did a little spring cleaning of the Arbella exhibition inside; we cleaned the paintings currently on display in the High Great Chamber. Because these paintings are now displayed on a slight angle they gather a lot more dust than they did hanging on the walls of the Long Gallery.

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We were just going to clean the frames, but while we were doing so noticed how dusty the canvases were, so we decided to clean them too. To do this we use a very soft, wide brush and gently brush the dust off the canvas into our hoovers.

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Getting to the top of queen Elizabeth’s frame was a little tricky, we couldn’t get close enough on a ladder so Claire came up with the ingenious method up sneaking up behind her with a brush, while I directed her disembodied hand from the front.

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I love that there are always new things to discover at Hardwick, and one beautifully sunny day one of our volunteers mentioned something about the Elizabethan drains. Me and Claire got very excited about this, we had never heard about these drains before, let alone that you can go in them! So we went on a little team trip to the building in the corner of the gardens to see them.

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Hidden under a very heavy trap door is the entrance to the old drains, with one tunnel heading under the house, and the other down the hill towards the motorway. For this visit we just had a sneaky peek into the drains, which are brick-built and tall enough to walk in. We’ll save the actual exploration for another day perhaps. So many things still to be discovered!

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Hope you’ve enjoyed this little update, proof that I am still working hard and not just swanning about the country visiting one Trust property after the other. Having said that the next few post are going to be about my visits to another few NT houses!

Team Trip to Ickworth

The other week us Hardwick Chaps went on a research trip all the way down to Ickworth in Suffolk. It was very exciting to get to go on a team outing, and to tick another Trust property off my list. Warning: there are a lot of pictures bellow, it’s not my fault, there were just too many pretty things!

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In visitor reception

Walking up the drive towards Ickworth I felt very exited. The building itself is amazing, a huge dome sitting in beautiful green gardens. The scale of the house is almost unbelievable, a real project of ambition and wealth!

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Begun in the late 1790s by the 4th Earl of Bristol, a Bishop more concerned with his earthly possessions than his duties in Ireland. He built the house to display his collection of beautiful artifacts from all over the world, in an ‘instructional’ manner. The family maintained this passion for collecting meaning the house today feels more like a gallery than a home, and has some truly fantastic pieces.

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Visitors enter the house through the side by the Orangery, and leave through the front doors. This felt quite unusual but it allowed for an introductory area before heading into the house through the servants quarters. I quite liked the introductory interpretation even though it felt a little bit like I was in a museum.

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The introduction

One of the reasons we were visiting Ickworth was to see there Below Stairs area, where visitors can handle all the objects there. All the drawers can be opened and there are kitchen items and utensils to be discovers inside them. I would love to do something similar at Hardwick, furnish the whole room with non collection items and make it a really hands on area. You can tell a lot of money has been spent on the project and the servants rooms look really good.IMAG0365

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Inside a draw

I particularly liked the Servant’s Hall, where you can try on hats, play games and even play the piano (as demonstrated below by the ever talented Lucie).

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Once you go up the stairs and into the main house you are not allowed to touch anything and the rooms feel more like art galleries, rather than a home. They were all big, light rooms, beautifully decorated and furnished with fantastic items.

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The servants stairs

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The Entrance Hall

There are three magnificent chandeliers on the ground floor, all of which have been cleaned in recent years. The sparkle so beautifully and so Ickworth have set up the library to best be able to view one of these magnificent chandeliers.

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The Dining Room

There are bean bags on the floor which visitors can sit on to look up the chandelier in the center of the room. While the bean bags, and rather funky chairs with them, do not suite the room I really like the idea of being able to sit, relax and enjoy the view. Previously there were green settee and armchairs in the center of the room, matching the curtains. The set up does look a bit odd now but it allows visitors to engage with the space more, rather than just being guided through a roped off area.

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View from the bean bag

The Drawing Room is beautiful, I love the colours, and it contains another stunning chandelier. There is also a lovely chess set with a board featuring images of Roman ruins, appropriate for a house inspired by classical architecture.

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Either side of the main domed area are two long wings. At the end of one of these is the ‘Pompeian Room’ named after its interesting decoration. While I am not a huge fan of the room itself there is a beautiful inlaid marble table. It has all different types of marble and in the middle an image of doves made up of tiny pieces of mosaic. It must have been made by an incredibly skilled craftsman with a lot of patience.

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On the other side of the dome was a room with the second reason we had traveled to Ickworth, lighting! Lighting is an issue in most National Trust properties and Ickworth has just done a project experimenting with ways to light their collection. We are looking to do a similar project at Hardwick. Side note: the room also features some really lovely wallpaper!

Ickworth had lit several of their paintings, all recently moved into the same room, including a portrait of Lady Elizabeth Foster. The name may sound familiar to some as she was the mistress of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, who was married to Georgiana Cavendish, another Hardwick connection. In the portrait Elizabeth is wearing a miniature around her neck, though to be a picture of Georgiana.

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While it is an incredibly difficult task, to light paintings well, the lights at Ickworth got in the way of viewing the paintings. As is often the way with spotlights, from certain angles the light shone on the painting, obscuring the image. it also meant it was very difficult to take photos of the paintings without getting the glare of the lights on them. However saying that I haven’t got a better solution to offer, and it’s very possible we will never find a brilliant way of lighting everything in our collection.

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The main staircase at Ickworth is stunning, and as you go up the stairs you pass shelves and shelves of books, all beautifully bound and lined up. It looks fab!IMAG0431

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Upstairs there are displays of some of the fine things the family had collected on their travels. There was a collection of beautiful, delicate fans and an odd collection of fish I particularly liked. The fish all had different uses, scent bottles etc and both these and the fans were collected by Geraldine, 3rd Marchioness of Bristol, clearly a woman with great tastes.

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After we had walked around the house we went and found a sunny spot and had a picnic in the gardens, which was lovely.

IMAG0445Back in the car park most of the lamp-posts are decorated in a rather unusual fashion. Visitors have stuck their entry stickers all over the lamp-posts. I know these stickers can be a bit of a pain for House Teams, at Hardwick they tend to fall off and stick to the matting. I’m not sure what the staff at Ickworth think of this but I think it looks lovely and colourful, making an otherwise dull and mundane metal pole quite bright and cheerful!

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Oh, and Ickworth also have a brill second-hand book shop! I didn’t spend too much money, and besides it all goes to charity so that makes it ok. All in all it was a lovely day out with my fellow Chaps, and really good fun to go around a Trust property with my team, and discuss it with other ‘insiders’.